Last Tuesday night, Mosaica, the Ohio Council of Community Schools (authorizer of five of our schools in Ohio), and STAR Academy (the school we manage in Toledo) co-hosted the Ohio premiere of Waiting for Superman, the highly praised film that won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.  The movie investigates the crisis in public education and documents our national failure to provide quality schooling to generations of inner city students, which it contrasts with the hope presented by high-performing charter schools.  The capacity audience included most of the STAR staff and board, as well as a number of other local educators and community leaders. There was also a post-screening discussion that gave voice to the raw passions evoked by this movie.

It is an impressive and inspirational movie.  Alternately edifying and heartrending, it is both charming and maddening – a motivational tour de force for what we do.  The topic is admittedly more complicated than can be dealt with fully or in depth in a hundred minutes – this is, after all, an elegantly structured, gripping and empathetic work of art, not an emotionless treatise – but by highlighting some of the issues, it will hopefully function as a catalyst to coalesce forces to create change for the better.

The film, which tracks the families of five students hoping to secure spaces in charter schools, includes interviews with some of our colleagues in the education reform movement, as well as with journalists, school district superintendents, union leaders and others.  It portrays the nation’s public schools as dysfunctional institutions, plagued by inconsistent policies and competing programs from federal, state and local agencies, and ill-served by teachers’ unions focused more on defending ineffective teachers than on enhancing student achievement.  (Variety says the movie makes Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, look like “a foaming satanic beast.”)  A poignant quote from Geoffrey Canada and vintage clips from the ‘50’s TV version of Superman inspired the title, and John Legend provides a theme song.

The film’s director, Davis Guggenheim, also happened to direct An Inconvenient Truth, the Al Gore documentary on climate change that won an Academy Award.  He is skilled at taking mind-numbingly complex issues and changing the way people think about them.  Mr. Guggenheim undoubtedly has an agenda here – detractors have charged that he twists facts to fit that agenda – but it’s ultimately a captivating and emotional story about people attempting to find excellent schools.  To be sure, there are some factual errors – for example, it implies that Harlem Success Academy is the brainchild of Geoffrey Canada, even though it is actually unrelated to Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone – and some may object to the hostile manner in which the film depicts relationships in the past between traditional public schools and charters or to the implication that the work at charter schools is magic.  But I don’t think the imperfections should detract from its power.

At Team Mosaica, of course, we know there are no silver bullets.  There is nothing mysterious about our achievements. It’s simply relentless effort by great teachers in a supportive environment, with high expectations and no excuses.  But if this movie is dismissed as polemic, its potential for good will be dead on arrival.  A commitment to transformational change in the way public education is delivered in the United States is fundamental to our future, necessary if the United States is to compete in the global economy, and critical to enable individual human beings be all that they can be.  This movie will serve an important purpose if its call to action motivates opinion leaders to support educational entrepreneurism, if it enhances parental involvement and community participation in schools, or if it refuels reformers’ passion.  At the very least, let’s hope it consolidates the country’s hearts, minds and political will to get the job done.

I urge you to see it and to partake in the conversations it will generate.  It will remind you why we do what we do, and why being allowed to educate children is a privilege we should respect.