In the ten years since I made The First Year and experienced my own "first year" immersion in five tough urban schools, I've witnessed the emergence of a new generation of educators who are doing amazing things. Toward the end of Waiting For "Superman," I talk about test pilot Chuck Yeager's attempt to break the sound barrier, despite the skeptics who considered it impossible. Yeager did it. I believe we're now experiencing that same kind of breakthrough of belief on education reform.
Ten years ago, I would hear even the most ambitious and idealistic educators say that it was impossible to get great results in tough neighborhoods. Dedicated teachers would say, "I make great strides with the kids during the day, but after a night at home, with all the social problems that plague poor families, the progress has been wiped out." But that's not what happens at schools like the KIPP schools and Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ). It's no exaggeration to compare educators like David Levin, Mike Feinberg, and Geoffrey Canada to an American hero like Chuck Yeager.
Many members of this new generation are products of Teach for America who are not just infused with the idealism of the New Frontier/ Peace Corps mentality but also bring with them a powerful sort of pragmatism, a toughness that says things like "No Excuses" (the KIPP Schools) and "Whatever It Takes" (HCZ).
In the film, the breaking-the-sound-barrier sequence is meant to address the most stubborn of the darker voices in people's heads???the nay-saying voices that not only deny the possibility of meaningful change but also carry a subtle bigotry about what poor kids can...or cannot...accomplish. Showing Yeager's X-1 blasting through the stratosphere, and hearing the amazing statistics of success achieved by those great educators, I hope to shatter another kind of barrier, still present and dangerously invisible...the stubborn belief that "it just can't be done."
How tragic would it be if no one in America knew about these incredible breakthroughs? What if it could be done...but no one knew it?
Do I like to dream about Waiting For "Superman" becoming a catalyst for fixing our nation's schools? Of course. But I'm also very aware of the fact that I'm "just a film maker," and that there are severe limits to the impact that I can have on the public debate. I'm very mindful of how quickly attitudes can change, and that a movie, no matter how successful, will usually have only a limited effect.
But I'm still optimistic...not because of my movie, but because of the people I've gotten to meet who are working on the front lines of the battle for reform. I've seen amazing teachers fighting against all odds, incredible schools shining brightly in very tough neighborhoods, and determined parents who are demanding great educations for their kids. In only ten years, something very profound has changed...something that can't be counted or measured: the emergence of the belief that it's possible.