On network television, in social media, in movie theaters and on magazine stands, the question of how best to overhaul America’s education system is taking center stage. There is nothing short of a media frenzy surrounding school reform this month, triggered in part by the documentary Waiting for Superman, directed by Davis Guggenheim, which opens in theaters tomorrow. The documentary follows five urban children in their quest for seats in charter schools as an alternative to their “failing” public schools, and in doing so, explores thorny but important questions about school choice, teacher accountability, and other hot-button education issues.
Oprah Winfrey has emerged as one of the film’s most outspoken champions. Earlier this week, her show featured a discussion of the film (“The Shocking State of Our Schools”) with Guggenheim, Bill Gates, controversial D.C. Superintendent Michelle Rhee, and musician John Legend (a product of urban public schools), who performs on its soundtrack. With her usual flair, Oprah ended the show by surprising six charter school networks each with a $1 million check. Tomorrow on Oprah, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is expected to announce that Newark Mayor Cory Booker will have unprecedented control over the struggling Newark Public Schools, capped off with a $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Earlier this month, TIME Magazine devoted an issue to the topic (“What makes a school great?”). For its part, NBC next week will host Education Nation, a two-day national “summit” on improving America’s schools, featuring a live interview with President Obama on The Today Show, and a live Teacher Town Hall (Sunday at 12 noon EDT).
Needless to say, these and other high-profile education stories are causing quite a buzz on the talk show circuit, let alone Facebook and Twitter, with teachers, parents, students, policy makers, elected officials and union leaders alike all jumping into the fray to cheer, or boo, or a little of both. It’s encouraging to see our country focused so intently on an issue that affects us all. Many cite Guggenheim’s last documentary, Al Gore’s Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, as an important catalyst for Americans becoming more environmentally responsible. Maybe the media blitz about our schools will spur a similar revolution in public education.