The ‘Inconvenient Truth’ of Educational Inequity

October 28, 2009 2 min read

The director of the Academy Award-winning film “An Inconvenient Truth” wants his new upcoming documentary to fuel the same sense of urgency for improving education that his earlier one did for raising awareness of global warming. A preview was shown here at the Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age forum at Google headquarters.

In the preview of the documentary, director Davis Guggenheim takes a dramatic and emotional look at how low-income students and families in the District of Columbia are desperately trying to navigate the public school options that will give them the best chance of achieving academic success and breaking the cycle of poverty.

The film, titled “Waiting for Superman,” is due out some time next year, and will likely paint a bleak picture of the U.S. education system, particularly its failure to serve the most at-risk students and communities.

Those kinds of communities are familiar to the main forum speaker last night, Geoff Canada, the president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone. Canada thinks the film will put the power of the media to work to make people care about the failures, and the potential, of education for addressing societal problems.

“I cried each of the three times I’ve seen this film. I spoke to the director and he is trying to get America to care,” Canada said. His model at the Harlem Children’s Zone, which has been offering social, educational, and support services in New York City’s poorest neighborhoods since 1970, has been held up by President Barack Obama as the kind of effective program that could be scaled up to bring about change in the nation’s urban centers.

Canada gave an impassioned speech about the need to turn the nation’s attention toward improving public education, and invest in a radical shift in direction that provides quality educational opportunities for all students.

“There are places in America where if you really saw what was going on, as Americans, we would be totally embarassed,” he said. “It’s Katrina happening without the floods....It’s so ugly we have decided not to look at it.”

Canada suggested that technology can play a significant role in bringing about such change, and in putting knowledge resources in the hands of students and their parents. But Canada warned that at the current state of investment in ed tech, technology may also be the cause of increased gaps in opportunity and achievement between disadvantaged students and their well-off peers in middle- and upper-class communities.

“Some kids have this at their fingertips, all the information, all the data, all the answers they will need, they have to know where to look, he said. “The kids who have no access, they are totally left out of this whole thing.”

While equal access would be a first step, he added, “that doesn’t solve the problem if the kid is in a lousy school with a lousy teacher,” he said. “Is he going to get caught up to kids in a good school with a good teacher? I don’t think so.”

For Canada, having access to technology “is as basic enough as if some kids have books.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.