Waiting for Superman

Several days after watching it, I’m still mulling Davis Guggenheim’s documentary, Waiting for Superman (IMDB), in which we are presented a number of claims explaining why our educational system is failing.  We are presented with apathetic teachers who casually read newspapers while students play a game of craps in the back of the classroom.  We are told that these apathetic teachers are protected by teachers unions and a tenure system that discourages innovative classroom performance.  After all, why do anything to improve student performance when you will not be rewarded with merit pay?  And we are told that students will be conditioned to do the bare minimum to get by, unless they are challenged to do more.  We get some righteous indignation from activists and teaching executives such as Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee, the latter of whom took on DC’s teachers unions. We are also presented with some of the most emotionally staggering images I’ve seen in some time as five students, of a variety of backgrounds and ages, wait to see if their name is selected in the lotteries designed to choose who will attend local charter schools.  All of this is grounded in Davis Guggenheim’s own experience both as a parent and as someone invested in improving (and supporting) public education.  Guggenheim even cites his past documentary work on public education, The First Year, which documents the experiences of five public school teachers.

However, despite the film’s alignment with Participant Productions, a movie producer that mixes films and activism, it is unclear to me after seeing the film what kind of response Superman is seeking to elicit. The website offers several actions that participants can take, including writing their local school boards to demand “better teachers,” while supplementing the film with statistical information about dropout and college attendance rates for individual states.  It also offers other forms of activism or involvement ranging from seeing the film (done that!) to attending school board meetings.  But within the film itself, we are presented with some pretty clear heroes and villains, as innovative educators are pitched against teachers unions in a struggle over how children will be educated.  As a result, Waiting for Superman has been embraced by a number of conservative bloggers and critics, as Patrick Goldstein documents.  Unfortunately, many of the films claims are misguided, at best, as Dana Goldstein of The Nation points out, listing off unionized school districts that do quite well in educating students, while pointing out that four out of five charter schools are no better than the public schools in their neighborhood.  I think it also gives a pass to some of the more harmful attempts to politicize education, most notably the introduction of intelligent design as an “alternative” to evolution in some science classes.

What seems significant about the film is that it seems to falter when describing the innovations that could be introduced to the classroom to improve student performance.  We see one teacher who makes learning fun by turning multiplication tables into a rap, but for the most part, actual classrooms are less prominent than the talking heads seeking to fix them.  At the same time, we are introduced to five children struggling to get a good education, including Daisy, a Latina girl who dreams of becoming a doctor or veterinarian, to help people.  We also get single mothers and grandmothers struggling to help their children get into a good college.  All of them seem to be banking on their local charter school lotteries, which amount to exercises in emotional cruelty, despite what appear to be their creators’ best intentions.  The five families wait, usually in crowded gymnasiums, watching and waiting for their number or name to be drawn, giving them a ticket to a better school, and presumably, a better life.  It’s implied that if Daisy doesn’t beat the odds–her chances of getting into the charter school are pinned at 1 in 20–she’ll face insurmountable odds in her dreams of attending medical school (a similar practice is depicted in the documentary, The Lottery).  Although Superman seems to imply that all five of these students–and others like them–all deserve the best education possible, I don’t think the film is critical enough of the charter schools themselves for offering this fantasy of escape in such a public format.

There are some things in the film that seem perfectly on target.  Canada’s anecdote about his childhood wish that Superman would come along and eliminate the slums and fix the broken schools in his neighborhood.  It’s a useful reminder that there is no Superman, but that the work of countless individual teachers, parents, executives, and students is needed to make a difference.  The film also argues for higher standards, for challenging students to improve, a position I essentially share.  In too many places, however, the film seemed to be offering reductive answers to complex problems.  I think it avoids the worst excesses of some anti-youth screeds–all of the five children depicted in the film are clearly very bright and ambitious–but by reducing its picture of public schools into something of a stereotype, it does a serious disservice to the work of countless public school teachers who are making a sincere effort to educate today’s students.  It also avoids addressing how we can truly engage students every day in order to instill the pleasures of learning (while also cultivating a better understanding of what we mean by learning).

Update: Via Craig Phillips on Twitter, a pointer to secondary education professor Mark Phillips’ column on Waiting for Superman.  For the most part, Phillips’ comments echo my own, but his post reminded me of another scene that bothered me that I’d forgotten about.  It’s an animated video showing a teacher pouring knowledge into students’ heads, until he/she reaches one unfortunate student for whom the teacher misses the hole, allowing knowledge to spill out all over the student’s desk.  It’s an oddly old-fashioned depiction of (rote) learning, one that Paulo Freire, in a slightly different context, would have called the “banking concept” of education.  Learning as a transaction.  Knowledge can be dumped into our heads, in much the same way that Neo is programmed to learn kung fu in The Matrix.  It’s a highly flawed view of how learning works.  Phillips adds a number of useful observations about how Guggenheim’s film simplifies a much more complex set of practices, so it’s well worth checking out his entire evaluation of the film.

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