Last night, I finally went to see Waiting for Superman, the new documentary about education by Davis Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning director of “An Inconvenient Truth.” As a high school teacher, as well as an education journalist, I was anxious to see the movie that is stirring up so much controversy.
I got a strong sense of where the film was headed from the opening sequence: Guggenheim drives by three public schools in order to drop his own children off at a private school. And I was not disappointed. Much of the film is devoted to bashing all “regular” public schools in general, and lavishing praise on all public charter schools.
A Compelling Storyline
To give Guggenheim credit, he is a gifted storyteller. We are pulled into the stories of Anthony, Bianca, Daisy, Emily, and Francisco, delightful children who long for a good education and are supported by wonderful parents. We want them to do well, but apparently the only way they can succeed is by gaining entry to a few high-demand charter schools. The director keeps us on the edge of our seats as we wait to hear the outcome of the lotteries that will determine the fate of these charismatic children. No prizes for guessing the outcome here.
A Disservice To Education
So much for Hollywood. Waiting for Superman may be good at pulling on the heart strings, but it does a terrible disservice to the cause of education. Let me explain. I have been involved in education for most of my professional life. I consider myself an excellent teacher, with plenty of appreciative notes from my students to attest to that. There are tens of thousands of others like me. Yet we do not exist in this film; we are dismissed.
Further, in narrating the movie, Guggenheim at one point states that bad teachers teach 50% of the curriculum, and excellent teachers teach 150% of the curriculum. He then presents an animated cartoon of teachers lifting up the tops of kids’ heads to pour information into their brains. Does he not have a clue as to what education is about? Here’s what he needs to know: education is about inspiration, behavior management, excitement, innovation, figuring out how to reach your students, high expectations, rigor, passion, just so many different elements.
Teaching is not about pouring in information for your students to regurgitate to you. Engaging each student individually is what it’s all about. Mr. Guggenheim, have you tried spending a day in an actual classroom, teaching? Every kid is different. That’s the challenge.
Bad Vs. Good
But back to Hollywood: just like the director of an action movie, Guggenheim does not hesitate to set up a bad guy/good guy paradigm in order to win over his audience. Teachers’ unions are the devil, and charter schools are the rescuing angels.
The unions are presented as the evil ones, preventing our education system from moving forward. A disclaimer here: I believe strongly that the tenure system is wrong. In no other profession is it possible to stay on the job for so many years without undergoing an evaluation that could mean your termination.
That said, Guggenheim presents a completely distorted view of unions. No mention is made, for example, of the fact that Green Dot schools in Los Angeles, which he praises in the film, are in fact unionized, and they like it this way. Nor do we learn that in April, the Washington Teachers’ Union and the American Federation of Teachers agreed to a contract that includes many of D.C. Superintendent Michelle Rhee’s priorities, including her merit pay plan and an unprecedented weakening of tenure protections.
In other words, things are changing: although New York’s infamous rubber room is portrayed in the movie, in reality it no longer exists, and the cooperation of unions is beginning to happen across the country. In Colorado earlier this year, the American Federation of Teachers state affiliate signed on to the state’s Race to the Top application, which promised to make student achievement data count for up to 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation score, potentially totally reforming the process by which tenure is granted. It may be slow, but the teacher tenure process is being reformed, a fact totally ignored by Superman.
Even more surprising, while Bill Gates is quoted extensively in the film, we learn nothing of all the work that he has done, working with traditional, unionized school districts in places like Memphis, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles. He even addressed the American Federation of Teachers this past summer, praising the union: “In Washington, D.C., New York, New Haven, Tampa, Pittsburgh, Colorado – you have taken historic steps to bury old arguments and improve student achievement.”
In Praise Of Charter Schools
And now for the rescuing angels, the charter schools. Geoffrey Canada speaks throughout the film with a passionate belief that all children deserve the best education, and that’s great. Canada is a hero for many, many people, not least the parents of Harlem. What he has accomplished with the Harlem Children’s Zone is truly incredible. It’s also true that other charter networks featured in the movie, like the KIPP schools, have achieved stellar results educating some of our nation’s most economically deprived children. These examples are admirable.
But, as the film states, only one in five charter schools produces results like this. And, importantly, there are examples of stellar public schools also producing outstanding results. Check out PS 83 in East Harlem, and the George Hall Elementary School in Mobile, Alabama, for schools that are nationally recognized for successfully educating poor children.
A Distorted View Of Education
Waiting for Superman may be important in bringing the long-neglected issue of education to the forefront, but it is also flawed. Guggenheim clearly cares deeply about education. But his vision is narrow, and he has fiercely oversimplified both the educational process and the nature of our nation’s schools. The complex problem of American educational inequality cannot be reduced to a simple black-and-white formula. It might make for a good movie premise, but it is a lie.
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