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Posted at 12:30 PM ET, 01/16/2011

Why 'Inside Job' bests 'Waiting for Superman' on school reform

By Valerie Strauss

(Correction: An earlier version said these movies were nominated for a Golden Globe award. Those awards don't have a documentary category.)

One can only assume that the critics in the Broadcast Film Critics Association who bestowed their 2011 Best Documentary award to Davis Guggenheim's Waiting for Superman did not know how tendentious the film is, or else they might have honored a film that was more straightforward, in the tradition of classic documentaries. Superman is on the shortlist for Academy Awards in the feature documentary category.

Here a comparison between Waiting for Superman and a competitor, called Inside Job. Though the latter film isn’t about education reform, Kevin G. Welner, the author of the following piece (which appeared on Huffington Post), writes about why Inside Job better explains it than does Superman. Welner is a professor of education policy and program evaluation in the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and director of the National Education Policy Center.

By Kevin G. Welner
Over the past couple months, I’ve been asked to participate in a few panel discussions about Waiting for Superman. The film presents a stark, moving portrayal of the denial of educational opportunities in low-income communities of color. But while the movie includes statements such as "we know what’s wrong" and "we know how to fix it," viewers of the movie are hard-pressed to identify those causes and solutions -- other than to boo and hiss at teachers’ unions and to cheer at the heroic charter school educators.

So in the panel discussions we try to make sense of that simplistic black-hat/white-hat story. We argue about whether the movie offers a fair and complete picture (it doesn’t even come close, unfortunately). But we never get to deeper issues about what’s wrong and how to fix it.

I thought about that when leaving a showing of the other prominent documentary currently showing, called Inside Job. It offers an explanation of how the current economic crisis came about, describing the securitization of mortgages; the extraordinary leveraging of assets; the regulatory capture by Wall Street leading to minimal enforcement of federal regulations -- a deregulation intended to spur innovation; and the fraud, greed, hubris and general belief among hedge fund titans and others in the financial services world that they are infallible.

The film also points out the growing and now extreme inequality of wealth distribution in the United States. "The top 1 percent of American earners took in 23.5 percent of the nation’s pretax income in 2007 -- up from less than 9 percent in 1976."

Consider those final three items: (1) the advocacy of deregulation in order to free up innovation, (2) hubris and general belief among hedge fund titans that they are infallible, and (3) increased wealth inequality.

If Superman had explored these issues instead of bashing unions and promoting charters, moviegoers might have walked away understanding a great deal about why the families it profiled and so many similar families across America face a bleak educational future.

The movie certainly showed scenes of poverty, but its implications and the structural inequalities underlying that poverty were largely ignored. Devastating urban poverty was just there -- as if that were somehow the natural order of things but if we could only ’fix’ schools it would disappear.

Rick Hanushek is put forth, saying that if we fire the bottom 5 to 10 percent of the lowest-performing teachers every year, our national test scores would soon approach Finland at the top of international rankings in mathematics and science. But no mention is made of the telling fact that Finland had, in 2005, a child poverty rate of 2.8 percent while the United States had a rate of 21.9 percent. That gap has likely gotten even bigger over the intervening five years.

Rather than addressing these poverty issues, Superman serves up innovation through privatization and deregulation. We’re shown charter schools that give hope to these families. But what we’re not told is that the extra resources and opportunities found in these charters are funded in large part with donations from Wall Street hedge fund millionaires and billionaires.

Problems of structural inequality and inter-generational poverty are pushed aside in favor of a ’solution’ grounded in the belief that deregulation will prompt innovation, all the while guided by the infallible judgment of Wall Street tycoons. It’s no wonder that Inside Job better explained the school crisis than did Waiting for Superman.

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By Valerie Strauss  | January 16, 2011; 12:30 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Kevin Welner, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  academy awards, critics choice awards, davis guggenheim, golden globe awards, inside job, oscars, public schools, school reform, schools, waiting for superman  
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Comments

WFS is best summarized by the carton sequence from the film that shows a teacher opening a child's head and pouring in the knowledge.

Posted by: edlharris | January 16, 2011 1:12 PM | Report abuse

If you dropped your wallet while walking, would you continue walking away? No, most would walk back to see where they dropped it. Not us! Nope...we just keep walking away.

If a man had an accident at a mall, would the police respond to his call by rushing to his house? No, they go to the scene. Not us!

If you were sick and went to your doctor, would he just tell you to continue what you're doing? No! He would ask what you ATE, where you WERE, what you WERE doing. Not us!

We just keep pushing ahead wondering why the problem continues. Yep, us!

Posted by: jbeeler | January 16, 2011 1:39 PM | Report abuse

I live in a fairly large city and yet Waiting for Superman has not appeared in a theatre near me. So far as I know, this documentary has been a box office flop, despite the rave reviews from critics.

What this tells me is that the vast majority of American citizens knows very well that our schools reflect our society, thereby rejecting any simplistic solutions for those mired in generations of poverty. Also, every child in WFS is blessed with a parent desperate for a good school, the very variable that is so critical to any youngster's education. Yes, a child of poverty can be well-educated and it can happen NOW but it will take much more than an enthusiastic teacher and a lot of test prep. In fact, two other films, Precious and The Blind Side, did a much better job at capturing the extreme poverty that some children face, along with multifaceted solutions that require input from the proverbial "village."

When the "reforms" pushed by corporate America and backed by billionaires came to our nation's capital, it was recognized as such and rejected by the people. Just as WFS has been rejected by citizens across the nation, so also will be its misleading and fraudulent brand of "reform."

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | January 16, 2011 2:19 PM | Report abuse

Students in public schools across America whose parents cannot afford to feed them have been and are continuing to be "fed" through government funded programs. This program was heroically regaled in its early formation. Food for all... children cannot learn with hungry bellies... etc... There have been a lot of private food vendors who have profited by being awarded school food contracts. They create over-processed, high caloric foods with little nutritional value as it keeps cost down and profits up. Is there anyone who remembers Ronald Reagan's comment about ketchup being a "vegetable"???? Yet as of recent, the public is beginning to see that what these students are "being fed" is a lot junk food disguised as nutritional food (aka processed chicken tenders, sugary milk, salty overcooked vegetables etc..). Does anyone see any analogies here? Welner is pointing out the "junk food" of "education" being espoused by government (with a whole lot of help by the media and mega millionaires and the recent film, "Waiting for Superman"). "Waiting for Superman" is a whole lotta spin designed to turn an opinion into supposed "fact"! Media is taking a dangerous turn when it spins opinion into fact and the public digests this as "truth". A good analogy might be the former "NightLine" under Ted Koppel as opposed to the current "NightLine". Ted Koppel was a moderator who allowed opposing views to present their ideas. The viewing public made up their own minds. This no longer occurs on the current "NightLine". The public instead are "fed" soundbytes of information taken to be truths in a tabloid-like format. There is something they call "Closing Arguments"... They ask a question (Do you agree or disagree with bla bla bla) and invite viewers to respond via texting or on line. Huh? How can this nation move forward in a healthy strong way if the public-at-large is constantly "fed" "truths"? Each and every one of us has the right to see all sides of the picture and to decide for ourselves what we think is right. This is how consensus is built. This is what Welner seems to want in this article. This is what Ravitch seems to want. But there are too many "education reformers" who do not want those with opposing views to have a voice. This was never more apparent than when Oprah Winfrey did her infamous show on education but failed to have anyone like Ravitch, or public school teachers in urban schools speak! This is never more apparent than in "Waiting for Superman"!

Just as students in public schools are being fed a poor diet under the guise of nutrition... society is being fed a line about the "truth in education" that instead is a rather lopsided opinion. It is my sincerest hope that Kevin Welner and Diane Ravitch are given the media air time they deserve so that the public can make up their own minds. Yes, Gates sees Ravitch as his main adversary because she actually has an incredible wealth of knowledge on education and wants to express an opposing view!

Posted by: teachermd | January 16, 2011 2:24 PM | Report abuse

An excellent article!

Posted by: lacy41 | January 16, 2011 2:24 PM | Report abuse

Another great article! Please, Valerie, keep posting them.

Posted by: educationlover54 | January 16, 2011 2:50 PM | Report abuse

Thank you so much for printing this article. It hits the nail on the head, the same kind of deregulation that brought down the banks is now bringing down education.
Charter schools are another way to educate kids on the cheap, but what they don't say is the average stay of a charter school teacher is 2 years.
It is criminal the way they are holding up children of poverty as an example of the failure of our system. Just another burden for these kids to carry on their shoulders. Another way to bring them shame and keep teachers from be able to teach in the low performing schools.
Inside Job shook me to my core and at the end where the economic advisers pass from the Bush administration to Oboma's made it crystal clear why it doesn't matter who you vote for it is a Wall Street Government.

Posted by: ananna | January 16, 2011 6:22 PM | Report abuse

Here we have another education 'expert' pointing the finger at poverty as our main problem with public education. How does a teacher fix poverty? How does a school keep a family's lights and gas on?
Now, I could make a case for 'Inside Job' being so impactful to people: when so many folks go through their education career being proud of 'not being good at math,' never taking a basic economics course, or never been responsible for making a payroll or hiring people, we see how the perpetrators of 'Inside Job' exist.
If we educators are going to point the finger at poverty, then we must be courageous enough to truly point the finger. Let's be courageous enough to point the finger at 1) families, 2) elected officials 3) businesses. Let's be courageous enough to say, "We'll do the best we can with what we get, but YOU've gotta fix what we get." Just like a football team, the offensive line doesn't try to do the defensive backs' job, they just worry about blocking. Educators should focus on the classroom, and let everyone else focus on those things they impact directly.

Posted by: pdexiii | January 16, 2011 10:48 PM | Report abuse

An actual economist wasn't quite as impressed with "Inside Job" as Welner was:

http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2011/01/inside-job.html

"Overall, the movie's smug moralizing makes me wonder: is this a condescending posture, spooned out with contempt to an audience regarded, one way or another, as inferior and undeserving of better? Or are the moviemakers actually so juvenile and/or so ignorant of the Western tradition -- from Thucydides to Montaigne to Pascal to Shakespeare to Ibsen to FILL IN THE BLANK -- that they themselves accept the very same simplistic moral portrait? If so, most of all I feel sorry for how much of life's complexities they are missing and how impoverished their reading and moviegoing and theatregoing must be."

Posted by: educationobserver | January 16, 2011 11:19 PM | Report abuse


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Posted by: brendasmithy17 | January 17, 2011 3:43 AM | Report abuse

"Here we have another education 'expert' pointing the finger at poverty as our main problem with public education. How does a teacher fix poverty? How does a school keep a family's lights and gas on?"

I could think of a number of ways, ranging from wraparound services to political activism and advocacy. Big schools in particular spend so much money on consultants, assistant superintendents, and other people who have little direct contact with students and thus little direct impact on them. Perhaps schools could streamline their bureacracy and reinvest that money in antipoverty and support initiatives. Maybe trade a couple of central office beaurocrats for a few social workers to monitor at-risk kids and make house calls? Maybe set up a more robust health clinic or integrate breakfast into the school day of high poverty schools? Just a few thoughts.

"Educators should focus on the classroom, and let everyone else focus on those things they impact directly."

I think the majority of educators are focused on the classroom. The problem is that everyone else is, too... to the exclusion of things like inequality and poverty. I would argue that the recent "no excuses" crop of reformers (Rhee, Klein, those in WFS etc.) have exacerbated the problem by implying (in their "Manifesto" and elsewhere) that we don't need to be focusing on poverty or other issues because we "know" how to fix it using the schools alone. That undermines political action toward things like tax code reform (closing those loopholes that let, as Ross Perot once said, the super rich pay fewer taxes than their secretaries) and health care.

There is a part of me that wonders if the Education Department should be folded back into Health and Human Services, since that might help our government look at education more holistically, rather than as a narrow issue separate from society's ills.

Posted by: joshofstl1 | January 17, 2011 8:45 AM | Report abuse

@joshofstl1
Indeed there are things that can be done at a school site, but most, if not all, educators are trained to teach in the classroom. If you're going to make a school into something more than a place that provides academic instruction then be prepared for the consequences and demands of that approach.
My biggest concern is whenever government takes on such tasks it rarely does them well, especially federally. If local communities want to assume these roles at least there's more accountability between the taxpayer and the government entity providing the service. I'm sure in every major urban area there are non-profit, charitable organizations who can provide these services much more efficiently and effectively; our money and time belongs with them, not a bureaucracy with a 40+ year track record of failure in urban areas.

Posted by: pdexiii | January 17, 2011 10:41 AM | Report abuse

"Indeed there are things that can be done at a school site, but most, if not all, educators are trained to teach in the classroom. If you're going to make a school into something more than a place that provides academic instruction then be prepared for the consequences and demands of that approach."

While instruction is what teachers are formally trained in, in reality teachers (especially urban ones) are pressed into a variety of duties, from counseling to social work. A quick anecdodal example: I recall one urban teacher talking about how she would wash her special needs students hair every few days because their parents wouldn't bathe them.

I agree that there are consequences and demands that come from increased social services and attention to social justice. I also believe that such an approach better gets to the core of what leads to our achievement gap, and that alone makes it worth the risk.

Posted by: joshofstl1 | January 17, 2011 11:18 AM | Report abuse

Schools can only do so much. While I agree wholeheartedly that more should be done to recognize and combat poverty--especially child poverty--we can't blame an increased focus on education as a "reason" that poverty isn't getting as much attention. We should be expected to be able to consider both issues at the same time.

Also, it should be noted that successfully educating some of the poorest children in our country--what reformed schools and the charters have started doing--has a direct link to LONG-TERM poverty reduction. These kids can improve their communities from the inside, while the rest of society works on improving from the outside. It won't be immediate but lets not discount the long-term positive effects on poverty that education can provide.

Posted by: samslaw25 | January 17, 2011 1:47 PM | Report abuse

samslaw25 says: "...successfully educating some of the poorest children in our country--what reformed schools and the charters have started doing...."

Explain please - I hope you're not implying that the poorest children haven't been getting educated until "reformed" schools and charters came along. Public schools have been doing that from the start. Compulsory education for all.

No one discounts "the long-term positive effects on poverty that education can provide."

The point is that education and the effects of poverty have to be dealt with
concurrently for the education to be effective, if the effects of poverty include a chaotic home life with parents who don't value education, as is so often the case today.

Thanks though, for laying out your thinking -- I've heard glimmers of this before. To me it sounds like an excuse not to deal with poverty upfront and instead to focus only on "effective teaching" as if that's all it takes to break through poverty.

Funny, people are in a big hurry to fire teachers, but are willing to wait a generation to address poverty -- with the expectation that it will fade away on its own once poor kids are educated.

Talk about a circular argument!

Posted by: efavorite | January 17, 2011 2:13 PM | Report abuse

@jos,

I am one of those very teachers who would bring extra sandwiches to school, or if a child came into my classroom saying, "I'm hungry," I'd hand over whatever I had in my lunch pail.
Because we are 'pressed into those duties' does not mean we're trained or equipped to manage them. Samslaw25 captured my mission as an educator: through education I empower a child to overcome their circumstance, even though that triumph may not be immediate.
1) Individuals
2) Families
3) Charities
4) Businesses
5) Politicians
These folks must address poverty directly, and we teachers, as I said previously, must hold them accountable as much as people want to hold us accountable.

Posted by: pdexiii | January 17, 2011 2:47 PM | Report abuse

"Funny, people are in a big hurry to fire teachers, but are willing to wait a generation to address poverty -- with the expectation that it will fade away on its own once poor kids are educated.

Talk about a circular argument!"

Please do not make obvious comments.

Posted by: peonteacher | January 17, 2011 10:05 PM | Report abuse

Am curious why my comment did not get posted.
I can't imagine that anything I said was offensive. If WaPo can't deal with my comments about our great American capitalistic system, then we're in more trouble than I thought.
the sohool principal

Posted by: theschoolprincipal | January 18, 2011 1:19 AM | Report abuse

theschoolprincipal - your comment may have gone over the word limit. (See the little box below on the left that says "characters remaining.") If so, you can break it into two parts

Or perhaps you had too many links in it.

Please try again.

Posted by: efavorite | January 18, 2011 1:27 PM | Report abuse

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