Strengths and weaknesses of 'Superman'
I've published several pieces on the education film "Waiting for Superman" by different educators because each had something new to say. This post does, too, looking at what is good about the film as well as its problems. It was written by Mark Phillips, professor emeritus of secondary education at San Francisco State University and author of a monthly column on education for the Marin Independent Journal.
By Mark Phillips
Filmmakers have discovered the crisis in public education. Unfortunately this is not necessarily good news. When I heard that Davis Guggenheim, the director of An Inconvenient Truth, the Academy award winning film about Al Gore’s crusade to halt global warming, was doing a film about the crisis in public education I was excited.
Given the immensity of the crisis, the power of film to influence people, and the skills and integrity of Guggenheim, I had high expectations. In addition, Guggenheim knows something about education. His 2004 film, The First Year, was excellent.
It turns out that my anticipation was only partially justified. The road to misguided educational reform is paved with good intentions and Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman is too often guilty of following that road. While I hope that the film will find a large audience and prompt wide discussion, my initial optimism has been replaced by respectful disappointment and frustration.
Guggenheim’s major goal was to make a film that would “get the 90 percent of the population that drive by schools and don’t care, who turn past the front page stories on education ... to the table.” Given major studio publicity, media attention, and the power of many of his scenes, he may at least partially achieve his goal.
The strengths of the film are notable. Guggenheim’s goal is “a quality public school for every kid,” and Waiting for Superman effectively captures the children and families who desperately want a good school and a chance to go to college. Throughout the film we share their dreams and frustrations.
Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the highly successful Harlem Children’s Zone, who is featured prominently in the film, was once one of these kids. He shares the story of one of the saddest days in his life, when he found out Superman was not real. He cried “because it meant that there was no one with enough power to save us.”
And in scene after scene we experience the powerlessness of culturally disadvantaged kids and parents faced with attending schools that apparently will not help save them.
The problems targeted by Guggenheim are significant. The film drives home the importance of good teachers and schools and the cost of bad ones, poor teachers who are seemingly protected by tenure, corrupt school boards, and bloated and ineffective bureaucracies. How can we overcome these obstacles and reach the goal of a quality public education for every child? The high price paid by those children who are most disadvantaged is brought home powerfully.
Guggenheim also provides some partial answers. Canada’s work is inspiring. Michelle Rhee’s efforts as the chancellor of schools of Washington, D.C. are more problematic, but her energy for change has created hope for many.
The director shows us some excellent charter schools including: the Kipp Schools’ LA Prep, Canada’s Promise Academy Charter School in Harlem, Summit Preparatory Charter School in Redwood City, California; and the SEED Public Charter School in Washington D.C.
But the film also shows that only a small number of the students who want to get into these schools can. Their admission is often decided by a lottery, their fates determined by which little wooden ball comes up. Madeleine Sackler’s less highly publicized but also noteworthy film, "The Lottery," zeroes in on this process as it follows four families through the lottery sysytem.
Both films capture the poignancy of kids who desperately want a good education but are unable to escape from the under-achieving schools they’re assigned to.
Waiting for Superman could have been an “A” film, but despite all its strengths, it is also a naïve one. Its analysis of the problems is often superficial, it’s conclusions and recommendations simplistic and, at times, misguided.
Ironically, one of the failings of the film is that it is too much like a "Superman" film, replete with heroes and villains, hostile threats and romanticized outcomes. Like a Hollywood thriller, drama is heightened and less exciting realities ignored.
We have good teachers and bad teachers, good schools and bad schools. Instead of Lex Luthor we have the threat of the evil teachers unions and their super weapon, tenure. There is even a dark scene set in one of New York City’s infamous "rubber rooms" for teachers, those on probation who do nothing for years because they can’t be fired.
And while there may be no Superman, both Canada and Rhee are cast as heroes who are saving education in their respective territories. We’re lead to believe that the road to a quality education for every kid in America is paved by charismatic leaders and leads to a charter school for every kid who wants one, the closing of bad schools and, with the neutralizing or elimination of tenure, the firing of bad teachers. This may be good docudrama but it is not a good blueprint for educational reform.
There is no recognition that most of the major reforms in education are being made by local leaders, both administrators and teachers, taking it one small step at a time, while struggling with limited budgets and little outside support, to bring about needed systemic change. Most of these leaders are not charismatic and wouldn’t make exciting on-camera presences. They just get the job done in quiet ways.
There is no examination of the struggles of many of the so-called “bad” schools, with decaying infrastructures, little money, and few resources for faculty development. There is no look at large high schools that are restructuring, creating schools within schools and other alternatives to provide better learning environments for kids. While the best charter schools provide a great alternative for many kids and are also lighting the way to better educational approaches, charter schools are not THE answer. Multiple paths to reform are being created. This film looks at only one.
Demonizing failing schools as Dropout Factories also accomplishes little. Some should be closed, but many are struggling to change. We’d be better served by reforming these with building improvements, teacher training, and program development, rather than assuming that more charter schools are the only answer.
And while there are bad teachers who should be guided into another profession, the film ignores the gray area of those teachers who need mentoring and additional training, not replacement.
Guggenheim says that he didn’t intend to make a film attacking the unions and that he’s a member of a union. This may be true, but the film belies his intent. It fans the flames of the war on tenure rather than posing ideas for reforming the process. Teacher unions are justifiably open to criticism for their lack of leadership in improving teacher performance, but the film doesn’t deal with the complex alternatives to eliminating tenure.
The film also infers that funding is not a major problem, since we’ve increased spending with apparently little success. The fact that school buildings are falling apart, there is an absence of funds for faculty and administrative development, and that class sizes are increasing, are all fiscally related and not solely the result of bloated educational bureaucracies.
Perhaps the biggest hole in the film is represented in one animation scene that shows kids heads being filled with knowledge by a teacher while the narrator says: “It should be simple, a teacher in a schoolhouse filling their students with knowledge and sending them on their way, but we’ve made it complicated.”
But WE haven’t made it complicated, Davis! Teaching has become complicated and that’s part of the problem. Learners are more challenging today. They are more diverse, more technologically developed, and more socially stressed. This poses a major challenge to teachers, and filling them with knowledge isn’t the answer. The best charter schools recognize that. But teachers in all of those other schools also need helping adapting to these learners. The answer is not as simplistic as attacking tenure or demonizing bad schools.
Having heard Guggenheim discuss the film in a post-screening Q and A, I know he has a more complex understanding of the problems and possible solutions than his film reflects
If I could, I’d grade the film as “Incomplete” in the hope that he’d make a Director’s Cut that would reflect those complexities more accurately.
I believe Guggenheim cares deeply about kids, knows that good teachers are the key variable, and is genuinely concerned about the quality of our schools. I hope he succeeds in his primary goal of waking up many people.
But I’m concerned about what his viewers will conclude and what solutions they’ll endorse if this film is their only source of information. The darkness around all of these topics is deep and wise, informed discussion of this film is needed to provide greater light.
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| September 28, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Tags: al gore, an inconvenient truth, charter schools, davis guggenheim, the lottery, waiting for superman
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