Waiting for Better Than Waiting for Superman

Last week I watched the film Waiting for Superman with my family. I had suggested it because of much I had heard about the film - how popular and successful it was, how many people's thoughts about education had been influenced by it, and how others charged that the film had many inaccuracies or made gross simplifications regarding education issues. Given my abiding and quite significant interest in education and in the American school system, I felt I had to find out for myself.

Here are the problems and issues I noted while watching Waiting for Superman. Some might be considered insignificant, others very serious indeed. Let me know what you think.

A+B-C+D-F

Every single one of the "national" maps shown in the film leaves out Alaska and Hawai'i - a mistake that is just as ignorant as showing a map that leaves out Maine or Texas. This practice may be common, and most Americans probably never think about it, but it is nonetheless unacceptable, especially if the topic discussed is national education. (Children obviously need more exposure to accurate images of our national geography.)

In the film, former DC Public Schools chancellor Michelle Rhee is portrayed as a blemishless heroine who did everything she could during her tenure to fix education in DC. Although I won't spend my time going into the troubled history of Rhee's policies and actions, suffice it to say that reality is quite different than the biased herofication in the film.

During one early sequence, the narrator states that education "should be simple" and without irony shows a cartoon of teacher opening up kids' heads and depositing information (little gears?) inside. Anyone who knows anything about education should know that it doesn't consist of teachers simply stuffing facts and standardized material into students' minds - and it isn't "simple" at all. Education is rather about guiding students to be more aware and more curious, to be better learners and to be better people. Good luck trying to write how to do that as a list of curriculum requirements.

The entire film has a huge problem of generalization and simplification, stating things as fact that vary enormously from state to state, school district to school district, and even from school to school. For example, it's stated outright by one interviewee (without subsequent clarification) that tenure for public school teachers is received automatically and only after a just few years on the job - a notion that is patently false, if not for some than at least for many teachers throughout the country.

The film posits quite bluntly that teachers' unions are be the biggest obstacle to national education reform, and this seems to be one of the conclusions that uncritical viewers took away most often from the film. However, the accusation against teachers' unions is left entirely unsupported. If someone wants to make a film about how teachers' unions hurt students, they can do it, but otherwise such an outrageous idea shouldn't be thrown around as if it's an obvious truth, and certainly not when the real focus of the film clearly lies elsewhere.

It's one thing for Waiting for Superman to say that poor and disadvantaged children are capable of success - and that's a great thing - but it's something else entirely to say that the only way for poor and disadvantaged children to succeed is for them to go to "good" schools with the right school culture and the right "accountability". Totally absent is any suggestion of the idea that these children might be helped by helping make their families less poor and less disadvantaged - except to say that the conception of "bad neighborhoods" making "bad schools" should be overturned by the conception of "bad schools" making "bad neighborhoods". This sort of sophism is useless: It's fully apparent from all evidence that economic status and quality of education are intertwined phenomena, and if it's possible to have one rise drastically before the other, it's economic status.

Despite parent interviews relating to several touching personal stories, the real role of parents in education is woefully absent from the film. Parents are shown as only being able to help their kids' education by working to get them into a "good" school. In reality, parents can do a million things outside of school to make their kids more likely to succeed, from properly attending to children's early development to providing them with opportunities to learn at home and so on and so on. It seems the filmmakers don't want to address potential parental failure at all - only the failure of teachers and schools.

The climax of the film is a melange of video from several charter school lottery selection processes - a fact which places all of the film's emphasis on the idea that getting into the right school determines everything for a child. It's as if non-charter public schools are hopeless and parents and kids in a bad situation can do nothing more for themselves than try to get into a charter. Again, this is portrayal is a far cry from the complex realities that exist regarding child development and the very diverse education policies in this country. The film ends up being all about emotion, as the substance it does possess gets entirely negated by ample inaccuracies and misrepresentations.

Lastly, the film presents early on the sentiment that the great number of different federal, state and school district policies only serves to confuse and complicate our nation's education system. For the entire rest of the film, however, charter schools with new ideas are presented as our greatest hope for the future. These two arguments make absolutely no sense when considered side by side, because having independent state and district policies can serve to generate new reforms in exactly the same way that independent charter school policies can. In fact, I believe that state education policies these days are becoming far too homogenous, and the federal government much too involved. Different states and districts need to be bold in making positive changes, and when good ideas are found they can be applied by others. To suggest at once that charter schools be strengthened against other schools and that federal education policy be strengthened against the states is not only ideologically inconsistent, (at least according to the stated reasons), but it is also very dangerous indeed.

A+B-C+D-F

I had heard a lot about how successful and inspiring Waiting for Superman was, and I'd even heard quite a few people say that they'd cried while they watched it. When I saw the film, however, I was completely underwhelmed. What I saw was a mish-mash of poorly connected ideas and arguments, interspersed with the unquestioned statements of "experts," the baseless musings of a narrator, and video clips that often seemed so irrelevant that you thought they must have been accidentally taken from another film. The personal stories included, while touching and important, were certainly not enough to get me emotional. Ultimately, I will be waiting for documentaries on education much better than Waiting for Superman to give to the issues the attention and accurate representation they deserve.

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