Last week I was invited to a screening of “Waiting for Superman,” a new education documentary that has attracted a lot of attention — it should be released in theaters in late September. 2010 seems to be the year of the “edumentary,” with several films documenting various problems in the U.S. educational system.
I’m torn about how I feel about “Waiting for Superman,” which is the highest-profile of the year’s documentaries. Made by Davis Guggenheim, a filmmaker who won an Oscar for the climate documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” it’s entertaining, with great characters and subject matter that I, at least, find riveting. It’s an open question whether the moviegoing public will find education reform as compelling as melting polar ice caps, but based on the early buzz and the reactions of the audience I saw, it should do well. The man sitting next to me actually cried out in disbelief at several points; as the lights came up, many people pulled out their cellphones to text the word “Possible” to an address displayed on the screen. (Some kind of pledge to recommend the movie to friends, I think).
But the movie is also manipulative, over-simplified, and in the end, misleading about where the solutions are for increasing achievement across the board — and particularly for low-income kids of color. The film follows five families in Redwood City, Los Angeles, New York and Washington D.C. as each searches for better educational options for their children, and ends with emotionally-wrenching scenes from public lotteries where families wait, in agony, to find out whether they have “won” a coveted charter school spot. The message of the film is that children who “lose” the lottery are doomed to spend the rest of their schooling in “dropout factories” staffed by teachers who only care about their paychecks and pensions.
Controversial D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee is set up as a straight-talking, take-no-prisoners reformer, as is Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone (I find Mr. Canada far more inspiring; I just am not sure his success is replicable because it is so entertwined with the force of his personality). Randi Weingarten (actually regarded as a progressive and thoughtful leader of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teacher’s union) is branded as the villain, as are teachers unions in general. Charter schools are held up as the answer, though the voice-over acknowledges early in the film that one in five charters are failing (and never mind that it would be likely impossible to convert our entire educational system to charters, even if anyone really wanted to). The most unforgivable claim is that “we’ve tried more money” and it hasn’t worked. Uh, no, not in California we haven’t.
I guess some people honestly believe that teachers unions are the reason our schools are failing too many children, but I think that claim is both simplistic and illogical. If what matters, ultimately, is the skill level and accomplishment of the teacher, how is it that the best teachers would flock to generally lower-paid and less-secure jobs with private schools and charter schools? Wouldn’t the best teachers want higher-paid jobs and more job security?
Much has also been made over the idea that giving teachers tenure after three years in the classroom means that it’s impossible to get rid of bad teachers. Nope. It’s true that the disciplinary/coaching process takes time, and there are timelines and paperwork involved. But more often than not it ends either with a teacher receiving coaching that helps him or her improve or a retirement or other voluntary separation. Determined principals can and do make sure that substandard teachers either improve or leave the system. I don’t buy the argument that abolishing teacher tenure would cause any kind of noticeable improvement in achievement–it might make it even harder to attract quality teachers (they aren’t exactly beating a path to the profession as it is).
I am not sure whether to recommend this film or not, though I think people who are interested in education reform will not be able to stay away. If you see it, I hope you will take its statistics with a grain of salt (some are apples to oranges while others are mischaracterized), and realize that it is, ultimately, entertainment. The filmmaker has created archetypal characters out of real people, and a narrative sequence out of events that are unfolding simultaneously, unrelated to each other. If the film moves you to find out more about the problems facing public education and educate yourself on possible solutions, great. As long as you realize that those solutions are never as simple as a 90-minute movie lays them out to be.