(Editor’s note: This is a slightly longer version of the Default Lines column from the Nov./Dec. issue of eSchool News.)
As a strong supporter of American public education, I don’t know what’s more depressing: that the film Waiting for ‘Superman’ is so bad, or that so many critics have heaped such high praise upon it. But—given our propensity for solutions to complex problems that can fit neatly on a bumper sticker, in a pull quote, or in a seven-second sound bite—I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.
I realize that saying you support public education these days is like saying you support Mel Gibson, or you like the French. But it’s about time someone stood on a rooftop and shouted through the cacophony of ill-informed opinions that no other nation in the world tries to do so much—prepare all children for college or the workforce, regardless of their background, circumstances, or special needs—in the face of so many challenges. Yes, we can do better—we must do better—but given the daunting nature of these challenges, it’s a wonder our schools are doing as well as they are.
If you’re a teacher, you know these challenges all too well: Children coming to school malnourished, or not ready to learn … Kids who have learning disabilities, or who don’t even speak English … Classrooms packed with 30 or more students, yet lacking the fundamental resources necessary to give all children the individual attention they deserve … Cell phones, TV, and video games that divert students’ focus from the lessons at hand … Parents who don’t make their children do homework, or who excuse their poor behavior … Overloaded schedules that leave far too little time to plan engaging lessons, collaborate with colleagues, or advance one’s own learning … the list goes on.
It’s too bad filmmaker Davis Guggenheim fails to grasp any of these challenges.
Remarkably, in a documentary spanning nearly two hours, Guggenheim doesn’t interview a single classroom teacher about what’s wrong with American public education. The only appearance in the film of someone representing a teacher’s perspective is Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and let’s be honest: She’s on screen merely to act as a foil, not to offer any wisdom.
(In a textbook example of the propaganda technique known as “stacking the deck,” each time Weingarten gets screen time in the film, Guggenheim cuts her off after she makes a single statement, without allowing any follow-up explanation that would add necessary context to her remarks. The result, if you’ve seen the film in a public theater, is exactly the kind of audible gasp from the audience that Guggenheim is aiming for.)
Other than that, the so-called “experts” interviewed in the film are all education outsiders—Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, Microsoft’s Bill Gates—and controversial school reformers like Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee. What emerges from these interviews is a reinforcing of tired, old stereotypes about how unions are blocking much-needed reforms … but very little new insight.
We are told, for instance, that once teachers get tenure, they are virtually impossible to fire—and if we just got rid of the bottom 6 percent of teachers, we’d be doing as well as Finland in international comparisons.
It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Fire the worst teachers, and watch our students’ test scores magically rise. But where are those new teachers going to come from? Will they be given the same training, mentoring, resources, and support as the teachers they’re replacing—which, in most cases, is not nearly enough? And if so, why would we expect a different result?
By presenting unions as “a menace and an impediment to reform” (a direct quote from the film), Guggenheim creates the kind of two-dimensional villain that you’d expect to find in a comic book featuring the hero mentioned in his film title. And he focuses on this caricature at the expense of other, very legitimate problems in public education.