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No time to wait for Superman

I went today to a special showing of Waiting for Superman, the first of the two films about the sorry state of American education that are coming out this fall. It was sponsored by the Santa Cruz Education Foundation and had a panel discussion afterward by John Laird, Ellen Moir of the New Teacher Center, former teacher and union president George Martinez, and Mary Gaukel Forster, principal of Delta Charter School. They were introduced by Superintendent Michael Watkins.

Waiting for Superman

Waiting for Superman

When Watkins asked how many teachers were in the audience, a sea of hands went up. Though Forster and probably some number of the teachers represented charter schools, it was a panel and an audience heavily invested in “the system” that Waiting for Superman blames for all of our educational problems.

The film itself was moving — how could it not be? It followed a few months in the educational lives of five children who are at the mercy of the system. Four of them are urban, non-white kids. The fifth is a suburban white girl whose problems, the film argues, are not so different. She ended up being a bit of a distraction, but more on that later.

No one could argue that what the four inner-city kids are going through is in any way acceptable. One of them has a mother who will do anything to keep her daughter in the Catholic school across the street, but the limitations on the “anything” she can do are clear when she loses hours at work and can no longer pay tuition. The other children are in poor-performing schools, and their parents have found a charter school to place all their educational hopes on. Problem is, charter schools are few and far between, and the kids have to go through a lottery to get in.

The film makes some fine points, and I don’t think there’s any reason not to go see it if you care about the state of our public schools. But in my opinion and that of everyone else who had time to express an opinion at this showing, it suffers from a little too much Superman and not quite enough Clark Kent.

We learn about these fabulous charter schools that the children can get into: instead of 90% failure we get 90% success. Instead of teachers who won’t return repeated phone calls, we get teachers who work long hours and in one school, actually live there. We hear from teachers and administrators who are sure that all schools could be their schools. We hear from Michelle Rhee, who at the time of the filming was sure she was going to reform D.C. schools (and who has just resigned her job).

There are a few omissions in this film, however:

First, the acceptance of rather vague measures for what makes a good school. Are test scores the only measure? Rising test scores? Satisfaction of the students and parents? Surely, the schools they featured were good schools by many measures, but what makes a failing school? What do we want from our schools? What is the reality of what kinds of jobs are out there when the students graduate?

Second, the complete ignorance of all the other possible factors that make a poor student. The students at these charter schools are starting with the most important thing: an adult who wants them to get a good education. But if we turned all schools into charters like these, wouldn’t we have to educate the other kids? The ones who have drugged out parents, distant parents, no parents, too many parents fighting over them? And what about the nutrition these kids are getting? Again, we see these thoughtful, caring parents sending their kids to school with a full belly and a last slurp of orange juice. Their classmates are largely arriving on empty stomachs. And the home environment? There is not a single TV in this film except the nostalgic shots from past TV shows. There is only one scene with a kid playing a video game. Otherwise, this film would have us believe, if we turned all schools into charter schools, suddenly the distractions and commotions in every kid’s house would vanish. All the parents would assemble their kids around the dining room table to help them with homework. Hm.

Third, the lack of introspection about what a teacher’s job really should be. I absolutely applaud these teachers who are giving their lives to teaching, but most people aren’t going to do this. Read this EdWeek blog for a really great description of what an average teacher’s job really should be. What the film is proposing is literally impossible: hordes of energetic, young, well-trained teachers who don’t get burned out and magically don’t want job security or good working conditions. Teachers are real people with real lives, and our system needs to be set up with that in mind.

Finally, the reality of how things really have to get done: by working together. Nice idea to go off and start a charter school, but that’s going to serve the needs of 3% of the students. The other 97% are going to see things improved by the combined efforts of districts, principals, teachers, and yes, unions.

As Laird said in his remarks after the film, “Nothing is black and white. If things were easy, they would have been done a long time ago.”

As Moir said, “Charisma matters. Money matters. Focus matters. Teachers matter. Social services, mental health services…there are many pieces we need to think about.”

And Martinez, who has had a long career in education, drew a laugh and then lots of nods when he said, “What I’ve learned after decades of failed reform: To obtain an education requires hard work: by administrators, by teachers, by students, by parents, and with the support of your community.”

In other words, down here in the trenches we don’t have time to wait for Superman; we’re working too hard!

On to my aside above about the lone suburban girl in the film. I can only think that they threw her in as a nod to the demographic they knew they were going to draw, because they spent very little time on her after assuring us that her chances were pretty much the same as the other kids’. We all knew that this was nonsense, of course, and it’s clear that the dynamic in suburban schools, and in the rural/suburban mix we have here in Santa Cruz County, are very different than in urban schools.

In the short dash through her quest for a better school, the film assures us that the education she’s getting at her high school is bad because, simply, of tracking. The implication is that the kids at the top of the learning curve are doing great, and the kids who need remedial help in her school are doing just fine, but the students in the middle are suffering because they aren’t being challenged enough. This may be true, but that’s not because the needs of the students at the top and bottom are being served so well. In fact, it’s highly likely that the needs of the identified GATE kids aren’t being served at all, given the state of GATE funding in California.

This section of the film opened such a huge can of worms and then slammed it shut with a jump cut back to the inner city, rather than explore in any depth how the challenges of these schools compare to the others. And to say that it can all be solved by not serving the needs of different kids differently? That’s what “no tracking” really boils down to. This is an excellent piece about why ability grouping doesn’t have to be “tracking.”

So: heartwarming, yes. Scary, yes. Sad, yes. Inspiring, a bit.

But: overly simplistic, Hollywood-style slights of hand, and lack of real depiction of how a school works and how we can help, rather than blame, the teachers.

Posted in Culture, Education, Films.


2 Responses

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  1. eric says

    Thanks for the good review. Here is another that I think is really good. It helps dispel the misleading hype surrounding the disingenuous “solution” of charters to a mostly fabricated problem of neighborhood public schools (that polls repeatedly show are popular with parents).

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/11/myth-charter-schools/?pagination=false

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Superman running in a race to nowhere – Avant Parenting linked to this post on November 18, 2010

    […] background, you can read my review of Waiting for Superman here, and my review of Race to Nowhere […]



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