Did you know there are problems in our public schools? Shocking, isn’t it? If you want solutions to some of their problems I would suggest avoiding Waiting for “Superman”. (Why the quotation marks?) All you will leave the theater with is a better appreciation for the public school system’s dysfunctions without a clue as to how to remedy them. Director Davis Guggenheim called the world to action against global warming in An Inconvenient Truth, but his latest picture isn’t so much a call to action as it is a self-congratulatory and smug dressing down of professional educators, a film only those who know nothing about the issues facing public schools could embrace.
It is a depressingly naïve documentary. It posits simplistic answers (like all we need to do is boot out the bad teachers and staff our schools with “great” teachers) without suggesting how we get there. What’s more depressing is how eagerly so many critics are eating it up without thinking about how Guggenheim wades into the debate as intellectually lazy as a Tea Partier’s interpretation of the Revolutionary War. Waiting for “Superman” (again, why is Superman in quotes?) is empty calories, offering nothing substantial for an audience eager for solutions.
Guggenheim found several sympathetic children to highlight the dysfunction of our schools – especially inner-city schools – and here is the strength of the picture. We see children motivated to learn and to go to college, but their chances look slim based on the past performances of their local high schools. We immediately connect to these children and the stark future Guggenheim lays out for them elicited gasps from the audience in the theater in which I saw it. No one wants to see charismatic little Francisco, a first grader in the Bronx, who candidly admits he doesn’t like school, continue to do poorly in school because, as the movie suggests, his teacher is overworked and doesn’t have time for extra help. Or the fifth grader from East Los Angeles, Daisy, who wants to be a doctor or veterinarian, but will be fed into the worst high school in the city from which only 4 out of 10 even graduate, let alone graduate prepared for college. Or how about another fifth grader, Anthony, who lost both his parents and is being raised by his grandmother in Washington, D.C. He may not enjoy school, but he seems to understand that he has to do well to avoid the fate of his father who died of a drug overdose. But Anthony is about to enter a public middle school with a dismal track record.
All of these stories are compelling, but Guggenheim flubs them when he tries to make broader conclusions about the state of public education. For instance, he makes no attempt to interrogate statistics he throws at us. At one point he ominously tells us it is nearly impossible, because of rigid union contracts, to fire a teacher; he tells us only 1 in 2500 teachers get fired compared to something like 1 in 40 doctors and lawyers who lose their licenses. Guggenheim never stops to consider the very real difference: there aren’t long lines of well-qualified, ambitious teachers waiting to take their places. (Something like one third of new teachers quit within their first two years – count me in that group.) There is a wildly optimistic assumption that if we just fire the worst teachers and replace them with at least average teachers, we will get better results. But why make the assumption that average teachers would replace them? Somehow bad teacher got their jobs in the first place. He never asks why or how, or suggests how to avoid hiring them in the future.
Guggenheim’s laziness is no more evident than in the simplistic assumptions on which he leans to give the audience a tangible villain. Yes, the bureaucratically sclerotic Teacher’s Union prevents districts from firing bad teachers, or from authorizing extended school days, or from permitting competition from charter schools. The impression presented, whether intended or not, is unions are terrified of change and competition. Where Guggenheim is most dishonest is in his treatment of Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). He interviewed her, but didn’t ask her to explain her union’s positions. He lets her rattle off goofy cliché-ridden solutions without letting on that other parts of the movie slam her union. If he were truly being honest he would have allowed her to respond. Instead he simply runs clips of her at union meetings in massive halls where she whips up the audience as though she were Aimee Semple McPherson.
He also makes a lot of assumptions about Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools Michelle Rhee. She is the fearless reformer facing reactionary blowback from the entrenched teacher’s interests (as if teachers aren’t interested in students doing well). Whether those arguing against Rhee’s reforms (which really amounts to firing a lot of people) have legitimate points goes unexplored. It is easier to lionize her for trying something; it is less easy to quantify and qualify her successes and failures.
Guggenheim seems to think that the answer is charter schools, but does he realize that charter schools were initiated by those nasty teacher’s unions that are afraid of change? That is only the beginning of his confusion. He blithely tells us that only one in five charter schools get “great” results (whatever that means), but then spends the rest of the picture ignoring that statistic while lauding successful charter school (and ignoring more than 30% of charter schools that perform worse than local schools). If he means that public schools should use them as a model it is strange that he ignores money. These schools receive lots of private donations to bolster their budgets, money that is not available to public schools. There is no serious effort to explain or examine how these results can be replicated at all public schools beyond vaguely noting the need to have great teachers. Furthermore charter schools can drain resources away from neighborhood schools thus ensuring they continue to underperform.
What is most offensive about this movie is its lack of seriousness. We need to be encouraging solutions that bolster public education, not siphon off the promising students to private and charter schools, leaving poor and marginal students to battle it out in a crumbling system. We can praise the success of some charter schools, but we can’t look at them as the solution unless we want to ensure continued inequality in our socio-economic system. We can look at them as models, but pretending that they don’t have a monetary advantage perpetuates the myth that good schools have nothing to do with how much money is being invested in them. If Guggenheim thinks his movie-with-the-inexplicable-quotation-marks-in-the-title is going to do anything except give credence to those who want to privatize education in this country he is wrong. He has made a movie that tells us we might as well give up and start over again; government has clearly failed and the private sector may as well come in and give it a try. That may not have been his intent, but his sloppy work didn’t give us any real options. Remember, Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle to advocate for better working conditions; instead we got food production regulations. That was an unintended consequence, but a positive one. If this movie legitimizes those advocating the privatization of public school and accelerates the transition (which is already well under way in some places), this movie will be complicit in the process. If Guggenheim thinks things are bad now, wait until the system is gone. It will get worse.