12 Most Frustrating Moments of “Waiting for Superman”

Josh Eidelson

- The way Davis Guggenheim used the kids’ stories. Each of the kids was sympathetic, and they dramatized the deep inequality of opportunity in America. But neither the kids nor their parents got much chance to talk about what they thought would make their school better or worse. Instead we got Guggenheim intoning that if this girl didn’t get into a charter school, her life would basically be hopeless. If Guggenheim believes that these kids are suffering because too many of their teachers should be fired but won’t be, why not let the kids say so? If he believes these kids are suffering because teachers or administrators have low expectations for them, why not let the kids say that? And if the kids instead talked about classes that were too big, or teachers that were overwhelmed or undertrained, or being hungry in class, that would have been interesting too.

- Something that sounded like Darth Vader’s Imperial March played over slow motion shots of Democrats appearing with members of teachers’ unions. This was especially agitating watching the movie as the Governor of Wisconsin is trying to permanently eliminate teachers’ bargaining rights in the name of closing a deficit he created with corporate tax cuts.

- The repeated montages of lots of US presidents signing bills and talking about education, implying that nothing of significance has changed in the past several decades in US education. Especially galling: the lack of any mention of school integration, which was kind of a big deal (no mention either of how schools have been becoming more segregated, or how that affects kids’ learning). Especially awkward: Tee-ing up No Child Left Behind with some shpiel about how it looked like people were “reaching across the partisan blah blah blah” and then…never mentioning it again. Does Davis Guggenheim think NCLB was a good idea or a bad idea? Not a rhetorical question.

This undifferentiated montage of politicians that didn’t fix education reminded me of the biggest omission in An Inconvenient Truth: What about the eight years that Al Gore was Vice President of the United States?

- The off-hand mention that only one out of five charter schools gets really good results. Why does Guggenheim think this is? The other ones aren’t firing enough teachers? They’re located too close to non-charter schools and mediocrity just rubs off on them? Again, not a rhetorical question.

- The repeated implication that education funding just isn’t that important. This is especially aggravating given that the film came out during a period of nationwide teacher layoffs. Related: Jeffrey Canada gives a shout-out for wanting to prepare kids for success from the time their babies, but you wouldn’t know from watching this movie that there are programs out there like Head Start and public preschool, or that there are big fights over funding them. (Jennifer Hochschild and Nathan Scovronick’s book The American Dream and Public Schools showed some of the problems with funding stats like Guggenheim’s, including how those stats ignore special education).

- The too-cute moment when Guggenheim says something like “Teachers should just be putting knowledge in students’ brains, but instead…” and then says non-uniform local and state educational standards get in the way. I’m not trying to be obtuse, but the cartoon showing lots of lines bouncing across a map and numbers falling out of kids brains did not help me understand how Guggenheim thinks the process of putting knowledge in kids heads is just being disrupted by disparities in standards. Related: What does he think about NCLB? Also, if standards were all that gets in the way of teachers putting knowledge in kids heads, how is it the teachers’ fault?

- Speaking of which, the moment when he says that Michelle Rhee “solved the most intractable problem in public education” by proposing that teachers give up job security for higher pay. Because “the greatest challenge in education” is how to fire more teachers.

- Then we hear that “the Union was so threatened by Rhee’s proposal, it didn’t even let the members vote on it.” Does Guggenheim believe that union democracy requires that the members hold a vote every time management makes them an offer? Did he also want Adrian Fenty’s constituents to vote every time the union made an offer back? Guggenheim could have made an argument that the union leadership, or the negotiating committee, was out of step with what the members wanted. But to do that, he would have needed to talk to the members.

(Which brings us to the most frustrating moments missing from the movie…)

- Guggenheim didn’t talk to any of the current members. In DC, or anywhere else. He didn’t talk to any current teachers that aren’t administrators (the closest thing was clips from a movie he made ten years ago showing that teaching is really hard). Instead, we got journalists and administrators talking about teachers, and cartoons. (He talked to kids, but didn’t really ask them about their teachers either) And we got Jonathan Alter telling us that teachers are great but their unions are “a menace.” Another non-rhetorical question: Does Guggenheim think that most teachers support the changes he wants to see in their working conditions? If so, why not interview some of them? If not, why not come out and say that teachers are wrong rather than just bashing unions?

Policies don’t just appear out of thin air. Most rules governing work are either there because workers wanted them or management wanted them. If Guggenheim really believes that union leaders have gotten rules in place members don’t support, show us that. If he thinks the rules in place reflect what the majority of teachers want, let us hear from them. Tell us why they’re wrong. Then either tell us teaching jobs are too good overall, or that we should make them better in some ways in exchange for coming after their job security.

- Also not heard from regarding the job security that represents “the most intractable problem in public education”: those dread union leaders. Randi Weingarten is given the chance to explain why teachers’ unions started way back when, and to criticize Michelle Rhee’s style a little, but a viewer would come away with no idea what she has to say about job security in today’s schools, or longer school days, or standards, or teacher evaluations, or tracking, or having high expectations for kids. You would think, having gotten this menacing woman on camera, Guggenheim would want to put her on the spot Michael Moore-style and expose the flaws in her arguments. Either he didn’t try, or he did try and it must not have gone very well for him. It’s hard to imagine that Guggenheim had great footage of himself stumping the head of a 1.5 million member teacher’s union and he cut it out to make room for more cartoons.

- Absolutely no mention of successful unionized charter schools, like the Green Dot schools.

- Also would have liked to hear from some of the academics and experts out there engaging with how factors like poverty, integration, health, teacher training, and funding impact education. It’s not too much to expect a documentarian to try talking to people he disagrees with about the things he cares about (check out Inside Job). Were none of the advocates and academics behind the Broader, Bolder platform available? Instead, Guggenheim makes the outrageous implication that people who say we should be attacking poverty to improve education don’t believe in poor kids.

(Quotes are from memory. Diane Ravitch’s more comprehensive take on the movie here).

PsySR member Josh Eidelson has worked as a union organizer since receiving his BA and MA degrees from Yale. He’s written about politics as a contributor to Campus Progress, a columnist for the Yale Daily News, and a research fellow for Talking Points Media. He lives in Philadelphia and can be reached at jeidelson@gmail.com This essay orginally appeared on his blog Little Wild Bouquet.

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8 Responses to “12 Most Frustrating Moments of “Waiting for Superman””

  1. Brad Olson Says:

    This is a great essay. I have not seen seen the film yet, but from what I know of the whole waiting for superman concept, these are many of the points I feared, although with far more specifics I would be aware of. But I feared this movement would involve union bashing. And clearly that’s part of it. I was worried that this would be about blaming the victims, in this case the teachers, and to a large extent they are victims here. And the film and movement is about that. I did not think of the need to include the voices of the children here. Of course we do need to do that to get a real picture of the problem, and of course they (those who are trying to lead this movement) have not. So this is an excellent summary. And I can’t wait to see the film from this lens.

    This charter school movement has so many similar characteristics of the tea party movement, and that worries me too.
    Thanks!

  2. Stephen Soldz Says:

    Thanks Josh! Excellent.

    I forwarded to the parents list at my son’s school. There has been a heated debate between parents who want to punish teachers and complain incessantly of the unions and others who try and call attention to the overall context of a war on teachers and on public workers in general.

  3. Andrew Grant Says:

    My nephew is currently preparing applications for Harvard, Yale and Georgetown right now. His teachers are all very supportive of him as is his family…though he was raised by a single mother. If it were not for some of the assistance he received from his school teachers throughout the years he probably wouldn’t be in the position that he is in right now.

    Did I mention he went to all public schools, and currently attends Woodside High School in Mountain View, the same high school Guggenheim derided in his film?

  4. FROM THE COMMENTS ON “SUPERMAN” « Little Wild Bouquet Says:

    [...] Grant cites his nephew’s experience in a comment on the PsySR blog: If it were not for some of the assistance he received from his [...]

  5. Duff Says:

    My impulse after reading this post (and not yet having seen the film) was to go to Rotten Tomatoes and see the ratings. Not the RT is the standard for all rating, but considering the group of reviewers (professional and non-professional) I was surprised to find around 86-88% approval (90 positive reviews to 12 negative reviews.) However, most of the reviews don’t give you much indication that the reviewers actually paid attention to the what the film was trying to say. Although there are some remarks that suggest the film played into the hands of “greedy and selfish teachers unions.”

  6. Duff Says:

    Re comment above:

    And by “played into the hands of ‘greedy and selfish teachers unions’” I meant “played into the hands of those who already believe that their are ‘greedy and selfish teachers unions.’

  7. Joseph Scalia III Says:

    Great! You are not alone! My wife and I recently published the following as a Guest Editorial in Bozeman, Montana’s Daily Chronicle:

    Does the Economic Fate of a Nation Rest on its Test Scores?

    In December 2010, the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test results from were released. Evaluating 15-year-olds from 65 countries, PISA is touted as the most comprehensive study to test and rank students internationally. As in past years, the 5233 public and private school U.S. students tested scored in the average range.

    As before, the apoplectic reaction of both pundits and government officials follows a predictable and faulty line of reasoning when looking at perceived international achievement gaps. It goes something like this: Public education is in a state of crisis. In order to avert the eventual economic ruin that will follow “middling”-range test scores, we must speed up school reform efforts and look to those who have higher scores, as models of superior educational systems. At the alleged root of the problem are complacent educators who are not willing or able to hold high expectations of their students or deliver high-quality instruction. The putative solution to the “crisis” is to hold educators “accountable” through incentives, punishment, and mandates, such as publishing school test scores, privatizing public education, replacing the school staff in low-performing schools, and using “performance”-based teacher pay. So the rhetoric goes.

    If low scores lead to inferior economic performance, then those nations who score higher than the U.S. on international tests should be doing better on indicators of economic success. In 2007, researcher K. Baker compared international test results since their advent in 1964, with seven indicators of national success, including economic growth, productivity, and creativity. He found that “a certain level of educational attainment, as reflected in test scores, provides a platform for launching national success, but once that platform is reached, other factors become more important…” The bottom line is that, beyond this platform, it is bad policy to pursue gains in test scores, diverting resources away from other factors that are more important determinants of economic success.

    On the 2009 PISA, both South Korea and Shanghai-China were two of the highest scorers. Yet they have GDP’s per capita below the average measured by PISA’s organizational body. The two Swiss-based organizations that rank nations on global competitiveness both rank the U.S. #1 again, the position it has held for a number of years. In 2008, when journalist F. Zakariya asked the Singapore Minister of Education why high scoring Singaporean students seem to fade when they became adults, the Minister answered that their children lacked what he thought America excelled in – creativity, ambition, and a willingness to challenge existing knowledge – factors of course not measured by the much-valorized tests.

    Author Yong Zhao, born and raised in China, in making comparisons between educational systems in European and Asian countries notes that centralized, standardized, test-driven countries like China and Singapore are attempting to get rid of the homogenization that the U.S. is now seeking to implement. They are, in fact, looking to the US to determine how to get their children to think.

    It is easier to blame educators than to look at our real problems – like the effects of poverty on children and the simplistic reforms that are not working. Policy makers should be talking about the less publicized PISA findings such as: (1) Schools that compete for students through charters, tax credits or vouchers do not yield higher scores; (2) Private schools do no better than public schools once family wealth factors are considered; (3) 20% of U.S. performance is attributed to social inequity, far higher than in other nations – inequitable and inadequate financial resources resulting in nearly a year’s lack of growth, and (4) Schools with greater autonomy score higher.

    Throughout the history of schooling in the U.S., schools have been routinely charged to carry out the dominant societal and political ideologies of the day. As historian W. Reese points out, when solutions to intractable problems that originate outside of school fail – poverty, racial and social injustice – schools are looked to as the source of the problems and educational reform ensues with vigor. Until educational policy is able to look at the economic and political conditions which are the real source of our educational problems, we are likely to continue our test-score fetishism.

    Lynne Scalia is the Superintendent/Principal of Monforton School District.
    Joseph Scalia III is the Director of Northern Rockies Psychoanalytic Institute.

  8. Lisa M Says:

    As someone from Wisconsin I’m appalled that you think that Scott Walker created the deficit with corporate tax cuts. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Something needs to be done about the union’s level of power, being a teacher myself it is frustrating having big brother breathing down your neck all of the time. I think it would be a much more enjoyable profession with pressures from the union and more independent schools.


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