Beth Fertig is WNYC’s Contributing Editor for Education. She previously covered politics, which included City Hall during the Giuliani administration, and the U.S. Senate campaigns of Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton. She also covered transportation and infrastructure.
'Waiting for Superman': If Only...
Thursday, September 23, 2010
At the end of Davis Guggenheim's passionate documentary about the state of our nation's public schools, "Waiting for Superman," words of action flicker across the screen: "The problem is complex but the steps are simple."
This attempt to simplify what is, by the filmmaker's own admission, a crazy patchwork of local, state and federal players that have prevented U.S. schools from serving all children as well as they should is a well-meaning attempt to galvanize a weary public. It's also a necessary narrative device. By sticking with the stories of five students all desperate to leave their failing or otherwise inferior public schools by applying to lotteries to get into charter schools, Guggenheim fulfills our human need to personally connect with a subject. And they are five very thoughtful, bright, and adorable children who all deserve better than that fate that awaits them if they can’t get into better schools. Hence, the lottery theme—which is repeated again and again with images of numbered balls rolling in metal cages, and ultimately ends with the futile message that not all kids get what they deserve.
The filmmakers concede this lottery device was a gimmick, and readily acknowledge that not all charter schools are superior to regular public schools. (They even include a statistic that angers some charter supporters, by downplaying the success of charters nationally.) But they show us two highly successful charters in New York City and in Los Angeles, Harlem Success and KIPP. They also hold up Washington, DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee as a hero who did whatever she needed to save a failing school district by firing principals, eliminating waste from the central office and confronting the union.
The filmmakers have told audiences they are not anti-union and that they, in fact, belong to unions. But “Superman” does not do much to bolster the image of American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten (which is why she and her members have become vocal critics of the film). Teachers are portrayed as villains out to serve their own interests above those of the children they serve when the film cuts to the infamous rubber rooms in New York City, where teachers awaiting disciplinary action sat for years doing nothing while collecting their paychecks. An administrator in Milwaukee refers to the “dance of the lemons” when principals who can’t fire bad teachers swap them with each other each fall. The film strongly suggests—no, states—that unions and their contracts are an obstacle to innovations when it shows the DC union objecting to Chancellor Rhee’s proposal to give up tenure in exchange for a higher salary.
But heroes and villains don’t tell the whole story of why our schools are such a mess. There is no mention of the fact that charter schools rarely enroll as many students with special needs as regular schools. Geoffrey Canada, of the highly successful Harlem Children’s Zone, mentions the other support structures he built in Harlem before opening his charter schools. But his “baby college” for expecting parents, as well as his pre-Kindergarten programs, are briefly noted. The film again and again returns to the conclusion that our society isn’t ruining our schools alone; it’s our schools that are ruining our children. And we can’t wait for society to fix every social ill, so we might as well fix the schools. In taking this point of view, the film blatantly sides with those who call themselves “reformers” because they want a longer school day, high quality teachers and national standards.
But as any education reporter can tell you, nobody holds a monopoly on the word “reformer.” Unions, anti-poverty advocates, and others traditionally aligned with the status quo, or public school establishment, also like to consider themselves reformers. And some of them genuinely do seem more flexible than how they’re portrayed in “Superman.” Likewise, many of the reforms referred to in the movie have yet to be tested. Particularly, the goal of measuring which teachers are most effective by using student test scores. No district has yet come up with a perfect formula. It’s possible that we will see one soon, though, with the Obama Administration now pouring money into these kinds of reforms through it’s Race to the Top grants.
The need to simplify the narrative makes sense for a mainstream documentary about public education. It’s a hard topic to sell to a mainstream audience. And if you don’t believe me, I have a big stack of unsold books about the real challenges of teaching every child to read that will prove my case (“Why cant u teach me 2 read?” in case you’re interested!). Lots of education reporters who have written books would say the same thing.
One NYC administrator told me schools are messy places because “they’re like soup.” You never know exactly what caused test scores to rise and fall because children’s lives are so complicated. Some get sick and stay home for days; others have undiagnosed learning disabilities; some have parents pushing them from birth to read; other kids seem to excel no matter what obstacles you put in their way. And every teacher has a slightly different approach, no matter how hard a district tries to unify its curriculum. One may never know exactly what went into the soup.
This is not to say we should throw up our hands and declare the subject’s too difficult to tackle for the public at large. It’s just a reminder that a film telling us there is no Superman can easily leave some viewers thinking that’s exactly what we need. Yes, the problem is complicated. But the steps are complicated, too.
Beth Fertig is the author of “Why cant u teach me 2 read: Three students and a mayor put our schools to the test” (FSG Books September, 2009)