Waiting for the rest of the movie: Why Waiting for Superman was an unfinished film at best

It’s really a bummer when a film you’ve looked forward to seeing for months turns out to be a huge disappointment. but that was the case for me when I saw Waiting for Superman. The documentary seeks to highlight the increasing ineffectiveness of public school systems throughout the United States, and to illustrate the harm these failing schools are doing to our kids–and by extension to our society as a whole, which suffers the effects of a poorly-educated populace: higher crime rates, entrenched poverty, and–according to the film–not enough skilled workers to fill the professional jobs of the future.

I was excited to see Waiting for Superman because I, too, am worried about the current state of education in this country, and I was especially thrilled that the timing of the release landed the movie in theaters just as the public consciousness of problems plaguing our schools has been raised, via articles in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, NPR, and a variety of other outlets.   I would love to see this national discussion we’re having–fractured though it may be–gain in momentum so that we may begin to address the problems that currently plague school districts throughout the country.

Unfortunately, though, Waiting for Superman adds nothing to this national discussion because all the movie offers is an incredibly simplistic look at a very complex problem.  If Davis Guggenheim, who directed the film, is to be believed, our educational system has deteriorated solely because tenure and teachers unions have kept horrible teachers in the classroom for far too long.

When I wrote about the Los Angeles Times’ series on teacher effectiveness, I noted that far too often bad teachers are able to retain their jobs.  But we also have a problem of teacher retention in this country.  According to the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future, nearly a third of new teachers leave the profession within their first three years of teaching, and by the time those teachers are five years into what would otherwise be their career, 20 percent more will have up and bailed on teaching.  So five years after getting their first teaching job, half of these teachers will no longer be in the classroom.  Clearly the activism of the union and the promise of tenure have failed to lure these educators into a lifelong commitment to the profession.

Waiting for Superman makes no mention of these statistics, however, which is curious when you consider the fact that having a dearth of teachers with many years of experience under their belts most likely also contributes to the poor education so many of our young people now receive.  Further, the film claims that “we know what works” and therefore all that’s left is to reform our schools accordingly–with better teachers, longer school days, and a longer school year.

And while “good teachers” are apparently what really make a difference in the life of a child, the film shows us none of this great teaching in action.  What are these great teachers doing that separates them from the slackers we’re shown early on–bad teachers who read and even doze off while their students run amok?

Because I was a teacher for a very long time, I understand quite well how much knowledge good teachers need to have–not just about their own subject matter, but about their students, about what their students already know and then how to leverage what they know to help them learn the skills and information you have to teach.  It’s a lot of work, and it is difficult work.  People not in the profession often “get” that the job is emotionally taxing, but what few understand is how intellectually demanding it is, too.  Most often when people say they think teachers should be paid more, they are saying that because they are thinking of how intense it must be to be locked in a room with a bunch of kids/teens/young adults all day long.

But to teach well also takes an extraordinary amount of knowledge and skill, and I would have liked to have seen “good teaching” on display in the film.  Perhaps it was left on the cutting room floor because–despite what popular culture would have us believe–great teaching rarely looks like a scene from Stand and Deliver or Freedom Writers or Dangerous Minds.  According to NPR, even Jaime Escalante himself felt that the film version of his life as a teacher wasn’t entirely accurate because it “left the impression that his students, most of whom were struggling with multiplication tables, mastered calculus overnight.”

Though Guggenheim does not devote time in his film to showing us good teaching, he does make it clear which schools he thinks are models for reform in this country.  But once again, he does so in such a simplistic way that anyone not familiar with school reform efforts would be lead to believe that schools like KIPP and the Harlem Children’s Zone are ones that can and should be emulated in districts throughout the U.S.  But these models are impractical at best, and rather than speaking for the need for school reform, they highlight the fact that improving education is not something we can fully do without also turning our attention to the factors that affect progress for our students, particularly poverty, health care, and discrimination.

Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone is better understood as community reform rather than school reform.  His organization’s “cradle to college” promise to families requires that he address all aspects of a child’s community: family (Canada offers a “Baby College” program to help parents learn how to be parents), health care (programs are available to help families manage asthma and prevent obesity), and preschool (the “Harlem Gems” is an “all-day pre-kindergarten program that gets children ready to enter kindergarten.”).

So, you guessed it–it takes a village, and the Harlem Children’s Zone is less a school than it is a village–one that seeks to have an effect on every aspect of a child’s life, from birth to Bachelor’s degree.

Meanwhile, the KIPP schools (often the darling of every media report on “school reform”) also understand the role of the village–and that it often it takes a village to ruin a child’s chances of success.  So the KIPP model keeps kids away from troubled environments with a longer school day and extended school year.  According to the network’s website, KIPP teachers “typically work a nine-hour work day during the week, half days on selected Saturdays, and three weeks in the summer. They also are available via cell phone for homework help in the evening.”  Essentially, KIPP schools increase contact between students and their teachers, putting teachers in the roles that might have once been filled by parents (such as helping with homework in the evening and ensuring that students are studying on the weekends).   In other words, both KIPP and the Harlem Children’s Zone increasingly play roles once filled by members of a child’s own community–parents, baby-sitters, even doctors.

What these school networks truly illustrate, then, is not that “great teaching” alone will solve our educational crisis, but quite the opposite–that our schools are profoundly linked to the health of their surrounding environments and to the health of the communities in which the students reside.  And so what Guggenheim should have done is illustrate that idea in greater detail.  In the instances in which these schools are having success (and as The New York Times recently pointed out, not every school in the network is successful), those gains are achieved not by great teaching alone, but by an investment in the entire community in which the schools reside.  I’m all for that.  Let’s invest in our communities, ensuring that all children have access to health care, all parents are invested in their children’s success, and all families receive education about how to eat healthy and stay healthy.  When we have that kind of infrastructure in place, I have no doubt that our students’ test scores will improve.  Without that kind of infrastructure, it won’t matter much at all if we dismantle tenure and render teachers unions ineffective.

But instead of making that point, Guggenheim settles on a dumbed-down version of the story, laying blame at the feet of unions and the practice of tenure.  It makes a more interesting story, perhaps, but it’s also less of a true one.

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About Sarah

Grammar goddess, cultural critic, full-time media junkie. I read, I bake, I watch tv. And then I write about it.
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2 Responses to Waiting for the rest of the movie: Why Waiting for Superman was an unfinished film at best

  1. dkzody says:

    Good post. Being one of those good teachers who could not continue any longer, I appreciate the fact that you are able to understand what it takes to do the job well. I did NOT watch “Waiting for Superman” because I knew it was more bashing than solving. Like you, I would like to see scenes of good teachers doing their job well. However, I think that would bore the majority of those who want to rant and rave about how badly the schools are doing.

    • Sarah says:

      Thanks, dkzody! A friend of mine who is a high school teacher told me recently that she is thinking about a career change because now that she and her husband have a baby, she may need to move to a higher paying job. So much needs to be reformed in education, so it is especially disheartening to see movies like WfS oversimplify the very complex problems that affect the level of success that our students reach under our care. How ridiculous and very sad that my friend–who is a very talented, dedicated teacher–might be driven from the profession because of how little it pays.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and to comment.

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