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“Waiting for ‘Superman’”: Not All Horrible

I had a great start to my “Waiting for ‘Superman'” review worked out in my head. I would talk about how the last time I saw a movie that I hated more was “The Passion of the Christ.” And I was going to compare how in both cases, people who were not experts on their subject took advantage of their fame and financial backing in order to poorly redefine the conversation on an important subject. But whereas when I saw “Passion: I found it worse than its detractors claimed, I cannot say the same for “Waiting for ‘Superman'”.  Well-informed educators should see the movie (ideally without paying for it), and come to their own conclusions about it. However, the film is a very dangerous thing for those who are not on the front lines — it is largely myopic and uncritical, presenting a two-thirds distorted view of public education.

What “Superman” Gets Right

  • The film asks the right questions, and it gets two key answers correct: great teachers are what makes a difference, and all students can learn regardless of their background. If I had to pick a litmus test for new teachers, these two beliefs would be it.
  • The most pleasant surprise in the film was it’s critique of so-called “good” suburban schools. “Superman” correctly points out that these schools only look good because of the top 25 percent of students who are tracked into honors and AP courses. Many, if not most, suburban schools are not adding any value to the students they serve, but merely passing them along on the path they were already on. I will write a full post soon talking about my experiences in these schools.
  • It points out that only 1 in 5 charter schools gets great results.
  • It gives an excellent analysis of how schools are setup to do the job they were designed to do 50 years ago, when only 20% of the population went to college, and only 40 percent went into skilled jobs. It is correct that we need to redesign schools for the 21st century.

What Superman Gets Wrong Because of Myopic Ignorance

  • The single worst part of the film is unfortunately its only real depiction of what teaching actually is. In a cutely animated piece that begins with a voice-over saying, “Teaching should be simple,'” we see a teacher literally popping open the heads of her students and pouring an alphabet soup of knowledge into their brains. At best, this is a problematic depiction of what teachers do. At worst, this is a depiction of bad teaching — what Paulo Friere famously called the “banking” model of education — and is exactly the problem with many teachers. Most people in the public do not understand the complexity of what teachers do in their classrooms and how modern research has disproven this notion of education, and the film unfortunately just reinforced misconceptions.
  • Similarly, the movie says that the difference between good and bad teachers is that good teachers will cover 150 percent of the curriculum, and bad teacher will only cover 50 percent. My education professor at Brown University, Bil Johnson, referred to coverage as the “disease model of education,” where we expose students to the curriculum and hope they catch it. What this piece of data actually communicated was the difference in student learning, not the difference in what teachers did. Student learning is what matters, not what teachers “cover.”
  • It reinforces the “good ol’ days” myth that things were fine in education up until the 1970s. That’s not true on two levels. First, there has been a “crisis” in public education in America roughly once a decade for 100 years. And what changed in the 1970’s wasn’t schools, but rather the civil rights movement forced America to pay attention to all its children for the first time.
  • The film says absolutely nothing about the problems of rural schools, which are very different from those of urban schools.

What Is Clearly Manipulative Propaganda

  • The film is intentionally misleading on tenure. Tenure does not, as the film claims, guarantee a job for life. Tenure is simply a guarantee of due process. Also, at least in New York, tenure is not in the teaching contract, but is state law that can be changed at any time without the permission of the teacher’s union.
  • The film gives a one-sided, demonizing view of teachers unions. The director has publicly denied an anti-union agenda, but this article from The Nation does a far better job dealing with that issue than I ever could.
  • It claims that 25 years ago we didn’t know what worked in urban schools, and that people like a Michelle Rhee, Geoffrey Canada, and the founders of KIPP have figured it out. The film is wrong. Schools founded by educators such as Ted Sizer, Deborah Meier, and Dennis Litsky over the past 30 years have successfully educated urban students using very different pedagogy from KIPP schools and their imitators. Progressive city schools like East Side Community School, Vanguard, and The Urban Academy have been successfully educating high-need urban students for a long time, but without the resources and public attention of the new charter schools.
  • The movie claims that great teachers make a difference. But not a single teacher is interviewed, and only very brief moments of good teachers’ classrooms are shown.
  • The movie says nothing about the fact that most charter schools have more resources, fewer students with severe special education needs, fewer English language learners, and that they can kick students out, unlike public schools.
  • Most significantly, it uses five children to make an implicit argument that the only hope for urban children of color or suburban children who test poorly is to get into a charter school. It sets up a situation where the climax of the film is the school lottery that will determine whether the students have a future. This is horribly wrong on two accounts. First, even the so-called “dropout factories” still do graduate a portion of their students, and these students are the ones who are motivated and have parental support at home, students just like the ones in the film whose parents take the time to research and enter charter school lotteries. I would bet a lot of money that all the children featured in the film are going to do just fine with a public school education. But more importantly, the film refuses to show good, urban public schools like the one I teach in that are being successful with more challenging populations than most charter schools. For someone who doesn’t know any better, and I’m beginning to fear this group most importantly includes the young teachers in charter schools, the only logical conclusions to make from the film is that only charter schools can educate poor urban children. The film could have made its core points with two students on the path to a successful traditional public school, but chose not to in what can only be interpreted as an attack on all traditional public schools, even those of us who are outperforming the vast majority of charters.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.