Kryptonite (or "The Problem With Waiting For Superman, From Someone Who Hasn't Seen It")

I haven't seen Waiting for Superman, the new documentary from Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim, though several friends have recommended it. I was a little worried by what I'd read about the movie and its presentation of the plight of US education... This article by Rick Ayers goes point by point through the flaws in the premises of the film, regrettably confirming my fears.

"No Child Left Behind" was an abominable failure. I'm not sure "Race to the Top" is all that better. "Business models" are "market forces" are cynical and scary solutions to our problems with education. Competition and bribery schemes have no place in the classroom.

As Ayers writes:
Reform must be guided by community empowerment and strong evidence, not by ideological warriors or romanticized images of leaders acting like they’re doing something, anything. Waiting for Superman has ignored deep historical and systemic problems in education such as segregation, property-tax based funding formulas, centralized textbook production, lack of local autonomy and shared governance, de-professionalization, inadequate special education supports, differential discipline patterns, and the list goes on and on.

This article from The Huffington Post is also worth a read before you give your $11 to a misguided cause, more about fear-mongering rhetoric than informed engagement with teachers and students...
The real crisis in American education isn't teachers' unions preventing incompetent teachers from getting fired (as awful as that may be), it's the single-minded focus on standardized test scores that underlies everything from Bush's No Child Left Behind to Obama's Race to the Top to the charter schools lionized in the film. Real education is about genuine understanding and the ability to figure things out on your own; not about making sure every 7th grader has memorized all the facts some bureaucrats have put in the 7th grade curriculum...

The film has other flaws. It insists all of America's problems would be solved if only poor kids would memorize more: Pittsburgh is falling apart not because of deindustrialization, but because its schools are filled with bad teachers. American inequality isn't caused by decades of Reaganite tax cuts and deregulation, but because of too many failing schools. Our trade deficit isn't a result of structural economic factors but simply because Chinese kids get a better education. Make no mistake, I desperately want every kid to go to a school they love, but it seems far-fetched to claim this would solve all our country's other problems. At the end of the day, we have an economy that works for the rich by cheating the poor and unequal schools are the result of that, not the cause.

Thoughts? Has anyone seen the movie? Are these criticisms apropos?

Our friend Jason Livingston points to another new film tackling education as a better alternative to Waiting for Superman. Chekhov for Children by Sasha Waters-Freyer "tells the inspiring story of an ambitious undertaking – the 1979 staging on Broadway of Uncle Vanya by New York City 5th & 6th graders, directed by the celebrated writer Phillip Lopate." (Interestingly, one movie's title—the more successful of the two—has a fictitious hero demanding futile patience like Godot; the other has one of the greatest storytellers of all time alongside the most important thing in this whole debate: children.)


WJS said…
I've followed the DCPS saga and liked Michelle Rhee before, but definitely admire the shit out of her now after seeing her attitude on screen and for having the lady-balls to shake things up in a stagnant organization.

The most glaring thing to me is that although they follow families trying to get their kids into charter schools, the film makers don't focus on the dissolution of family support as a major contributor to screwing up kids priorities. Maybe a little with one inner city kid, but parents are idiots, too, not just administrators and teachers. Overall, formalizing/standardizing education and expecting schools to do the job is counterproductive. It has to be more about discovery and you can't get that at school (or most schools at the moment). I'm not saying kids have to be ambitious, but they should be curious and have their curiosity stimulated, and that starts at home or through some other supplementary means. Part of education should be pulling back the curtain on how things work and demystifying the world. This is empowering for kids but requires a conversation rather than a teacher dictating from the head of the class. I think the teacher provides the data dump that's the basis for good students but there has to be some supplement.

I have many more opinions on the matter but don't feel like I can articulate them well in a short period of time on a Facebook wall. It's all just a positive feedback cycle of failure begetting failure begetting failure... Unmotivated parents breed kids who don't care breed teachers who don't care breed more kids who don't care breed parents who give up on their kids breed reductions in school funding breed crappier facilities and so on in an interconnected shit-storm. The charter school have their own problems like fraud, untrained teachers (I don't like Teach for America btw), yadda, yadda, and aren't sustainable by any means, but at least its a new shit-storm, not the same old one.

At any rate, I'm glad I went to St. Aloysius School (which no longer exists) and Bishop Hoban High School (which no longer exists) because they gave me a great education, but they show just how unsustainable charter schools can be (parochial schools have the same basic benefits).

* I make no claim that these thoughts are coherent or reasoned.
pak said…
Having been an educator in a public school system since the inception of No Child Left Behind, I can attest its damaging effects.Our teachers are indeed spending more time test preping than teaching and it's evident that they feel saddened by it but have little choice due to the threat of punishment on the school if test scores don't meet the government established AYP(annual yearly progess)goal. Our students no longer have electives that give them a wide breath of knowledge in areas like art,music,industial technology,consumer science, business,drama and instead must take math and reading enhancement classes which are simply test prep classes. For many students, they stay in school because of that one art teacher or woodshop teacher who made learning enjoyable. The dropout rate is climbing in many schools and no doubt it is directly tied to the ridiculus notion that a business model could be used to improve education. The reduction of electives and the pressure that high stakes testing creates for both students and teachers has taken the joy out of the educational process. From my standpoint the change that NCLB has been devastating and costly and gets worse with each passing year. From what I've read the film Waiting for Superman does a great diservice to the great teachers who entered the profession to inspire a love of learning and instead are a target for blame. I won't be going to see it. I will be passing your article on to my fellow educators. Thanks!
BJK said…
Another interesting article on the film:

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