Waiting for Superman and What We Need To Do To Fix Our Education System

Davis Guggenheim gets a lot, but not all, right in Waiting for Superman.

On this much we can all agree: the American education system is deeply flawed,  if not broken, for far too many of our nation’s children.

This crisis is critical both for the children we are failing and for our nation’s future, many state.

We can also find consensus that all parents want the best for their children and many, many of them see education as the vehicle to a better future.

Dunreith and I just finished watching Waiting For Superman, Academy Award winner Davis Guggenheim’s documentary film that highlights the education system’s many flaws and points to former Washington, DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee, Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada and Knowledge is Power Program creators Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg as providing examples of the

The movie is predicated on  several related notions.

The first one is that it is possible for all children of any class and racial background to be educated to perform at the highest level and be prepared for college.

The second is that the elements to have students attain that level of performance-high expectations, excellent teachers, a longer school day, an environment in which students are known and cared about, and a relentless emphasis on achievement-are known, and more likely to happen in charter schools than in traditional public schools.

And the third is that teachers’ unions are one of the major obstacles toward educational reform.

I’ll be frank that I bring more than a spectator’s interest to this discussion.

I worked full-time in education for 15 years, learning to teach from my former fourth grade teacher and mentor Paul Tamburello before going on to work in urban, rural, suburban and international classrooms.

During my time at Brown Middle School in Newton, Massachusetts, I served as union representative my first year in the building, and, during my final year, as the middle school representative on the union’s negotiating team.   These were powerful experiences, and ones that left me with positive memories.

Yet I can also be honest and say that there were parts of union behavior like shielding bad teachers and being resistant to open discussions of quality that were not impressive.

But to suggest that teachers’ union bear the primary responsibility for the nation’s education woes  takes a very complex set of issues and reduces it to an overly simple analysis.

There were a number of problems with the film.

To begin, the near reverential treatment of Canada, who serves as Waiting for Superman’s narrator and moral compass leads away from a critical analysis of the Harlem Children Zone’s high amount of resources and mixed performance levels.

A lengthy piece last year by City Limits, the New York magazine at which former colleague and friend Kelly Virella has worked since last year, tackled the children’s zone in extensive detail.

In a skillful bit of reporting, the piece pointed out Canada’s access to, and the zone’s benefits from, the city and nation’s civic elite who have donated generously to his cradle-to-college and beyond project.  This is important because one of the central planks of reformers is that these stellar results can be had with fewer resources than in the ordinary public schools.

Yet this is not true with the Harlem Children’s Zone.  The package also looked at the students’ results, finding them less impressive and stellar than advertised.

I want to be clear that this does not by itself negate the work of Canada, whose work I have read, who I saw speak to Pat Stanley’s eighth grade class at Brookline’s Lincoln School while working for Facing History and Ourselves, and who I have long admired.

Rather it’s a call for a less simplistic look at the issue.

Waiting For Superman has a number related challenges, many of which are articulated in a recent issue and subsequent website of Rethinking Schools, which focused its attention and pages almost entirely on the film.

Without rehashing them here, the articles in that issue made the points that the film advances a pro-charter and pro-corporate vision of education in which the sole measure of progress is test scores and the sole goal is to prepare young people to compete in the global marketplace.

Earl Shorris, who Dunreith and I heard speak at the University of Chicago last October, had a different vision of the role the humanities can play in educating poor people.  He fleshes out his ideas and experiences with the Clemente Course in Riches for the Poor.

Although I found the rhetoric in the Rethinking Schools piece a bit shrill and overblown, they are onto something there. Beyond the gross analyses of the expenditures over time that did not look either at different types of districts and the degree of local control of the money, the film displayed a disturbing lack of historical perspective.

The assertion that the United States had no competition prior to the 70s is  absurd, when one considers the Cold War that raged during the post-war period, to say nothing of the fine traditions of education in many European countries that existed before our nation existed.

The lack of historical context also applies to the people who have worked successfully with poor children of color before the creation and rise of charter schools.  Here in Chicago, Marva Collins of Westside Prep and Paul Adams of Providence St. Mel had stellar records of achievement years before charters had been created, let alone expanded to their current ranks.

Pscyhiatrist James Comer at Yale successfully implemented his holistic approach in which the child’s education truly became the purview of the entire family in the New Haven Schools before replicating it in dozens of cities across the country.

This was done in cooperation with teacher unions, but there is no reference of either Comer or the harmonious work with the unions in the film.

Although the film gives some lip service to the idea that charters are not the solution to the country’s educational problems, the message in the rest of the film was that they are the way to go.

Yet while there are exceptional examples of charter schools, so too are there many failures, as the film itself notes.

During the 15 years I worked as an educator, I got offered jobs twice by the City on  A Hill charter school.  One of the school’s precepts was that it, along with other charters, would provide examples of innovative pedagogy that somehow would get communicated to, and could serve as inspiration for, ordinary public schools.

That never happened.

Again, I want to be clear that I understand the value of the film and its effort to rouse people from complacency.  I share the urgency of the need to do something different.  I agree that there are examples of great teaching going on throughout the country in classrooms each day.

I just would like to see an end to the union-bashing and the beginning of a clear-eyed look at, and searching, vigorous and open discussion about, the intersection of resources, pedagogy, parental involvement and evaluation that helps expand kids’ horizons, gives them an appreciation of knowledge and ideas, and that prepares them to move onto college.

Our children deserve this type of education, yet far too few are getting it.

That must be changed, and unions can play a role.  But even with union “buy-in,” the road ahead will be long and steep to make substantial changes in policy.

In the meantime, get into the mix and avoid the false call of overly simple solutions.


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