IN THE last few minutes of Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman, the camera flips among five different families from an array of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds waiting anxiously to find out if they have the winning lottery ticket. The prize is a seat for their children in a high-performing local charter school, an alternative to the failing neighborhood public schools into which their children would ordinarily be zoned. As each winning number is drawn and announced, the camera pans the faces in the audience—to the lucky families screaming ecstatically and embracing, and to the unlucky families, who grip their tickets ever more tightly as a counter at the bottom of the screen shows the number of remaining slots racing backwards toward zero. While this imagery makes for dramatic storytelling, it does nothing to lend credibility to Guggenheim’s agitprop film about “the state of public education in the U.S. and how it is affecting our children.”
The film opens with the wildly charismatic activist and educator Geoffrey Canada recounting the story of his devastation upon finding out that Superman wasn’t real. Growing up in the South Bronx, Canada was surrounded by poverty; he thought Superman was “the only one with the power to save us.” Canada went on to teach in Harlem. As an idealistic first-year teacher in his twenties, he believed he could turn the entire educational system around in two years. Ultimately, he went on to found Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a successful community-based organization comprised of pre-K-12 charter schools and programs that provide instruction in parenting, nutrition, literacy, and role-modeling to families in a 100-square block area of Harlem.
Though, interestingly, HCZ schools are not among those whose lotteries are entered by the families in Waiting for Superman, Canada (and evidently the filmmakers) see HCZ’s network as something of a panacea for the ills that plague American classrooms. It exemplifies the movie’s three tenets of successful schools: “longer hours, great teachers, and higher expectations.”
The second of these tenets is the chief focus of the film. Though it purports to be a documentary, Waiting for Superman in fact bears more resemblance to propaganda in its one-track exploration of the issues plaguing American public schools in the twenty-first century. It provides a superficial overview of a couple of dysfunctional aspects of schooling—for instance, the antediluvian economic system upon which it claims our schools are based, where only the top 10 percent of students will go on to “white collar” jobs, while the other 90 percent will either learn a trade or unskilled labor. But the bulk of the film covers what Guggenheim and his ilk clearly see as the foremost problem: bad teachers.
According to the filmmakers and former D.C. schools superintendent Michelle Rhee (who the film portrays as the lone crusading reformer in a fight against the nefarious American Federation of Teachers and its evil overlord, Randi Weingarten), teacher tenure is an outdated and malignant system designed to keep bad teachers in schools at the expense of kids’ education. Only one in 2500 teachers ever loses his or her license, according to one of the cutesy stick-figure cartoons that pop up in the film whenever Guggenheim wants to provide a statistic but fears boring his audience. (This is compared to one in every fifty doctors.) The movie emphasizes that a year in elementary school with a bad teacher can cause insurmountable losses; the students left behind end up attending failing neighborhood high schools, which the film terms “drop-out factories.” Generations of students attend these high schools, leave without earning their diplomas, and remain in town for the rest of their lives. This, according to Waiting for Superman, causes a cycle in which a community’s poverty is perpetuated by the failure of its local schools—rather than the failing schools being a symptom of economic downturn, as one might think.
Guggenheim then takes great pains to emphasize that, in public schools of poor urban areas such as Harlem or South Central LA, the teaching is of a lower caliber, making charter schools the only option for obtaining a good education. One of the families followed throughout the film is a mother-son duo living the South Bronx. The college-educated mom is trying to get six-year-old Francisco out of the local public schools and into a high-performing charter school. Francisco has “not had the greatest teachers,” mom says in her interview, a comment that transparently forces a tenuous connection between schools in poor neighborhoods and lousy pedagogy. Later on, mom is shown asking Francisco to tell his teacher to call her, or to send home a class-work folder so that she can check on Francisco’s progress. Francisco’s teacher never responds—at least not on camera. Waiting for Superman’s website charitably describes Francisco’s teacher as “overworked,” though in the film itself the overwhelming implication is that the teacher is simply unresponsive—yet more evidence of the low quality of education in these schools.
Inarguably, there are unresponsive and unsuccessful teachers in the system who are protected by their unions, and thus kept in the classroom despite their demonstrable incompetence. (At one point, a video is shown of a teacher reading a newspaper in class, oblivious to the students talking, rough-housing, and even gambling around him. It is a scene of criminal negligence that I, as a teacher on the New York City Board of Education for over seven years, have unfortunately seen first-hand more than once.) Though his sweeping generalizations about teachers in high-needs schools are unfair and misleading, Guggenheim is not incorrect in vilifying lousy educators and criticizing the protection they receive from the unions. Moreover, there are inherent downsides to a system in which all workers, regardless of skill-level, are paid equally and given the same job security. Although offering monetary incentives specifically for improving standardized test scores—a policy some educational districts are now enacting, to much controversy—is problematic, providing no external motivation for professional improvement can allow employees who aren’t spurred by the promise of psychic rewards to stagnate.
But it is unreasonable to say that teacher tenure is the sole cause of failing schools. The problem with Waiting for Superman is that, after spending the first third of the film bemoaning the sorry state of education (and providing the relevant stick-figure statistics), the film examines no cause of the crisis except for poor teachers and the unions that back them. Other factors, such as the lack of funding available to inner-city schools for up-to-date textbooks and technology, or more significantly, the epidemic absence of parental support that plagues the “drop-out factories” that the film derides, are never even mentioned. In fact, the families that Guggenheim follows (all but one of whom live in poor, urban areas) are deeply concerned with their children’s schooling and go to herculean lengths to afford them the best educational opportunities possible. From the point of view of an inner-city high school teacher whose parent-teacher nights have an attendance rate of approximately 25 percent, such involved parents are a dream come true, and a rare breed. By exclusively showing parents who are both knowledgeable and invested in their children’s education, Guggenheim obscures an unfortunate, if uncomfortable, reality of the situation.
Furthermore, the film never offers any real solutions to the problems it raises, other than suggesting that more teachers be fired. The “longer hours, great teachers, higher expectations” motto is thrown haphazardly into the closing credits, as though the filmmakers realized belatedly that they had forgotten to offer any suggestions for reform and wanted a quick fix. As a teacher in a school that Guggenheim would likely term a “drop-out factory,” I would liken their approach to that of my students who, upon realizing that they’ve forgotten to do their homework the period before it’s due, rush to complete it by the next class, producing shoddy results that demonstrate only superficial mastery of the material.
The film never examines any of the successful education reform that has already taken place in America or abroad, and never concretely explains what a great public school would look like. Instead, it presents charter schools as the only viable alternative to public school education. And in doing this, Guggenheim ignores yet another set of uncomfortable realities: that charter schools are, on the aggregate, no more successful than public schools (and often less so), that parents who enter charter school lotteries are more savvy about the system and proactive about their kids’ education than your average parent in a failing public school, that many successful charter school programs (HCZ’s, for instance) are so costly that they cannot be replicated on the national scale, and that charter schools have the right to choose not only their teachers, but their students. They aren’t subject to the same quotas of kids with behavioral problems, kids with profound special needs, or kids who need serious remediation in the English language, for which public schools are held accountable.
Toward the end of the film, the parents and children who do not win the charter school lotteries are all shown in tears, holding each other and wiping their eyes as they make their way home empty-handed. These last scenes are particularly manipulative, and not only because they demonstrate Guggenheim’s shameless exploitation of these families’ disappointment. Equally unsettling is the lack of agency that Guggenheim and his peers ascribe to the very students (and parents) whose ambition, passion, and intelligence are trumpeted throughout the film. Their fates are sealed, the film suggests; because they didn’t get into charter schools, these kids are doomed to suffer through an assembly line of terrible teachers, to fail their classes, and to drop out before college. While one cannot overemphasize the difficulties of attending a struggling school in a poor area, one also cannot understate the importance of the hard work and determination that these kids and their families have already shown, and will doubtless continue to show. It is not only condescending and myopic, but flies in the face of the “high expectations” mentioned at the film’s end, suggesting that Guggenheim needs to practice what he preaches.
Ilana Garon is a ninth through twelfth grade English teacher in the New York City public school system. Her last article for Dissent was on vocational schools.
Homepage image: Wikimedia Commons/2007