Waiting for “Superman”
Waiting for “Superman” is a documentary film produced by Lesley Chilcott and directed by Davis Guggenheim. This documentary produced in 2010 analyzes the shortcomings of the American public school system by following the struggles of several students and their families to gain access into a charter school (Guggenheim, 2012). It features students from across America that has been negatively affected by the public school system. These students together with their families have numerous hardships to overcome yet show a strong determination to succeed and an attitude of never giving up (Spina, 2011). The producer says that the problem lies with the public schools and teachers and they propose that the charter schools should offer hope for the future of education. The documentary focuses on the critical topics that shape America’s education debate, while provoking thoughts among its audiences on the sustainability of the current system in the long-term, or if it even morally permissible.
According to the documentary, the current problems facing public education is not money because schools are already spending too much. Students are performing poorly because schools have incompetent teachers whose jobs are protected by powerful unions (Guggenheim, 2012). Students perform poorly because schools fail them, but they could attain higher grades if schools could conduct appraisals and fire bad teachers and compensate teachers based on merit. The only remaining hope for the future of America, especially for poor Hispanic and African-Americans, is transferred from public schools, particularly to charter schools (Ravitch, 2010). There, there exist a false belief that teachers will be caring and highly qualified; the schools will establish higher expectations and test scores will increase, making all students succeed regardless of their circumstances. The documentary reinforces a central thesis in today’s school reform discussion, the notion that performance of students solely depends on the performance of teachers. However, some argue that this proposition is false, as success of students depends various factors including socio-economic status and mental abilities.
A study conducted by Hanushek shows that quality of the teacher only account for 7.5 to 10 percent of student test score achievements (Spina, 2011). Several similar studies have also reported similar results, but the relative consensus is that teachers statistically account for 10-20 percent of performance outcome (Spina, 2011). Even though a teacher play a significant role in knowledge acquisition, some body of research indicate that other factors outside the school matter even more than teachers. Dan Goldhaber, an economist at the University of Washington points that about 60 percent of academic performance is attributed to factors outside the school environment, such as, family income (Spina, 2011). It is implying that while teachers are the most important factor within schools, their contribution depends on students’ families, background, and other factors beyond the control of teachers and schools (Whitehurst & Croft, 2010). While it is true that the contribution of a teacher has a significant effect on students, it is pretentious to assert that teachers alone can correct the damages resulting from poverty and its associated outcomes.
It is good to consider what does work well for students. Despite the success of schools in Waiting for Superman, charter schools, judged as a whole, do not perform better than public schools and often perform worse. Guggenheim interviews with Erick Hanushek who cites research showing that quality of teaching is the most important in achieving higher test scores. Guggenheim only presents snippets of teachers at work. For that reason, you have to look for his previous film, in which teachers deal with disruptive students, intervene in family situations, and struggle to ensure their schools meet their obligations. For these teachers, there is no boundary between school time and personal time.
The movie purports that school allows choice and better educational innovation (Guggenheim, 2012). Charter schools were first proposed by the teachers’ union to enable committed parents and teachers develop schools free from of administrative bureaucracy and open to innovation and experiment, and some excellent charters have set examples. However, majority have failed because of their incompetence. While schools require better standards for success, even by their own standards, the project has miserably failed. A recent study by the Education Report, The evaluation of charter school impacts concluded that on average, charter schools that hold lotteries are neither more nor less successful compared to public schools in improving student behavior, achievement, and school progress (Ravitch, 2010).
While the documentary malign teacher unions, there is no mention of charter profiteering or corruption. A recent national study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that only 17 percent of charter schools report better test scores than traditional public schools. They also found that 46 percent made similar achievements to their public counterparts and 37 percent significantly performed worse. Some charter schools, especially those initiated by communities and led by teachers do some fantastic education. However, advocating for charter as a source of gain for those who would outsource and privatize education in the name of “reform” is sheer political opportunism.
The movie focuses on the success of charter schools as evidenced in the form of test scores that tout in austere contrast to that of their public counterparts. The documentary asserts that because charter schools do not join unions, they can fire bad teachers and recruit good teachers. In addition, the teachers work longer hours, thus imparting more knowledge to students, resulting in higher test scores. Therefore, charter schools provide the answer to solving education’s woes because they can fire bad teachers and ensure good teachers work more. The movie categorically places blame on the teachers while failing to consider other explanations for “failing schools.” They have not considered the plight of students with special needs or IEPs, English speakers of other languages, students from broken homes, students living in poverty, overcrowded classes, and excessively high- student absentee rates (CREDO, 2009). Another issue that the movie does not consider is the cultural shift that America has experienced over the recent decades through which value placed on education has diminished.
The documentary fails to show the extent and range of social services provided in the Zone to children from birth through graduation. Groundwork analysis of the performance of charter schools launched by Canada offer mixed result, finding little or no achievement or reporting significant only in specific subject areas. Consequently, while the documentary encourages viewers to focus on individual schools and heroic leaders, the truth is that the array of services provided by Canada’s Harlem Children Zone actually supports a counter argument. That school provides only one key aspect in a much larger mix of social services necessary to mitigate the impact of multi-generational poverty in some urban neighborhoods.
Regarding the question of funding, the movie fails to acknowledge the fact that Harlem Children’s Zone enjoys resources of more than $100 million in funding from a variety of sources, including the Gates Foundation (Whitehurst & Croft, 2010). Such private funding cannot help create systemic changes in all communities with underperforming schools. Guggenheim obviously understands this, but the documentary does include any call for local, state, and federal governments to increase investments in communities radically to enact such wraparound reforms. The documentary’s portrayal of Canada as someone whose charter schools provide the model for what all urban schools can achieve negates the fact that his design only argues for a change in state intervention, in poverty.
The film Waiting for Superman makes poverty both highly visibly and shockingly ignored. Guggenheim only uses poverty to advance his arguments, while forgetting about poverty as it relates to performance, therefore, failing to address poverty eradication measures as a potential solution. The film highlights the impact of economic struggle on three of the five children. Guggenheim explains in the beginning that he was a believer in public schools, but when his children became ready for school, he decided to take them to private schools instead of a “failed school.” He is lucky because of choices available to him. Meanwhile, he explains that some children are not so lucky to afford charter schools. The documentary then moves directly to an interview with an Antony, a black fifth grader in Washington D.C. who depends on his grandmother after his father died of drug-related cases. Additionally, Antony comes from a neighborhood plagued by drugs, violence, and crime.
Despite the use of poverty to evoke emotional appeal of viewers, the film does not address the systemic reach of poverty into health care, employment, and housing. It fails to acknowledge the demonstrated relationship between educational performance and financial ability and opportunity (Dobbie & Fryer, 2009). The film fails to mention the corruption in the government that fueled the recession that worsen financial hardships for these three families. Guggenheim presents public schools as the only source of struggle these families face, and the sole solution is escaping neighborhood public schools. In effect, Guggenheim explicitly places blames of “failing communities” on “failing schools.” Guggenheim does not mention the role of local, state, or national government to provide for basic amenities of citizens, nor of the local and national political, and economic, social circumstances that result into consequences suffered by families such as Antony’s family.
The absence of the study of the role of government in supporting opportunity for children and families is conceivably remarkable in the documentary’s presentation of global data comparing United States test scores with those of other developed countries. Finland offers the best exemplar in this comparison. The inherent assumption is that comparisons of test score data can be constructed accurately without attending to the context in which the scores are attained. However, the film does not explore the details of Finland’s social and education systems, which would undermine the primary assumptions on which the film is made (Sahlberg, 2011). Finland boasts of a strong teachers union, a good system of teacher education and professional development supported by the state, and a robust social welfare programs for families and children (Sahlberg, 2011). Guggenheim purports to hold adults accountable, but dismissing poverty and its impacts on children amounts to letting adults go scot free, especially those setting economic priorities at the national level (Berliner, 2009). The state has the responsibility of ensuring equal access to education for all students regardless of their social backgrounds.
Highlighting Guggenheim’s lack of deep analysis of poverty and systemic inequalities, which reach beyond schools does not mean downplaying the urgent need of improving public schools. Additionally, it does not mean underrating the role that these schools can and should play in opportunities of betrothed in cycle of economic struggle. The major weakness presented by the documentary is that it sidelines an important discussion about the kinds of resources, economic and human, required to provide education and social safety nets for all students. As mentioned in the film, large majority of children from poor families will never any of the few charter schools (Erickson, 2011). The film purports that adults should put the interest of children first in order to address the alleged destructive impact evident in the current public school system.
It is then that the dismissal of the efforts of the predominantly Africa-American parents and other residents of Washington D.C. who were against the closing of neighborhood schools as part of Michelle Rhee’s absolute agenda reforms. Dismissing the distinction among classroom teachers, parents, neighborhood residents, local politicians, and teacher unions, the documentary traverses from scenes of local meetings in which community members are shown expressing their ideas on behalf of the of their neighborhood schools to an interview with Rhee arguing that parents have ignored their responsibilities to their children. This section of the documentary exposes the missing voices. The public never sees successful neighborhood schools, and never hears from students or parents who show commitment to their neighborhood schools, members of the community with family and personal histories entrenched in these schools or public school teachers with stake in the children and families whom they serve. Doubtlessly, some teachers in inner-city schools do not have the attitude, skills, or commitment essential for effectiveness. However, schools that fail also employ committed, skilled teachers. Their viewpoint, together with those of students and adults, would have provided insights into the consequences of the top-down approach to reform.
Similarly, the documentary’s celebration of the efforts by Rhee to close 23 schools in Washington D.C. does not include the findings that show that the closing of schools can negatively affect the students the movie purports to support (de la Torre & Gwynne, 2009). For example, a study conducted in one high school closing Catsambis & Beveridge (2001) found that the test scores and graduation rates dropped significantly for those students who were displaced following the closure. In brief, Guggenheim demonizes African-American and other parents, public school teachers, community members who engage in just the neighborhood-level involvement, in their schools advocated for towards the conclusion of the film (Erickson, 2011).
The tendency of Guggenheim to over-simply issues contaminates his views on learning. From the view of educators in the audience, the film looks like an animation of a child in a class whose skull opens as a lid with a flexible joint as a teacher walks in and pours knowledge from a container into his empty brain. The intention of the message is to connote a positive, even perfect, view of learning, accompanied by a commentary arguing that the bureaucracies associated with local control of schools inhibit the ability of teachers to offer knowledge to their students. The film offers over-simplified solutions that ignore research evidence, and in many occasions based on false assumptions that undermine the need to examine the systemic inequalities and consequential policies and reforms that surround the schooling in the U.S.
Improving education would require encouraging and appreciate these teachers rather than vilifying or blaming them. Additionally, those struggling or not delivering according to the standards require support too. Supervisors should spend more time in classrooms as this would allow them to understand the cause of underperformance or failure to meet the standards. Some districts have reported that evaluators observe teachers once per semester. It is not adequate because weeding bad teachers would require administrators to spend more time in the classroom, arriving unannounced, observing the real situation, and providing factual, constructive feedback. If the work becomes too much for the administrators, the head teachers should also come in as evaluators. Many new teachers falter while those initial years and data show that many teachers quit during the first five years. They require mentors and practical, dependable, applicable support.
When watching a documentary that gives biased information and seems correct, it becomes very difficult to discern wrong from right. Waiting for Superman provides a good example of documentary that gives one-sided information that looks correct. Guggenheim’s idea that teachers are the problem and charter schools offers the solution sounds logical, but in reality, it is not true. In this case, the more truthful information is that teachers are not a problem and that charter schools are not good, as they seem. The solution to these problems would include ensuring smaller class sizes, developing community public schools for all students, and increasing the number of teachers and reducing testing. Teachers and parents also need empowerment and leadership to help them handle students and improve the quality of education. Additionally, government should ensure equitable funding for all schools and introduce anti-racist policies in handling inadequacies in the education system. Finally, the administration should introduce culturally relevant education policies and expand prekindergarten and early intervention programs.
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Catsambis, S. & Beveridge, A. (2001). Does neighborhood matter? Family, neighborhood, and school influences on eighth-grade mathematics achievement. Sociological Focus, 34, 435457.
Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) (2009, June). Multiple choice: Charter school performance in 16 states. Stanford, CA: Author. Retrieved November 2, 2010, from http://credo.stanford.edu/reports/MULTIPLE_CHOICE_CREDO.pdf.
de la Torre, M., & Gwynne, J. (2009). When schools close: Effects on displaced students in Chicago Public Schools. Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research. Retrieved January 21, 2011, from http://ccsr.uchicago.edu/publications/CCSRSchoolClosings-Final.pdf.
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Ravitch, D. (2010). The myth of charter schools. The New York Review of Books. Retrieved October 20, 2010 from http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/11/myth-charter-schools/.
Sahlberg, P. (2011). Finnish lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? New York: Teachers College Press.
Spina, T. (2011). Teachers Under Attack: How NJ Governor Chris Christie's Personal Vendetta Against Teachers Will Destroy Public Education. Bloomington, Indiana: Xlibris Corporation.
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