Feel-Bad Movie of the Year: “Waiting for ‘Superman'”

Answering a question that has not only been asked many times but also endlessly answered, the new film “Waiting for ‘Superman'” was given a pre-opening screening on Sept. 22 at the University of Chicago. Billed as a “provocative and cogent examination of the crisis in public education in the United States” it turned out to be yet another look at how bad the American education system (at least the one serving primarily poor non-whites) is. For all its high production values and solid pedigree (it’s directed by David Guggenheim, who directed “An Inconvenient Truth“), the film brings nothing new to the discussion of educational quality, nor does it point to anything but idiosyncratic fixes (like charter schools, which in themselves are controversial). In refusing to take on the system of public education as a whole, the film becomes an unfortunate dissipation of time and talent.

Using the fuzzy bunny method of documentary, the film selects five impossibly photogenic grade schoolers to follow through the broken system. Each one has a parent or two (nearly all mothers) who are determined to see them succeed. Each one is subjected to various indignities of public school–careless or unresponsive teachers, the prospect of attending massive “dropout factories,” and similar. It’s impossible not to like the kids and their parents, who are trying to do right by their children. In this way, we are lured into rooting for them rather than focusing on the realities of a system; we’re asked to feel, not think.

Early in the film there’s some hope it will be different from all the critiques of public education before it. A narrator, presumably the director, tells us how guilty he feels driving by three public schools to take his child to a private school. Perhaps we’ll explore ways to improve public schools so the public/private dichotomy won’t be so drastic. Perhaps everyone who can afford to send their children to private school will decide to pony up the dough to support public schools. If we’re really lucky, perhaps some communities have really made a difference on their own or created an environment where quality and support for students’ educations can thrive.

But no: We’re treated to shot after shot of hulking school buildings (“dropout factories”) and talking heads lamenting the futures of the children who attend them. Although the film was introduced (in person) as not being “anti-union” we see tenured, unionized teachers, individually and collectively, stalling “reform” and clinging to their jobs despite their supposed incompetence. Michelle Rhee, the current superintendent of Washington DC schools, is portrayed as a fearless reformer jousting with the unions, despite her near total lack of teaching experience or ability to work well with others. The stories are about how our bunnies are being failed by public schools.

Nor was it billed as supporting charter schools, but that’s exactly what it does. It clearly presents KIPP and other charter systems as models to emulate. And when Bill Gates, a prominent charter supporter, speaks on camera, what else can we think?  Our bunnies each get a chance to attend a charter school; the narrative arc has each one entering a lottery for his or her school, which of course will require hours of travel to get there, extensive sacrifice on the part of the parent(s) and so on. Their alternatives are presented as lifeboats for them to climb into, but like the Titanic’s there aren’t enough of them, so they have to hope their numbers are called. In the last 15 minutes we get a reality-TV-like look at how the lotteries go for each bunny; people at the screening actually gasped with delight or sighed with disappointment when one or the other was chosen or not.

I want to be clear: Public schools do need work, plenty of it. I fell for the bunnies and their parents, too. I think charter schools do some exceptional things, and I am highly suspicious of teachers’ unions, although I don’t know much more than what I read about them since I’ve always taught in private schools. And I think it’s criminal that children have to enter lotteries to decide who will be “saved.” What’s unfortunate about “Waiting for ‘Superman'” is that it fails to do anything but flagellate its audience with the “public schools are terrible” message. Not only is this not news, it’s been the subject of countless books, reports, and other documentaries over the years. Instead of setting the stage and offering constructive ways to challenge and repair the system, the film chooses the easy way out, suggesting that alternatives for the lucky (charters) or blessings from benevolent billionaires will be our answers.

Diane Ravitch, a longtime supporter of the charter school movement and critic of public schools, has recently done a 180, suggesting that we need to engage with the public school system rather than abandon it to get American education back on track. In her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, she recognizes that there are many ways to improve and shows that the “successes” of charters can often be explained by circumstances other than the schools’ programs. She says that, among other things, offering curricula that actually engage students’ imaginations and attention would be a good start. Over-reliance on testing and data needs to be reined in so we can see the actual person we’re working with. Whether or not one buys her arguments, her emphasis on re-engaging with American education as a whole at least faces the issue head on.

“Waiting for ‘Superman'” implies that since a savior isn’t coming, we might as well abandon the whole shared enterprise of public education. The charismatic educator Geoffrey Canada appears many times in the film; his clear passion for the topic and his story about how disappointed he was as a child that Superman was never going to show up to save his neighborhood aren’t enough to take us to the next level. It seems as though he may reveal some great plan later in the film but, alas, all we have is his disappointment; Superman is indeed not going to show up.

The one moment when this film might have turned into something genuinely constructive comes and goes without elaboration. A shot of a huge, decrepit school building is coupled with a comment about how schools like this might have been fine for a 19th century system. Here’s the real revelation: Students are still being warehoused in buildings that even look like factories, with as many as 40 in a classroom, a relic of a time when efficiency, not individuals’ educations, was the goal. What charters get right is the idea that students learn best in smaller classes with smart, attentive, energetic teachers. They shouldn’t be being processed like sausages. But no sooner is the idea raised than it’s dropped; there’s no suggestion that perhaps 19th or even 20th century models of education should be totally overhauled for the 21st.

As a result, “Waiting for ‘Superman'” isn’t just yesterday’s news, ahistorical and adrift, it’s also cowardly and disingenuous: It seems to take on a big and critical topic but settles for sentimentality. It pretends to be bold while offering nothing truly constructive to address the problems it illustrates or the systemic failures that allow them to continue. Failing even to support its “solutions” fully, it becomes simply another entry in the “feel-bad” genre of educational reform, never rising to the level of true engagement with its subject.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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2 Responses to Feel-Bad Movie of the Year: “Waiting for ‘Superman'”

  1. convo_girl says:

    I enjoyed reading your article about “Superman.” Although I have no kids, I have become increasingly concerned about DC’s education reform effort as someone involved in public policy. Mass firings and tough love just are not cutting for me. I look forward to future postings from you and others, like Diane Ravitch.

    Thanks.

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  2. Terrific analysis. It’s terrible how we’ve let our real desire to try new things in education and set up laboratories in the form of charter schools get tangled up with the commercial take-over of public education by organizations driven by the profit motive.

    Free-market capitalism is NOT the solution for all social problems, especially medical care and education.

    Read my note about Diane Ravitch’s book here: http://bit.ly/clw3EV

    Like

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