American public school students have fallen far behind other developed countries in basic skills: reading, math and science. In one respect, though, we’re still No. 1: American students have the most confidence in their scholastic abilities. Johnny can’t read or add, but he has boundless self-esteem. Is the glass one-third full or three-quarters empty? Would Johnny know the difference?
Davis Guggenheim’s celebrated, controversial documentary Waiting for “Superman” takes a searching look at the hard realities of American public education today. The picture is grim. There are statistics, illustrated by smart animation: 70% to 80% of students can’t function at their grade level, and while spending on education has more than doubled since the early 1970s (adjusted for inflation), math and reading scores have remained flat even as other nations have surpassed us.
At times, the filmmakers find striking ways of throwing the numbers into sharp relief: High-school dropouts are far more likely to wind up in prison, where an average four-year stint costs society more than the entire bill for educating a student from kindergarten through high school plus more than $25,000 toward college. Spending on education, the implication is, could save on prison costs in the long run.
At the same time, Waiting for “Superman” isn’t just a big-screen PowerPoint presentation like Guggenheim’s best-known docu, An Inconvenient Truth — nor are its political implications as straightforward.
Critics of Guggenheim’s politics may raise an eyebrow at some of his targets, which prominently include the teachers’ unions and the Democratic Party, which the film notes receives 90% of the teachers unions’ massive political giving, leading a commentator to describe the DNC as a “wholly owned subsidiary” of the teachers’ unions (which is revealing both as regards the political environment in public education as well as the interests of the Democratic Party on this subject).
Kids With Promise
Guggenheim personalizes the story from the beginning, exposing his own feelings of guilt and hypocrisy at driving past three public schools every day while dropping off his children at a private school. The film’s real emotional power, though, comes from the five young poster children whose stories we follow: boys and girls, mostly from poor neighborhoods with failing local schools, whose parents and guardians want something better for them.
Their stories will break your heart. These are kids with promise, but for most of them, that promise will likely be smothered in their local public schools.
Take 11-year-old Anthony, who is being raised by his grandmother in Washington, D.C., in one of the worst school districts in the country. His father is dead from a drug overdose. He never knew his mother. He has a good fifth-grade teacher, and he works hard, but the middle school that awaits him produces future high-school dropouts in alarming proportions. When Guggenheim asks him why he wants to go to college, he answers astonishingly that he wants something better for his kids than he had.
Then there’s Bianca in Harlem, a kindergartener whose single mother, Nakia, works hard to send her to Catholic school and is determined to send her to college. The monthly $500 tuition bill is a sacrifice, but it’s nonnegotiable for Nakia — until her employer cuts back her hours and her means no longer permit it. Nakia fights back tears as she relates how she pleaded with the school to allow her daughter to go to the kindergarten graduation ceremony, to no avail.
Root of the Problem
What’s the root of the problem? Are failing schools the product of failing neighborhoods? Or is it the other way around? If the children of blighted neighborhoods are the problem, then how have a few successful charter schools in poor neighborhoods bucked the odds?
What is the answer to poor teachers who are protected by powerful unions, enjoy nearly bulletproof tenure and are entitled to pay and benefits even if they go to prison? Is shuffling bad teachers around really known in different regions as “the dance of the lemons,” “the turkey trot” and “passing the trash”?
Waiting for “Superman” examines these questions and offers some answers — some convincing, others less so.
It does seem clear that the teachers’ unions and the far-reaching tenure systems they support are a significant part of the problem. The film relates how tenured teachers caught on video blatantly abusing children or reading newspapers instead of teaching were fired but ultimately had to be rehired with a year’s back pay because the firings weren’t permitted by union-negotiated contracts. Is it possible to fire a tenured teacher? Yes — if an administrator is dedicated enough to slog through all the bureaucratic hoops without missing a date on the timetable and resetting the process for the following year.
Is it full disclosure or appeal to authority if I note that two members of my immediate family belong to teachers’ unions, including my father, with whom I saw the film? The teachers’ unions are militating against the film; American Federation of Teachers’ head Randi Weingarten, who comes across in the film as something of a villain, has implied that there is little or no difference between being anti-union and anti-teacher, but the union teachers I know agree that the unions are part of the problem.
Every member of my family is or has been involved in education. My sister, like my father, is a teacher and a member of our state teachers’ union. My mother, now retired, was an education program specialist whose work involved evaluating and assisting school districts all over New Jersey. My brother taught for years in a private school. Suzanne, my wife, who home schools our children and teaches at a local home-schooling co-op, started college as an education major but found education theory ideology vacuous and dispiriting and switched to nursing in part because of health-care’s broader hard science basis.
No one I know knows New Jersey public education better than my mother — and no one was happier than she when Suz and I indicated that we wanted to home school.
Dynamic Professionals and Bitter Disappointment
Guggenheim’s heroes are dynamic education professionals who sidestep or take on the teachers’ unions, such as Geoffrey Canada, the charismatic leader behind the Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academy; David Levin and Mike Feinberg, founders of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP); and controversial D.C. school chancellor Michelle Rhee, who offered the unions major increases in merit pay in exchange for giving up tenure.
Successful charter schools, where teachers’ unions and tenure are non-issues, are the film’s great exemplar of what public education can be — and here the film gets a bit slippery. Much of the film’s drama stems around the efforts of its five families to get their children into top charter schools in their area. All five schools have more applicants than openings, and all choose students based on a lottery system: manually operated bingo cages, computer-generated random selections, and old-fashioned slips of paper. These scenes are nail-biters, and statistically we know that the luck of the draw can’t favor more than one or two of these stories.
The sight of little Anthony in a crowded auditorium looking at a slip of paper with his name and the No. 3 while a man calls out number after number that is not 3 is devastating. Late in the film comes a phone call that had me bawling in my seat.
Waiting for “Superman” acknowledges, in passing, that only about one in five charter schools is much better than normal public schools — and never mentions that more than a third of charter schools are notably worse — but the focus on successful charter schools creates the impression that charter schools have the answers.
Also overlooked are unionized public schools that are succeeding. (Out of scope entirely, and reasonably so, are topics like vouchers, private schools and home schooling; this is not a film about education in general, but about improving public education.)
“It should be simple,” Guggenheim muses at one point, “but we’ve made it complicated.”
Well, no. It’s complicated, but Guggenheim oversimplifies at times. It’s legitimate to point out how failing schools impact neighborhoods, but when affluent parents actively thwart school discipline by backing up their kids in parent-teacher confrontations, or when urban students castigate peers who want to succeed for “acting white,” there are larger social and cultural issues that can’t be laid at the feet of greedy unions, timid administrators or myopic school boards.
Can effective leaders like Canada make a difference in these situations? Maybe, but the lottery trappings obscure the extent to which even the charter school admission process can benefit from self-selection: To be entered in the lottery in the first place, students must minimally have motivated guardians and may have to meet other criteria as well; and once admitted they may be forced out if they lack the motivation that ordinary public schools have to deal with every day.
The film’s title was inspired by an anecdote from Canada’s childhood. As a young boy in the South Bronx, Canada idolized the Man of Steel, a powerful figure who swooped down to save people in trouble. Young Geoff took it hard when his mother broke the news that Superman isn’t real; his world suddenly seemed a much bleaker, less hopeful place, one where no one with power was coming to save people in trouble.
Waiting for “Superman” offers an eye-opening look at just how bad our problems are, while at the same time seeking to rekindle hope that seemingly intractable problems can be addressed if we are all willing to be Superman.
Content Advisory: A few bad words.