Monday, January 10, 2011

The Terrifying Travesty That is Waiting for Superman: After (Film Review) by Alison Ross

When I first started hearing about the education documentary, Waiting for Superman, I told myself and my friends in very vehement tones that I would not be seeing the film. I did not want to financially or spiritually endorse it in any way. And so originally, I was going to write an anti-review of the film - a review that basically conceded to my refusal to watch it while lambasting it anyway. But then I decided to just do the honest thing: to watch the movie so I could write a real review about it, and also to see if perhaps I would be pleasantly surprised by what's in the film since my preconceptions are already so sharply defined. Anyway, my compromise with myself is this before and after review. This is the after:

So I finally saw Waiting For Superman. It's hard to know how to critique it, actually, because it's so riddled with fallacious ideas and simplistic conclusions.

The movie is just scandalously bad. It perpetuates the pernicious myths that most teachers are lazy and incompetent, and that unions only exist to promote mediocrity. The film is very demoralizing toward educators and those who advocate for them.

It egregiously ignores a lot of information in service to its malevolent agenda, one that aims toward dismantling public schools and turning them into corporate charter schools. Furthermore, the film does nothing to deconstruct an economic system that allows poverty to begin with, and it shockingly upholds DC School Superintendent Michelle Rhea's vicious approach toward "dealing" with failing schools.

This film is very naive at best, and at worst, malicious. Maybe maliciously naive? I cannot fathom that the director has ever identified himself as a "liberal" as he says he has. He has made what is tantamount to a very right-wing, fascist film. It's extremely disconcerting to think that millions of gullible people are being hoodwinked by this film's misanthropic message. Hell, even I might have been persuaded by this film in my pre-educator years.

I am going to attempt to eschew my usual vitriol as I dissect everything that is wrong with this film. But I am sure I will lapse back into that mode from time to time. Anyway, what follows are bullet point counter-arguments to Waiting for Superman:

*My first feeling as I watched the movie unfold was that it is very anti-teacher. Instead of wondering why so many teachers burn out, director Davis Guggenheim just assumes that the bad ones are merely complacent, no-good societal leeches. And yet, if he probed deeper, he'd have found there is a real reason for burn out - often school conditions are so distressingly bad, owing to the extreme poverty of many of the children and the subsequent helplessness among administrators and teachers as to how to deal with it.

The stress of teaching is staggering for educators even under the best circumstances; and when a school and its classrooms are populated with mainly poor kids, the stress multiplies a thousandfold, because the teaching becomes that much more challenging. And Guggenheim fails to focus at ALL on the many stellar teachers, as well as the merely "good" ones that deliver a solid education in spite of titanic obstacles. This is a very cynically misleading approach. Most teachers I have worked with care deeply for their students and work hard to educate them in the best way they can.

*The movie is very anti-union. It skewers the AFT President in a disgustingly cheap fashion. Because unions are against merit pay, a terrible idea that should never have seen the light of day, Guggenheim accuses unions of promoting and maintaining mediocrity. And yet, unions and education associations actually help create much more tolerable conditions for teachers AND students, as they advocate for a living wage, and for legal protections against unfair treatment - something that is pervasive in public schools.

When teachers are paid well and feel appreciated in their schools, their teaching is naturally more effective, and their students thrive. Merit pay is a pessimistic polarizing scheme that ends up rewarding teachers in schools where the students naturally perform well and punishing those in bad schools where the students are crippled by circumstance.

*Guggenheim seems to be infatuated with DC School Superintendent Michelle Rhea. Throughout the film he extols her vicious closing of schools in the DC area. She would rather divisively shutter schools than push for authentic reforms WITHIN the schools. She doesn't really care about education; she cares about advancing her charter school agenda. Which takes me to my next point:

*The movie supports a very pro-charter school stance; in fact, the thrust of the movie is to promote charter schools, as we come to learn. Charter schools are lottery-based and run by corporations. They are dissimilar to private schools in that they are government-funded and yet run for profit. Profit should NEVER be an incentive in education. EVER. In fact, in public schools some corporations already have their tentacles slithering through the hallways in the guise of vending machines, standardized tests, and so on. If you think that for-profit motives in schools don't taint the curriculum and the general operation of schools, think again.

In conclusion (and it's a lengthy one):

Charter schools are NOT the panacea for failing schools... indeed they are detrimental to education in so many ways. They suck money from taxpayers and put those funds right into corporate coffers instead of into strengthening schools and neighborhoods. And yet Guggenheim's movie is pure propaganda for charter schools. In the film he features Bill Gates, a shameless purveyor of charter schools. Don't even get me started on pathetic pseudo-philanthropist Gates. Not only does his MS OS suck so much you can actually hear it slurping every time you use it, but he is the slimy symbol of corporate rapaciousness. He sets up charities that do some good, yes, but he neglects to discern that his and other corporate exec's hoarding of money is the entire reason that charities are "needed."

Furthermore, as former Assistant Secretary to Education Diane Ravitch says in her brilliant article about the movie, Guggenheim has conveniently ignored many of the phenomenal FAILURES of Charter Schools. They are far from being the utopian educational remedy that Guggenheim purports them to be.

To illustrate:

*There are many charter schools that statistically fare WORSE on test scores than their public school peers.

*There have been charter schools embroiled in all sorts of ethical controversies, including but not limited to: leader involvement in shady real estate deals, leaders indicted for embezzlement, leaders being paid nearly half a million dollars, some schools taking on religious dogma, and so on.

*Charter schools notoriously avoid students who will bring down test scores, and have been known to kick out low-performing students

*Geoffrey Canada's Charter Schools, featured in idealistic presentation in Waiting for Superman, do not do as well as reported by Guggenheim. In 2010 alone, 60 percent of fourth-graders in one of his schools were not reading-proficient, and 50 percent were not proficient in another.

Guggenheim excluded ALL of this information in a cynical attempt to manipulate his audience members who are not likely to do deeper research, and have been well-trained by our superficial society to take things at face value.

On top of that, charter schools are lottery-based. The movie shows how disgustingly exploitive this idea is without rendering any such derogatory judgement. But how could you not, when you see families waiting in huge masses for their lottery number to be called, only to be PUBLICLY SHAMED when their kid doesn't make the cut? How crassly abusive is this to do to families and their KIDS? And this is supposed to be the "solution" to an ailing system? It just further proves how wrong the profit incentive is concerning schools.

Davis Guggenheim needs to spend a year teaching in a public school in a poor district, and then a year teaching in a wealthy district. He would be appalled to see the differences in how teachers are treated and amazed to see the differences in how the students behave and how they perform.

And then he needs to devote at least 10 years of his life to teaching anywhere to understand that even in the "best" circumstances, the education of kids is extremely challenging to manage when you have fascist forces constantly imposing their will on testing, curriculum, and so on, inhibiting solid teaching practices, and causing rampant teacher burnout. And this is true in ALL districts - rich, poor, middle class, or mixed income.

And he needs to do so to understand too, that poverty is the problem with failing schools, not teachers. Statistically speaking, schools that "fail" are in poor districts, while schools that "succeed" are in more economically stable ones. It's not that the poor cannot be taught - they can - it's that they have nearly insurmountable hindrances to overcome in achieving what their wealthier peers can achieve more fluidly. It's our economic system that is at fault for creating a mass poor class that struggles in excrutiacing fashion, and yet does Guggenheim delve into that topic at ALL? I think by now you know the answer to that.

(I use "fail" and "succeed" in quotations because the typical academic measurements for failure and success are themselves deeply suspect. We measure according to standardized test results, a floundering measurement system if there ever was one. I would say that "failing" schools "succeed" in many intangible ways - in further honing students' reading comprehension, in further embedding mathematical skills, in further cultivating critical thinking aptitude, in further developing creativity, and so on. But these advances are not registered on tests and therefore not in the societal psyche. And yet the teachers know them all too well, and celebrate them. There are many successes every day in "failing" schools.)

The problem in education is not TEACHERS and UNIONS, flawed though some teachers may be, and flawed though some union and association practices may be. The problem is the rigid politicization of education, and Guggenheim is deliberately and ominously playing right into that mentality, and exacerbating the malevolent anti-teacher mindset that has so poisoned our culture.

Davis Guggenheim is a villain in his own film. The superheroes are the educators who triumph against enormous odds and the students, who persevere despite a society that has all but discarded them.

P.S. Finland has an exemplary educational system that I may be profiling in a later issue. AND get this: Finland's teachers are UNIONIZED, PAID WELL, and the schools do NOT emphasis standardized testing. Additionally, Finland has five percent child poverty contrasted with twenty percent in the United States. And yet Waiting For Superman, which mentions the paradigmatic Finnish system, once again FAILS to be up front about these aspects. YOU ARE BEING LIED TO EVERY STEP OF THE WAY BY DAVIS GUGGENHEIM!


Anonymous said...

I had never even heard of this film, prior to reading your review, but I find it offensive that a so-called liberal would suggest that exclusive schools for those who can afford them is the answer to school failures. We all know that lack of funding is the biggest problem schools face, don't we? If you can't afford to provide things like books, how can you expect students to learn? And if you can't even afford books, then you certainly can't afford the "extras" that wealthier districts get: art, music, sports programs and more. Like you said, it's a no-brainer. I wonder: Is Guggenheim a product of a charter school?

Clockwise Cat said...

Good question. He probably is a product of charter schools. Either way, he's an asshole. That film makes my skin crawl. Thanks for your comment!