Monday, January 10, 2011

The Terrifying Travesty That is Waiting for Superman: Before (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, but that lambasted 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 before:

I already know that I am going to be outraged and disgusted by "Waiting for Superman" I am a teacher with Very Adamant Views about public education and what's right and wrong with it. I have taught for nearly 9 years in the public school system, and during my tenure I have seen amazing things, and awful things. And I know exactly how to fix the terrible things, and exactly how to preserve the great things. Indeed, my ideas are so staggerinly elementary it would embarass the asshole director, David Guggenheim, with his privileged condescension toward those less fortunate and his "the private school paradigm is the panacea" philosophy. I am going to hate this movie even more than I hated Requiem for a Dream, one of the worst movies ever made. I am going to revile this movie with every fiber of my being because I cannot countenance misguided moneyed morons with their pseudo-philosophizing and shamelessly vacuous theories about public education.

The impetus behind such vicious vitriol is that I have taught at three schools, two of them catering to mostly underprivileged students, and one catering to a mostly upper caste population. You see, in schools, economics is everything. America's economic system is predicated on class hierarchies, however you slice it - capitalism thrives on inequities. Inequities, indeed, are the very lifeblood of capitalism.

So naturally when you have economic inequities, you are going to have kids who suffer academically. It's very difficult and at times impossible to instruct a kid (let alone 20-30 of them) who is hungry for lack of food, stressed for lack of money, unhappy for lack of parental guidance because the parent is working two and three jobs just to pay the exorbitant unregulated rent and put overpriced food on the table.

Not to mention, of course, those kids whose parents are crack addicts because their lives are so miserable in an outrageously unjust society, or the kids themselves cycle in and out of jail because of the dearth of money, food, and proper role modeling at home.

So yeah. That's like, the freaking key to why so many schools "fail" - because there are so many poor kids in America (PERCENTAGE). It's not because teachers are not doing their jobs or because there needs to be more teacher accountability, or because schools don't know how to implement curriculum or administer discipline. It is so ridiculously hollow to attribute the culpability of "failing schools" on these things, as though EVERY teacher is a drooling sub-moron. Most teachers I have worked with have been shimmering examples of pedagogy in the face of nearly insurmountable odds.

Based on things I have read about this movie, the director is more concerned with pinning the blame on schools and teachers, rather than on societal ailments. I have read that he takes teacher unions to task for o"bstructing progress" and is too soft on the government's role in irreparably harming schools with their muddled, punitive programs.

Excuse me, but unions HELP teachers be more effective for their students by advocating for better teaching conditions. Unions are imperfect entities, to be sure, but their existence is essential to the smooth functioning of schools and classrooms. Most kindergarteners could understand this concept if you explained it to them in simple terms, because they are intuitively cognizant of how an impartial mediator helps to settle "battles." But yet the director, an apparent "adult," willfully fails to discern that unions do not obstruct progress, but rather facilitate it. What obstructs progress is the anti-union, authoritarian mentality so rampant in our culture. What obstructs progress is idea that unions obstruct progress.

Of course, something else that dreadfully obstructs progress in education is the fact that schools are woefully underfunded because your average Americans have been fed anti-tax propaganda since they before they were in the womb. If schools were better funded - i.e., if people apprehended the TRUE purpose of taxes, which is to fuel programs that promote the general welfare - then they could more easily attempt to compensate for the inequities. Then again, if people apprehended the true purpose of taxes, and voted their conscience about it, there wouldn't be such drastic economic disparities in our society, and teachers would not have to compensate for something that shouldn't be a problem to begin with. But that's a DUH statement too apparently convoluted for simpletons like Guggenheim.

And, of course, last but never least as culprit in our failing school systems is the pervasive "data mania" - the extreme emphasis on standardized tests, and the oppressive beauracracy that evolves from all of that. In order to "teach to the test," instructors have to speed through content; they cannot linger on salient topics and delve more in depth, hence depriving students of meaningful learning experiences.

And the standardized tests themselves are shockingly bad. They are very poorly written, and teachers never know ahead of time what items from the curriculum might be emphasized so that they can better prepare students for them. It's very shameful, really, because it's so obvious that the tests act as a "gotcha" for teachers and kids alike. Design a shitty test that teachers have no part in and that kids will fail in abundance, and then you can blame the teachers for not teaching the kids well enough, and the kids for being lazy. Even if kids pass the tests, there's no real merit in it, because the tests are so abysmally awful

On top of that transgression is the fact that the companies who write the tests PROFIT from them. So public ed is really being run by private, money-driven interests.

The way that teachers are treated in society, by school administrators and county officials and state and federal governments is so abusive it would make any non-teachers stomach churn in anxiety and despair.

And YET, most teachers persist, ebulliently so, because we love the kids and it is a rewarding job.

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