Blog Post

Seeking a measured response to "Waiting for Superman"

I recently had an encounter with a former student over the film Waiting for Superman that both shook me and gave me reason for hope.

The student is a Teach For America (TFA) alum and current teacher. Though it's been nearly a decade since I had her in class, we're Facebook friends, so I get small glimpses into her life from time to time. Recently, though, she posted a link to the movie's trailer, urging her FB friends to check the movie out. As I'd done with similiar posts about WFS, I commented by simply adding a link to a recent Washington Post entry that noted where the movie was misinforming viewers by addressing issues on a point-by-point analysis. I didn't add any commentary beyond the link.

The movie has had me in a simmering heat the more I learn about it. I've prided myself, and padded my career, with experiences in public education: watching my mother teach classes in a high school for nearly four decades, passing through a public school where I didn't really know what an AP test was, and going to college a few miles down the road at our state's flagship school. Add to this all of my friends who teach in public schools and are currently scared that their jobs, wages, or benefits will be hacked at any time, and my other friends who passed through TFA and had horrible experiences, and you can see why the movie feels like a personal attack.

But that's the thing: I haven't seen the movie. I hear it promotes charter schools over public schools, TFA over teacher ed programs, non-union jobs, and merit-based pay as a result of increasing test scores. But I don't know, it's just what I hear. Then I come home to TV shows on NBC or Oprah decrying the state of public education, and billionaires from Facebook or Amazon pumping schools full of money. And they all have the same message: education is failing, we need to fix it. No talk about the good that is happening, or the fact that the only thing constant in educational debates is the call for reforms. No mention that there are myriad studies on how charter schools are no better than public schools, on how TFA produces no better teachers than teacher education programs, and definitely no mention that standardized tests don't necessarily prepare (or predict) students ready to go onto college or enter a changing workforce.

Which is why this movie scares me. It's so easy to fall into the polemic, especially when everyone has good intentions and no one is short on opinions. After all, we all had our good and bad experiences in school that we feel gives us the right to say something, even if that something is contradicted by dozens of studies and stories from inside schools themselves.

But back to my story.

My ex-student emailed me, said she appreciated my post, but had to take it down. Initially she said TFA was pushing their teachers to see the movie, which is why my critique was undesirable. But then she added that she thought that people should see the movie first, without the cautions raised in the WaPo article, and only then form opinions. And this is where I started shaking.

I emailed her back, calmly thanking her for her opinion and doing my best to explain my side of things, and why I was scared that a small (even empirically-based) opinion like mine was more than likely going to be drowned out by this big-budget documentary. And there's the hope: maybe she'll write back and we can have a discussion between peers and common stakeholders. I'm not scared to be wrong or to engage in debate, but I'm scared that these sorts of conversations may never happen. I'm hoping they continue and the movie becomes the springboard for them, but I'm not sure.

Which is why I'm so impressed with Diane Ravitch, an educator and thinker who is calmly disproving all of the myths driving this atmosphere of fear and polemic. In particular, her tweets (follow her on Twitter) are cool, concise nuggets of truth. She links to studies and articles, and delivers a measured, consistent message without succumbing to fruitless debate or visceral reactions that blind her to facts.

I'm not like that. And I'm writing here partially to find out if others have locations of sanity related to this topic, and if such debate can really take place in a culture of RTs, "Like"s, and soapboxes masked as textboxes.

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5 comments

I had a similar experience posting the Nation critique of the film on my blog. A fight broke out between three of my regular readers that went on for days; it's only finally calmed down...

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Hi Chris,

I think your anecdote about your former student and your disturbance with the Waiting for Superman documentary are important. I have not seen the documentary either, but much can be gathered from watching the trailer. The rhetorical situation alone raises many questions, such as the audience of this film. The title also begs a question, which in itself to me seems deeply problematic. The Flaming Lips song comes into my head first (i.e. Is it getting heavy...Is it overwhelming to use a crane to crush a fly..."), but second I am reminded of the philosopher Nietzsche and Thus Spake Zarathustra. Zarathustra says:

"I teach you the Superman. Man is something that should be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?
   All creatures hitherto have created something beyond themselves: and do you want to be the ebb of the great tide, and return to the animals rather than overcome man?
   What is the ape to men? A laughing stock or a painful embarassment. And just so shall man be to the Superman: a laughing stock or a painful embarassment".

I cite this because on the one hand, I agree with the film's rhetorical message that the educational system is broken and needs to be fixed. However, teachers are not supermen and superwomen. They are people. Parents are people. Students are people. We're in this together and, I, advocate for more collaboration. Instead of putting the weight of a governmental crane on teachers (not unlike a crane crushing a fly), what about more emphasis on communication, collaboration, and using the digital tools we have to reinvent the educational system? Part of what I'm seeing is the attempt to fix a broken system with performance-based standards and money. We're trying to run our schools like businesses and we remain focused on production. I'm attracted to digital media and learning largely because it shifts the learning to process, making the process the production, and not on some end product. In a word, I refer back to what new literacies theorists define as the "New Capitalism."

Why is getting into college the end goal of the secondary learning process? Why is success necessarily measured by yearly income? I admit, I'm coming from a position of privilege and have the luxary to ask questions that others may not be asking, but my point is that education is about social process, it's not preparation for life, for college, for a job, it's life itself (Dewey said that). I think teachers should be held accountable by standards, should care about their students, but I think educating the children of the future has to happen at home, before school, after school, on the Internet, at soccer practice, etc. The business side of education escapes me and as long as we are trying to financially motivate and produce educated people without emphasis on the process of education itself I'm afraid the system will stay broken. Process, I in good company argue, must become production. I have hope that digital media and learning can continue to take us in this direction.

Sincerely,

adam

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Adam, your ideas regarding a holistic approach to education would be all fine and good, except that we're talking about an urban public school system which seems incapable of teaching its students even basic reading and numeracy, let alone civics or financial literacy. The problem is not whether kids are being educated at soccer practice. I assure you, the kids who are going to soccer practice have no lack of educational opportunity--though as an aside I do wonder what children learn in a sport in which the primary skill appears to be faking agony for the benefit of the referee.

Perhaps income may not the sole metric of success, but a school system whose high school diplomas barely qualify one for an entry-level retail or burger-flipping job is clearly not serving its students well. This, incidentally, is the reason why college is so important--the public school system is so badly broken that a diploma from it is nigh-worthless on its own. And while I am all in favor of using digital media in education, it won't make a damned whit's worth of impact in urban school systems wracked by drugs, underage pregnancy, and chronic gang violence. Those problems have to be addressed first. As for education outside of school, have you considered how difficult educating children at home must be when you are a single parent working two jobs? As nice as it would be for every child to get quality education at home after school, that is both unrealistic and beyond the control of the state.

Adam, you're worrying about the educational system from a profoundly privileged perspective. You seem to feel that it's not providing its students adequate profundity. What you're proposing is akin to treating a hemorrhaging patient for a skin rash. Sure, a more holistic education system would be great. But that should rank as "wouldn't it be nice" on the priority list, like clearing up that skin rash. The most important priority needs to be stopping the bleeding, which means ensuring that public schools are safe, and that, regardless of how much they're learning at home, students are taught basic reading, writing, mathematics, and civics at school. You argue that the primary goal of education shouldn't be preparing students "for life, for college, for a job." Perhaps not, but it is certainly the least students and taxpayers can expect from our school system. And, especially given the sums of money being spent on it, it is a travesty and, for that matter, a major violation of civil rights that so many public schools fail so miserably to prepare their students for any of these.

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Dear Richard,

Your points are well received and I can admit my shortcoming of idealism and my nearsightedness of my own privilege which is evident in both the language and the ideas of the prior post. I appreciate the sharpness of your words. We do need to stop the bleeding, there's clearly more I need to learn in teaching within our school systems outside the ivory of the academy I've been staring at for the last couple of years. This discussion motivates me in a new way to watch the "Waiting for Superman" piece. The Flaming Lips is coming back into my head again. I ask myself: How do I blend the holistic approach in my heart that drives my passion for teaching with the more realistic practical concerns that you so pointedly mention? I'm not entirely sure. This is a question I know I'm not alone in asking.

Richard: You're right it is about numeracy, literacy, civics, etc., but it's also about motivation on the part of the students and on the part of the teacher. That's something I gathered from watching the trailer, that many teachers aren't motivated but many students are willing and ready to learn. The words that a great teacher is an artist are powerful. Have holistic approaches been tried and failed in urban school systems? Have students been given an opportunity to explore learning in these school settings different from traditional methods? KIPP schools come to mind, but I've only briefly been introduced to what they're doing. You may say I'm a dreamer, but I still hold fast to there needing to be more collaboration than lines being drawn in the sand. Thank you for your words, Richard.

Sincerely,

adam

PS - Maybe soccer was a poor analogy and I can see my naivety shine through in this conversation?

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I need to qualify this post first by saying that I have neither seen Waiting for Superman, nor am I particularly invested in the quality of schools. I do, however, take a strong interest in reforming government services for the better and improving the general quality of life through proper reforms.

That said, Chris, I think your warning against the film misses the point of the issue at hand, and many of the points you brought up reinforces this idea.

You say that the film frightens you, and it seems to me that there are only two possible reasons for this: either you genuinely believe that a film with a decent-sized budget will automatically supercede rational discussion and good policy, or you fear that you could be personally disadvantaged by what the film alleges to be true.

If the first is the case, then fear not; no filmmaker could possibly match the combined voices and mobilizing power of the country's teacher's unions, which have already made considerable efforts to qualify and cast doubt on the film's assertions and suggestions. There is no possibility of this being a "witch hunt" as you seem to suggest.

You mention other fears, though. You say that your colleagues are afraid of losing their jobs or having their pensions cut. These are legitimate fears, I admit; having worked in the private sector all my life, without half the benefits that unionized employees enjoy, I'm very familiar with uncertainty and financial struggles.

However, it must be noted that the purpose of the educational system is NOT to pay teachers comfortable salaries and provide for their old age. It is not to protect teachers from losing their jobs, for justified reasons or not. It is not to give health care to education professionals and their families. These are, however, the express purpose of the teacher's unions.

The point, the goal, the ultimate priority of our educational system, is and always should be to provide our youth with the basic skills and knowledge necessary to succeed going into adulthood, whether that entails going on to college, entering the workplace, or following personal paths that, more often than not, still require basic reading and math skills.

It makes me skeptical whenever defenses of teacher's benefits and pay arise in discussions about education reform, because it's obvious that these arguments arise not from concern for the students' welfare, but the teachers. And that is not the point of the system we're trying to fix.

What makes me even more skeptical is talk of "collaboration" with teachers and teacher's unions. Collaboration has been tried. Our current system is the result of decades of "collaboration" with our government where unions have resisted reforms and fed as much money as they could to their members. Which is why when teachers speak of collaborations and dialogue, I usually hear "you only move forward when we're on board".

To suggest that discussions have "No talk about the good that is happening" is a baffling stance to take; success stories are left out of the discussion of the problems because, well, they're not problems. There are plenty of students who succeed, and obviously those students don't need more help. It's the students that are failed by the system that are the focus. If you believe that the educational system is not the problem, then what is? You cannot get rid of a slum by pointing out a skyscraper. Pointing to the successes of the system does not reduce the urgency or scope of the problems; they merely seek to distract from them.

It is not for me to say that teacher's unions are responsible for the problems in schools; I have not seen the movie, and I'm not sure it would tell me. But I do know that they have become a severe obstacle in the state's attempts to fix the problems. The focus needs to move away from what teachers want and onto what works. The answer might not be charter schools or standardized tests, but all the unions seem to be interested in is preserving the current, stagnating system. The only thing I can think of that's worse than trying something that might not work is trying something that has been proven not to work. And I do believe that is the point.

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