I dragged myself to Waiting for Superman last night.
What a confused movie.
Have you ever been on the subway with a crazy person? I am from Boston, where I actually can’t remember this happening to me one time, although we do have crazy people; but it happens a lot in New York. You’ll be going from here to there and somebody on the subway car will just start discoursing, usually to no one in particular but as though they’re having a normal conversation. Sometimes angrily, which is always disconcerting to be around because if you’re simultaneously angry and totally disconnected from reality, who knows what you’ll do next. Often enough, though, it’ll be totally harmless. (Somehow, the time that the man next to me explained “when I cock my fist back, that’s potential energy; and when I throw it toward your face, that’s kinetic energy” managed to fit into the totally-harmless category. He was jovially illustrating a point. You could just tell.)
One of the most striking things about the discourse, though, whether harmless or angry, is that the person is usually speaking with conviction, but not making any sense. This is what it felt like to me watching Waiting for Superman.
Let me try to summarize this movie for you. SPOILER of sorts.
Geoffrey Canada (Harlem Children’s Zone) loved Superman when he was a kid. Davis Guggenheim (the filmmaker) decided to send his kids to private school. They have really cute kids in Boyle Heights, Harlem, the Bronx, and DC. Academic achievement in the US has not improved since 1971. In 2002 there was a moment when it looked like FINALLY THE SCHOOLS WOULD BE FIXED!!! because a republican (Bush) and a democrat (Teddy Kennedy) collaborated on a piece of legislation (NCLB). But it’s 8 years later and we still suck. People used to think that failing schools came from failing neighborhoods but now we realize it’s the OTHER WAY AROUND!! Our schools totally suck and that’s why our neighborhoods have crime and drugs. There are lots and lots of shitty teachers. Randi Weingarten is some kind of mediocrity nazi rallying the national teacher corps into a frenzy of mediocrity. The national Democratic party is basically owned by the teachers’ unions. Teacher tenure used to be useful, back when administrators were arbitrary and exploitative, but now all it does is keep useless, worthless humans in front of children. Even if you have a really kick-*ss teacher, you can’t pay them more money, even if you want to, because they already have a contract that says what you pay them. But then from out of the sky comes MICHELLE RHEE!! The public education bureaucracy prevents teachers from giving students the proper infusion of learning fluid. Michelle had a plan to save us all. Too bad the mediocrity nazis stopped her. US kids suck at math and think they rock, as we learn from Green Day. Tracking is evil because even though it’s supposed to be based on test scores, sometimes kids get tracked based on behavior. But actually, 50 years ago tracking was awesome because it reproduced the class structure, which was awesome. But the world has changed. Suburban schools have all the same problems as urban schools but the kids are higher-skilled so the grades are inflated. Urban schools have problems suburban schools don’t have to deal with. It’s really hard to be a teacher. Davis once made a movie about that. A great teacher is a work of art. Because all great teachers work for charter schools, the cute kids’ parents want them to go to KIPP, SEED and Harlem Success Academy, and basically they’ll DIE if they don’t get in. Bill [Gates] knows education.
There, that about covers it.
Then, as the credits roll, the film acts like this incoherent pastiche has added up to both a clear recipe for action and a movement. We get a summary of what Davis Guggenheim apparently thinks are the self-evident conclusions of the film –
The problem is COMPLEX
But the steps are SIMPLE
It starts with GREAT TEACHERS
More time in school
Getting the bureaucracy out of the way [I’m not remembering this word-for-word but this is the idea]
and a “change starts with you” message. Text “POSSIBLE” to such and such a number, we’re told.
I felt like the crazy person from the subway had just shown up on the corner wearing a PIRG t-shirt and holding a clipboard, trying to get me to sign a petition and donate money. And he was totally sure I was going to sign. It was really weird.
* * * * *
Let me be a little less coy about what I have to say about the content of this film.
Davis – I’m glad you got the draft in on time. You’re showing a lot of passion, but we’ve got to work on the clarity of your thesis and your evidentiary structure. In the meantime, you need to engage with some key sources of information you left out entirely:
1) Good teaching that is happening inside public schools.
You depict failing public schools, portrayed as the norm, and a handful of highly successful charter schools. This narrative makes successful public schools invisible. Have you never encountered one?
I have. Where I went to school, and where I learned how to teach. Unionized workforce and everything. And some of the best teaching you will see anywhere.
2) Teachers getting better.
It’s a shame that you left this image out of your narrative because this is the whole secret to successful education.
Where did you think great teachers come from? That they spring fully formed from the head of Zeus? Just about everybody who’s an accomplished teacher used to be an ineffective teacher, and as the maker of a documentary about first year teachers, I’m totally confused that you don’t seem to understand this. If you want to talk about great teachers, but don’t have anything to say about the conditions under which teachers become great, you are at a different stadium than where the game is happening.
(Hint, by the way: in order to become great, teachers need to make and then learn from their mistakes. What kind of environment fosters making and learning from your mistakes? Fear that you will lose your job over your kids’ test scores? Or maybe transparent, non-defensive collegiality? Okay, good job on that one, now the followup: what kind of education policies are going to create the environment that fosters growth?)
Conversely – where do you think incompetent burnouts come from? The League of Committedly Useless Humans? Do you think anybody gets up at 5:45 every day and gets in front of kids and wants to suck? I know hundreds of teachers, and I don’t know ONE who is honestly okay with doing a bad job. Be that as it may, teaching is actually very hard, a fact to which you pay lip-service, and that means that in a difficult situation and with an absence of support, it can be a pretty crushing experience. (I will go on record with this: teaching is way, way harder than math. Galois theory is a walk in the park next to figuring out how to alter your planning, presence, discussion facilitation, assessment, etc. to get better results for your kids. No contest.) Lots of folks leave the profession; plenty more stay on board and give up. If you want to decrease the amount of incompetence in front of kids, and you don’t have anything to say about how to support teachers in growing, then again, you’re at the wrong stadium.
* * * * *
A lot of the above has already been pointed out by others. Let me direct you to one excellent critique among many –
Ben Allen belongs to a category of person I think I pretty much always get along with: he’s a professional mathematician (a complex systems theorist) who spent time (3 years) teaching math in urban public school. So, when he talks about Waiting for Superman, I’m listening.
Ben calls attention to the absurd scene in which what education is “supposed to be” is depicted in a cartoon as a teacher opening up students’ heads and pouring in a liquid (“knowledge”), before this process gets interrupted by public education’s bureaucratic constraints. I’ll add that I used to use more or less this exact metaphor as a send-up of how people who don’t understand education imagine it works. Learning as some kind of IV drip.
* * * * *
Okay, I thought I was done but I have one more thing to say.
What’s with the creepy appropriation of civil rights language?