Wasting for Stuporman

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]
World-class standards
Real accountability

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?


32 thoughts on “Wasting for Stuporman

  1. Ben:

    As usual you are right on the mark. Thanks for taking the time to write such a well thought out response to this very misleading film. Also be sure to read Diane Ravitch’s comments on this film coming out in the New York Review of Books this month. She did a good job but your is more fun to read and spoken more from the point of view of a classroom teacher.


  2. I haven’t seen the movie, so I guess that probably makes my two-cents less than two-cents in value, but I enjoyed the critique.

    As a first year teacher in an “urban” district (not exactly a big city, but we have a large minority, low-income population, gang violence, heavily cut spending, etc.), I love your point about Davis missing the story of teachers getting better. While I think Davis has the right (as the filmmaker) to not make this part of his movie, it is disappointing- especially because this is one of the few voices that will be heard nationally. If there were other voices in the media saying we need to pay attention to how we prepare, grow, and support clueless 20-somethings (like me) into competent and highly-qualified teachers, then perhaps it Davis’s miss wouldn’t hurt so much. But there aren’t, and it does.

    Anyway, I appreciate the review. I’m sure I’ll see the film soon.

  3. Thanks for this post. I went to go see the film even though I was pretty sure it would make me angry. When the friend I saw it with asked me what I thought I just felt really exhausted and confused — what had just happened?!

  4. I totally agree, but I see this movie as a counter to how critical research methods have been applied in educational research. You’re 100% correct that the film skews reality by only presenting one point of view, but there are educational researchers who do the same.

    Let’s throw stones at the movie’s lack of substance; let’s do the same to our own glass house.

  5. Thanks for the fun & insightful review. By the way, that number is 71777, which is weird: Here’s what you get: TEXT: COMMAND to 71777 for RINGTONE is the Official music video for the 2nd single from Pretty Ricky’s self titled album

    What am I missing here?

  6. Waiting for Superman is a propaganda film. It’s aim is to bash teachers, and also to privatize public education.

  7. @ Avital and Howard – good to see you here! Howard, thanks for pointing me to Diane Ravitch’s review. It is excellent.

    @ Andrew – thanks! You know, I’m with you in principle on the right of the filmmaker to focus on what he wants to, but actually in this case I don’t think that argument flies. This movie makes a huge hooplah about “great teachers,” and acts like this hooplah has clear policy implications. Given this, it seems to me it’s actually a distortion to ignore the question of where they come from.

    @ Helene – I know right?? I was expecting to be pissed off, I wasn’t expecting to be totally confused.

    @ not the real jb – what a generous reading of the film! It would be nice if this (or anything about the education debate) generates some honest self-reflection in any quarter. But I gotta remind you that the film is about policy much more than it’s about research. In other words, the future of public education is in the balance. So I’m not really down with an incoherent hallucination passing itself off as legitimate argumentation to support policies that are bad for everyone, even if there is a sort of postmodern self-reflective benefit that comes of it.

    @ Susan – I think the number is actually 77177. I didn’t put it in the post because I didn’t want to be doing the movie’s gimmicky advertising for it. Thanks for the link, btw!

    @ Yvonne – you know, I’ve heard that point of view a fair amount. When I saw the film, it read to me more as Guggenheim’s honest but totally incoherent and confused opinion than as a piece of cynical propaganda, but now that I’ve read Diane Ravitch’s review I’ve started to wonder if maybe you’re right after all. Honestly, though, I’m not sure which one is worse.

  8. Hi Ben!

    You are one righteous dude. This is so hilarious and true. I posted it to the CARE/Citizens for Public Schools listserv and learned that there are only one or two degrees of separation between us.

    Maybe I can get you to write something for our CPS newsletter, the Backpack, sometime.


  9. I have not seen the movie yet but the previews and all the hype make myh blood boil. I just heard an interview of Michelle Rhee by the Parker-Spitzer team and all they did was listen and nod–no hard questions about the role that perhaps poverty and socio-economics might be playing in the DC schools. 50% of each teacher’s evaluation in DC is based solely on test scores. Anyway, maybe the good news is that that defeat of the D.C. Mayor is partly a referendum on their draconian approach to so-called reform. Anyway, I guess I need to see this aggravating movie at some point.

    Thanks for this cutting and effective critique.

    Ruth Kaplan

  10. @ Elizabeth, Ruth, Lisa and Robert – thanks for the encouragement (and the links, Lisa and Robert)! Lisa – sure! What did you have in mind? And whom do we know in common?

  11. Great evaluation. Unfortunately you paid the $8 to go see it. Any contribution to this propaganda is negative.
    I beg you to review the takeover of the city of Chelsea, MA public schools by a private university. This has been a 20 year ‘experiment’ initiated by John Silber of Boston University.
    Their task has been deemed a failure.
    How could a ‘Privatization’ of public schools end in failure…. after all they have all the answers.
    The Heritage Foundation and in Massachusetts, the ‘Pioneer Institute’ – they have such profound titles…both perpetuate the myth.

    They are in it for one reason… to stop the money flowing to middle income people and lower the status of teachers to lower class citizenship.
    Even these new found pipe dream charter schools have not proven the point. You cannot educate ALL children in the manner where they have cherry picked their students to make themselves look good.

    Education starts with parents. Most children should be reading before they get to school. This can only happen through dedicated parenthood and the financial circumstances which allow such parenting.

  12. I paid $8 for a ticket (with a senior citizen discount) to see the movie, tried to leave my biases outside and found myself being mesmerized by a good film. Since I’ve spent most of my career working with teachers in urban settings I’ve seen way too many children not get the kind of education they deserve. How we turn that around of course is the challenge. But then it’s always easier (and more fun?) to just bash Guggenheim’s movie then try to have the constructive conversations (putting aside our knee-jerk biases) about what would work best for these children who have to endure the conditions that most of us middle class suburban types wouldn’t put up with in our neighborhoods.

  13. Yours is a great point that good teaching takes time. I haven’t seen the movie yet but, from what I’ve heard, I imagine I’d be similarly frustrated by the all-too-easy attacks on public school teachers. Certainly we’ve all seen teachers who are mailing it in and waiting for retirement, but the vast majority–like you say–are constantly trying to refine their practice, figure out what works, understand how to navigate that channel between themselves as selves as themselves as teachers.

    I could easily rattle off twenty names of teachers who have flat-out floored me in terms of their magnificence, and Hollywood’s depiction notwithstanding, I don’t think they’re that rare. It just takes time. (Which is also why it’s frustrating to see people ragging on TFA corps members for being…what, new to teaching?) I don’t imagine that anyone reading this is an apologist for bad teachers, though nor is anyone going to apologize for not finding them where they’re not.

  14. John Dewey High School in Brooklyn started today to have a morning protest every Friday.
    This is the kind of thing we hope to see happening at all the high schools which are being
    threatened with closure.

    Please forward to other interested parties.

  15. Ben, that was really well done and a fascinating way to approach it. I’ve resisted seeing the movie though I know I have to for the same reason you spent your $10.25. Great that you got so many comments.

    Love, Your Uncle Jeff

  16. One more thing: great teachers sometimes become good teachers, or even mediocre teachers, if they stick their necks out and have them chopped off. Taking chances may produce great results, but the worksheet is safer. I realized this after my district confiscated an entire class set of The Chocolate War (which my students adored) because of one angry parent. The CW and other controversial topics are on kids’ minds, but after an ugly adventure in an administrator’s office, it’s so much easier to just use the same crud everyone else is using…dull, but safe.

  17. awesome analysis! i cant wait to pass it on to the crew at g&p. they will be so proud of you, especially steve!

  18. Ben, what a pleasant surprise to read your blog and learn more about you as a teacher, one who is clearly dedicated and passionate about education. Of course you are the teacher you are today due to G&P and how we educated you!! Many of us are still here, after 30+ years, and speaking for myself, am enjoying every minute of my difficult, but wonderfully exciting job. Keep talking, Ben, and let people know what it’s like to fight city hall and still come to work smiling every day to be with our students. Thanks so much. I will definitely see the movie. I’ll tell Steve to read all of this. He will be proud, as Kathy has said.

  19. @ Ihor – Nothing knee-jerk about this bashing. Want a constructive conversation about how to improve urban education? Such conversations are not hard to find. (For a few examples.) If you want a particular conversation about a particular topic, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it. But above I characterized this film as “an incoherent hallucination passing itself off as legitimate argumentation to support policies that are bad for everyone,” and the more I think about it the more I stand behind that. If you want to talk specific policy, let’s do it.

    @ Karim – yeah; what the movie makes me want to do is catalogue all the amazing public school teachers I know, which is a lot of folks. What I want to see change most in education is for the structures and environment of schooling to create the support and the space for all of us to be constantly working together to improve the job we are all already working together to do. Wow that sentence was kind of structurally absurd but I hope my meaning was clear.

    @ Noah – right on.

    @ Jeff, Kathy and Ellen – Great to “see” you here! You don’t know how gratifying it is to write something and then have your uncle and former educators show up with appreciation.

    (Everybody, Kathy, comment #23, was my writing teacher in 7th grade. The Steve referenced was my math teacher. How rad is that?)

  20. Ben writes: Nothing knee-jerk about this bashing.

    Well if its not knee jerk, why is it a bashing? Well, maybe you can have a well thought out bashing. Personally, I don’t think the movie deserves it since I haven’t changed my mind about it being a good movie. It makes me think about the issues both pro and con and try to find where the truth lies. I’ve been in too many dysfunction urban schools to defend the status quo but on the other hand the charters (or academies or what ever else they call them) can strip these dysfunctional schools of their best teachers. That’s a reality that doesn’t get discussed much.

  21. You go boy!!!! What an insightful and funny review. I am glad to know that the younger folks get it and won’t be hood winked with a slick marketing tool designed to indoctrinate people instead of educating people!

  22. [Disclaimer: I have not seen the movie.]

    Ihor, I don’t know if you’ll be back here, but I want to say to you that bashing this movie does not equate with defending the status quo.

    If you give yourself over to a movie (the way I tend to), the propaganda gets deeper into your brain. To me, your response shows some of that not-so-aware-of-the-connections, ‘knee-jerk’ quality you’re accusing Ben of. Can you tell us what truths you think the movie taught you? You already knew there were some serious problems with urban schools. What did you see the movie saying the answers were? What do you think of the ‘movement-building’ call at the end? Please write your own analysis of this movie. I follow your blog, and would be interested in your thoughts.

    Jonathan Kozol is famous for his detailed descriptions of the problems faced in urban schools. He has worked in that environment for most of his life, I think. He would see the union-bashing in this movie as clearly as most of the reviewers I’ve read do, I think.

    Ihor, you, Ben, and I love math, and love finding ways to share that with kids. All 3 of us want better schools. What are your ideas for improving schools?

  23. Sue wrote:
    Ihor, I don’t know if you’ll be back here, but I want to say to you that bashing this movie does not equate with defending the status quo.

    I hope I didn’t say what you just wrote. Bashing to me is an emotional reaction which isn’t always based on fact. So that is why I challenged Ben on it being somewhat of a knee jerk (Sample: Randi Weingarten is some kind of mediocrity nazi rallying the national teacher corps into a frenzy of mediocrity.) So it was a knee jerk reaction on my part to react to his Stuporman hyped summary of the movie. I think I did moderate my comment in a second reply If I recall correctly.

    If you give yourself over to a movie (the way I tend to), the propaganda gets deeper into your brain. To me, your response shows some of that not-so-aware-of-the-connections, ‘knee-jerk’ quality you’re accusing Ben of.

    Guilty as charged. I don’t respond well when I think someone is not being fair about a film. Ben has a right to his opinion and I shouldn’t take it so personally.

    Can you tell us what truths you think the movie taught you?

    I’m not sure what truths it taught me that I didn’t already know. I thought it a well done movie and I neither disagreed or agreed with whatever political message was implied. The details rang true. Are there many problems brought up in movie? Absolutely. Public schools need reform and the charters are not necessarily going to be the answer. I want good schools. Unfortunately, the kids in urban schools don’t get the best education. The parents who wanted their kids in the lottery-only access schools believed that these schools were better than what they had before. The bad news is that there has to be lotteries at all. All kids deserve to go to schools that are decent.

    You already knew there were some serious problems with urban schools. What did you see the movie saying the answers were?

    It was simply this: We need to provide better schools for kids. period.

    What do you think of the ‘movement-building’ call at the end?

    This is nothing new. In 1983 it was Ronald Reagan who started the movement with his nation at risk report. Today the business community and film makers are more involved. It’s nothing new. As long as we have underachieving kids and reports that the other countries are “burying us” in math and science it will continue. (One truth that I believe is that the other countries are not burying us, the teams they assembled for the competition beat our US team pretty soundly. All we have to do is bring in our A team in and the US would do much better. We still have the best educational system in the world. But that doesn’t mean it’s good enough. I.E. our teaching of math in schools is terrible.)

    Please write your own analysis of this movie. I follow your blog, and would be interested in your thoughts.

    I don’t think that I could add much in terms of whatever has been said or written before about the movie. All I can honestly say is that the teaching of math in inner city schools (based on my experience) is very poor. Finding a straw person to attack (i.e. unions) won’t change the bad teaching. And it’s not the teacher’s fault! They work very hard and do their best. They just don’t know how to teach better. One thing I try to do with the teachers that I’ve worked with is model the power of asking questions and getting conversations started with students about math. I dont always succeed, but even when I do the teachers often respond with “That was great. Can you come back next week and do another lesson like that?” I said sure, but next time I want you to do with me. That’s when I get a lot of blank stares. Teachers are trapped in a system that doesn’t give them the opportunity to become better teachers. There are not enough good models for them to follow. Though you would think the opposite given all the wonderful stuff that’s available on the Internet. But that would require a commitment on their part to change. That’s something that they all would like, but doing it – the devil is in the detail.

    Jonathan Kozol is famous for his detailed descriptions of the problems faced in urban schools. He has worked in that environment for most of his life, I think. He would see the union-bashing in this movie as clearly as most of the reviewers I’ve read do, I think.

    Union-bashing is a political ploy to get rid of people working in systems that critics feel are being unproductive. I find a lot of fault with how unions operate and I also benefit from it because my wife is a retired teacher who has a decent pension thanks to her union protection over the years. She needed protection because for many years she worked under a principal from Hell who after he moved on to became a superintendent eventually wound up in jail! On the other hand, the school was mired in problems that called for a clean sweep and there were many times I wanted Joan (my wife) to quit. But for the most part she could shield yourself from that and do some amazing things in her classroom. So who are bad guys? The elected union mavericks, the teachers, the administrators, the parents or Davis Guggenheim? We all share some responsibility in the problems but for the most part our school systems work because teachers like my wife would maneuver around the system to make sure that her special ed kids were getting the best possible education. Thank goodness there are many teachers like that. But do they teach math well? Again from my experience, not very well.

    Ihor, you, Ben, and I love math, and love finding ways to share that with kids. All 3 of us want better schools. What are your ideas for improving schools?

    It’s a chapter in my book. 🙂 Seriously. (I hope.) I”v been sharing my ideas with the schools that I’ve been consulting with the past 2 years, but I gave up the work last year. It just got too hard and disappointing. There are too many rules, regulations, tests, and roadblocks to any meaningful change.

    We always muddle through somehow, urban schools are much better today than they were 50 years ago. Even in the worst schools that I’ve worked with there is cadre of teachers and students who achieve success. Many of the teachers I worked were originally students who succeeded – first in their family to go college etc. I admire them for coming back and trying to give back to the community they grew up in. They do want to improve their math teaching, but the culture of the school makes it very difficult for them to that.

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