Archive for November 6, 2010

Waiting for “Superman”

November 6, 2010

The “Superman” being awaited is the person who will fix the broken American educational system. Good men and women have tried for decades to fill that role. But then, to the accompaniment of ominous bass strings, emerges the evil Lex Luthor and his kryptonite — teachers’ unions! According to Waiting for “Superman,” the inchoate and divisive documentary by Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth), children everywhere in America are suffering and dying because bad teachers are being shielded from accountability by such brimstone-stinking cults as the American Federation of Teachers. In all, the film is positively Reaganite in its scorn towards organized labor; it’s disorienting to see a more-or-less liberal film (and filmmaker) casting unions largely run by and peopled by women (about 80% of U.S. teachers are female) as the Devil.

Guggenheim allows that, despite his own respect for the good public-school teachers (his 2001 debut, The First Year, followed five rookie educators), he sends his own kids to private school. He also allows that not everyone can afford that option. Having said that, he wades into the morass of debate about American education and comes up mostly empty. Charter schools, non-unionized and uncrowded, are one good answer, the film says. Waiting for “Superman” (I presume the quotes are at the behest of Warner Brothers, so that this won’t be confused for a film about the Man of Steel) speeds past the information that four out of five charter schools aren’t much better than public schools; it tracks five kids of various ages trying to get into charter schools, and we get to watch their anxiety at the end when they wait to be accepted by lottery, and their pain when they aren’t. (Three of the five don’t make it.)

The way Guggenheim builds up suspense by, in effect, watching the life or death (in the film’s terms) of five kids decided at random is a little sickening. We know very little about the kids; most of them, bashful and wary, don’t open up to the camera, and we spend some time with their various parents or guardians, most of whom grew up in poverty and just want their kids to have it easier than they did. (One kid is actually already saying this about his own, hopefully years-in-the-future kids, as if he had guiltily internalized his mother’s rhetoric.) So this human story, shakily carpentered, is surrounded by much footage of people in the educational system expounding on various talking points. Occasionally we get Michael Moore-style animated segments insulting in their we’ll-spell-it-out-for-you-dummies breeziness.

To get a sense of how haplessly simplistic the film is, look up Dana Goldstein’s piece in the October 11 issue of The Nation, which points out that teachers’ unions have worked closely with former or even current adversaries (like Bill Gates) to get things done for the sake of students, not teachers. Former D.C. public schools system chancellor Michelle Rhee, who resigned a few weeks ago, is held up as a mover and shaker instead of the often destructive and dismissive influence she actually was, while Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, is cast as a human roadblock to progress. Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada is fawned over, though the movie doesn’t mention that the HCZ benefits from millions of dollars of private funding.

In truth, the movie hems and haws and then comes up with the missing “Superman”: us. If we’re to get through this crisis, we’re all to band together and buy war bonds, uh, I mean do something — Guggenheim is unclear on what. The real problem, outside the purview of this confused film, is that American education is a broken system inside a larger broken system, and that external factors like poverty, crime, indifferent or toxic parents, and disastrously inadequate funding¹ have more to do with the shameful state of our education than the demands of unions or the tenure of a relative few inept teachers. For those with money, there’s private school. For those with the luck of the draw, there’s charter school. For those whose parents have the time, patience and education, there’s homeschooling. The rest will sink or swim depending on the toughness and innate smarts they bring into the public system — and that goes for the teachers, too. The times call for grimming up, finding a spine, and facing facts, not pointing at one group or another. Guggenheim points. I respond in kind, and will leave to your imagination which finger I use.


¹I can’t quite help pointing out that the citizens of all those other countries that are smoking our asses on the educational front — unlike historically and currently tax-averse Americans — probably don’t mind kicking in a few more bucks, tax-wise, to ensure better schools for their or others’ children. On this point, the silence of Waiting for “Superman” speaks volumes.