By Willie Krischke — May 18, 2011
Documentarian Davis Guggenheim is some kind of miracle worker. He’s managed, twice now, to make documentaries that get lots of attention and accolades and even significantly affect the national debate on an important issue, but really, aren’t that good. First, there was “An Incovenient Truth,” which was an important subject, for sure, but as a film, was hardly more than Al Gore narrating a Powerpoint presentation. Now comes “Waiting for Superman,” which, while it is more dynamic that “Truth,” takes such a simplistic, magic pill approach to a complicated issue that it’s hard for me to believe people are even taking it seriously.
The big important problem this time around is the declining performance of America’s education system. Students are trapped in bad schools because they live in bad neighborhoods, and no matter how hard they work, it’s virtually impossible for them to get a good education, because they have bad teachers who are protected by the teacher’s unions. “Waiting for ‘Superman'” follows a couple of students who enter the lottery system to get out of their terrible public schools and into better-performing charter schools. They can do nothing to affect their chances of getting into these schools; it literally is a lottery, sometimes conducted publicly with bingo balls. The film generates a certain tension and suspense as we root for these students to get into the better schools. Some do, some don’t.
According to “Waiting for ‘Superman,'” teacher’s unions are killing the American education system, and the magic pill that will save us is disbanding these unions and giving more students access to charter schools. (One wonders if Wisconsin governor Scott Walker watched this film, and nothing else, this past February.) And that’s it: one problem, one solution. But anybody who knows anything about the education system knows the problem’s more complex than this. I’m certainly no expert, but I know better. There are certainly problems with the teacher’s unions, and they’re in desperate need of reform, but there are also good reasons why educators need to organize and exercise their collective bargaining power. “Superman” never addresses those. And the unions most certainly aren’t the only problem with the American education system; they may not even be the biggest. One enormous problem is that teachers are too often buried in red tape and bewildered by academic standards (and standardized tests) that change every time the political wind changes. Geoffrey Canada, one of the star educators of “Waiting for Superman,” says it took him three years to become a good teacher; too many teachers in America never get the chance to become good at what they do, because every two or three years the curriculum they’ve just learned how to teach is pulled out from under them and replaced with something else. It’s true, as the film suggests, that there are a lot of bad teachers in America (though it’s not a new problem; I remember dealing with these teachers when I was in high school, 15 years ago.) What it doesn’t mention is that there are also a lot of good, frustrated teachers, and that the bureaucratic education system too often takes these good, motivated, dedicated teachers and burns them out,rips their motivation away from them, and turns them into the bad teachers the film complains about.
Instead of taking an in-depth look at a complicated issue, “Waiting for Superman” might as well be a commercial for charter schools. But consider this: a 2010 Stanford University study of charter schools found that they perform about the same as public schools. “Superman” takes the best of the charter schools and compares them to the worst of the public schools. If you ask me, that’s not journalism, that’s propaganda. And I wonder why more people aren’t calling it out.
A lot of what I’m writing is my own opinions about the problems within our education system. And like I said, I’m not an expert. If you really want to learn about the problems with our education system, sit down with a teacher and ask them. I’d love to watch “Superman” with a room full of teachers; I think they’d have some opinions about it.