Educating for Democracy: Waiting for Superman or Waiting for Godot?

Joel Shatzky Oct 28, 2010

Having seen both The Lottery, creditably directed by Madeleine Sackler and Waiting for ‘Superman’, Davis Guggenheim’s brilliantly produced but misleading take on the problems with the education “crisis” in this country, I have found one significant similarity between the two films besides the perception they share that charter schools are going in the right direction for dealing with the problems of low-income and minority student education. The other similarity is that almost all the young learners featured in these films whose “waiting” for the lottery is climaxed by finding out the “winners” and “losers,” with mostly disappointing results, are not typical of many of the students in this country who are getting a second-rate education.

Those depicted in the movie, mostly Latino and African-American young learners, are bright and highly motivated; they have loving, caring parents who are dedicated to their children “making something of themselves.” None of them have problems expressing themselves or understanding English and, with the exception of one white student, have any apparent learning disabilities. Added to that the fact that the parents are willing to participate with these children in a form of extended “reality video” with apparently no reservations about revealing their personal lives for a potential national audience and you have the “poster families” for movies attempting to find simple solutions to complex problems — as one of the graphics states along with the film credits in Waiting for ‘Superman’.

Despite the personal problems most of them were dealing with, these movies present the exceptional rather than typical picture of young learners who are eager to get rescued from their overwhelmed, underfunded, understaffed district schools through the magic lottery number that gives them entrance to a Harlem Children’s Zone or KIPP charter school.

I am not saying that most parents don’t want their children to get a good education, but there are many reasons, mostly economic, that stand in their way of having the focus and energy to advocate for them as the parents do for their children in these films. For, if there is an unintentional message in both The Lottery and Waiting for ‘Superman’, it is that poverty is a significant element in the lives of these families. That issue should be addressed as part of the reason that some schools, not all, and certainly not in affluent or middle class neighborhoods, are “in crisis.” And the “difficult learners” who have serious behavioral and learning problems, or who are recent immigrants, should also have been included in these moving portraits of the young who have been short-changed in many ways by this economic system. Those are the children you do not see nearly as often in charter schools as in district schools because their “scores” would bring down the average for these “special” schools. However, even in Waiting for ‘Superman’, Guggenheim reveals that charter schools are not as “special” as they might seem to the parents, and their children who it appear have waited all their lives for the opportunity to be admitted to one.

A statistic in the film points out that only 17 percent of charter schools have higher achievement rates than other public schools but this was not emphasized sufficiently nor was it mentioned that 36 percent of charter schools do worse than regular public schools. To his credit, Geoffrey Canada, the most interviewed and highest profiled charter school reformer, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, admitted that “charter schools are not the answer.” From a dramatic perspective, that is certainly not the impression created by the film. Also unmentioned is that Canada’s and many other charter schools depend on private donations to provide the kind of resources and environment that the charter schools offer their students.

That “the crisis” in American education has been an ongoing issue for the last forty years is also mentioned in Guggenheim’s film: not that the United States has gotten any worse, but that many other countries have caught up with and surpassed us. Moreover, if one were to consider that all American students are compared as a group to the selected “upper track” students that have entry into the academic programs in other countries, we are comparing the proverbial apples and oranges. The difference in our systems is that the students in these other countries who don’t qualify for an academic track are given excellent vocational training in order for them to get good-paying jobs.

But the center of controversy in both films is that they create the impression that the teachers’ unions, by “protecting bad teachers,” share much of the blame for the “crisis” when the “crisis” is really about the increasing poverty of families whose children happen to go to schools in poor neighborhoods. There is no mention of the many outstanding school districts in this country where union teachers are doing a great job, in some significant part because their students come from affluent neighborhoods.

Thus, a major point of contention between the makers of these films and their critics is that union rules both provide protection for the innocent — good teachers — and the guilty — bad ones. This ignores the fact that many “good teachers” can have some “bad years” and creates the perception that incompetent teachers are almost impossible to get rid of while what should be noted is that reliance on standardized tests scores to determine competence is, according to almost all knowledgeable educators, a grossly inaccurate way of measuring what students actually learn. I don’t see that Randi Weingarten — President of the UFT — is portrayed as a villain as some critics have contended. She is recorded as forcefully arguing that the children’s education is what’s most important for her teachers. But what is not mentioned is that Weingarten has acceded to the use of test scores as part of the evaluation process for teachers. I fear that this is a very dangerous game to play with those “business model educators” like Mayor Michael Bloomberg who manipulate these test scores for their own political purposes.

But at least teachers are not being scapegoated in either of these movies. Many of these dedicated educators, both in charter and district schools, are shown in a very favorable light as caring, involved, and, in some cases, demonstrating very effective methods of teaching, the kind that are being crowded out by the emphasis on testing.

What I most fault the film for is the assumption that the test scores in the HCZ and KIPP — another chain of charter schools — are of themselves evidence of successful learning. And what is hidden from the audience is the rapidly increasing involvement by wealthy donors such as Bill Gates and the Walmart family as well as hedge fund entrepreneurs in trying to take the educational model of learning in this country and turn it into a business. Collateral evidence of this in Waiting for ‘Superman’ is the link that is given in the website of the film which connects it to the New Schools Venture Fund, founded by Kim Smith, whose purpose, according to her website, is “to transform public education by supporting entrepreneurs.”

Smith was “a founding team member” of Teach For America, a program that takes bright, young college graduates and puts them into high-poverty schools for several years to get a “taste” of teaching under difficult circumstances. That most of them leave after their allotted term of service is not surprising since they have had no professional preparation for teaching at all. Smith’s background includes her experience as a marketeer, one of her jobs being with “Silicon Graphics Education Industry Group, where she focused on the online learning industry” (quoted from the website).

I would not question Ms. Smith’s integrity in trying to support needed “reform” in the United States educational system, but I believe that her view of “reform” and those of experts in the field of education might be quite different. I invite readers of this column to try the link of the video The Charter Starters I wrote — and co-starred in — about some of the aspects of charter schools with which you might not be familiar. In the meantime, if the hope for those young learners eager for a better education is to be pinned on the continued expansion of charter schools, they might just as well be waiting for Godot as for Superman.

This article was originally published on The Huffington Post.

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