What ‘Superman’ got wrong, point by point
While the education filmWaiting For Superman has moving profiles of students struggling to succeed under difficult circumstances, it puts forward a sometimes misleading and other times dishonest account of the roots of the problem and possible solutions.
Yet the exclusive charter schools featured in the film receive large private subsidies. Two-thirds of Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone funding comes from private sources, effectively making the charter school he runs in the zone a highly resourced private school. Promise Academy is in many ways an excellent school, but it is dishonest for the filmmakers to say nothing about the funds it took to create it and the extensive social supports including free medical care and counseling provided by the zone.
The debate of “how to raise test scores” strangles and distorts strong education. Most test score differences stubbornly continue to reflect parental income and neighborhood/zip codes, not what schools do. As opportunity, health and family wealth increase, so do test scores.
This is not the fault of schools but the inaccuracy, and the internal bias, in the tests themselves.
Schools must be made into sites of opportunity, not places for the rejection and failure of millions of African American, Chicano Latino, Native American, and immigrant students. But schools and teachers take the blame for huge social inequities in housing, health care, and income.
Of course unions need to be improved – more transparent, more accountable, more democratic and participatory – but before teachers unionized, the disparity in pay between men and women was disgraceful and the arbitrary power of school boards to dismiss teachers or raise class size without any resistance was endemic.
The movie touts the benefits of fast track and direct entry to teaching programs such as Teach for America, but the country with the highest achieving students, Finland, also has highly educated teachers.
Tenured teachers cannot be fired without due process and a good reason: they can’t be fired because the boss wants to hire his cousin, or because the teacher is gay (or black or…), or because they take an unpopular position on a public issue outside of school.
Charters were first proposed by the teachers’ unions to allow committed parents and teachers to create schools that were free of administrative bureaucracy and open to experimentation and innovation, and some excellent charters have set examples. But thousands of hustlers and snake oil salesmen have also jumped in.
If we understand education as a civil right, even a human right as defined by the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, we know it can’t be distributed by a lottery.
Too many people involved in education policy are dazzled by the idea of “market forces” improving schools. By setting up systems of competition, Social Darwinist struggles between students, between teachers, and between schools, these education policy wonks are distorting the educational process.
*Waiting for Superman says “we’re not producing large numbers of scientists and doctors in this country anymore. . . This means we are not only less educated, but also less economically competitive.”
In one of its many little cartoon segments, the film purports to show how kids learn. The top of a child’s head is cut open and a jumble of factoids is poured in. Ouch! Oh, and then the evil teacher union and regulations stop this productive pouring project.
The poster advertising the film shows a nightmarish battlefield in stark gray, with a little white girl sitting at a desk in the midst of it. The text: “The fate of our country won’t be decided on a battlefield. It will be determined in a classroom.”
According to a study by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., and others, Race to the Top funds are benefiting affluent or well-to-do, white, and“abled” students. So the outcome of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top has been more funding for schools that are doing well and more discipline and narrow test-preparation for the poorest schools.
Dan Brown, a teacher in the SEED charter school featured in the film, points out that successful schools involve teachers in strong collegial conversations. Teachers need to be accountable to a strong educational plan, without being terrorized. Good teachers, which is the vast majority of them, are seeking this kind of support from their leaders.
Teaching has been historically devalued – teachers are less well compensated and have less control of their working conditions than other professionals – because of its associations with women.