Sunday, March 27, 2011

Waiting for Superman: A Review

"The primary, the most urgent requirement is the promotion of education. It is inconceivable that any nation should achieve prosperity and success unless this paramount, this fundamental concern is carried forward. The principal reason for the decline and fall of peoples is ignorance." (Abdu'l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 109)

It seems that at least once a year the media has a story about yet another study that makes me want to hide by passport in embarrassment. The latest is from NEWSWEEK. Read it and weep:

"They’re the sort of scores that drive high-school history teachers to drink. When NEWSWEEK recently asked 1,000 U.S. citizens to take America’s official citizenship test, 29 percent couldn’t name the vice president. Seventy-three percent couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Cold War. Forty-four percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights. And 6 percent couldn’t even circle Independence Day on a calendar." (Read the whole thing here if you dare)

NEWSWEEK asks the provocative question, "how dumb are we?". This question could serve as the unofficial subtitle of the documentary "Waiting for Superman". In this case, the question would apply not only to the poorly educated children being produced by too many of our public schools, but also to the adults who allow this to continue day after day.

"Waiting for Superman" is a highly informative, thought-provoking, and heart-string-pulling documentary. One of its strengths is putting a human face on the education debate through profiling several children and their families as they strive for something that should not be so hard to find; a decent education. From the Bronx to LA, you get a glimpse into their dreams and their nightmares. I found myself hoping along with their loved ones depicted on film for these kids to succeed. I haven't cried watching a film in a long time and this one broke my heart in half.

"Waiting for Superman" does an excellent job of balancing the personal stories with lots of information about the broader social and political context. It does a particularly effective job of using animation to illuminate the various facts and statistics detailed in the film. As someone who is not in the education field or immersed in education policy debates I was able to learn a great deal.

In addition to stories about children, you also hear about various innovators and reformers as well as some of their opponents. Geoffrey Canada, whom I had the privilege of hearing speak at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, provides a great deal of commentary throughout the film. This man is a national treasure and I hope that someone tells him that everyday. I was also fascinated by the story of Michelle Rhee, then Chancellor of the D.C. public schools. Her frustrations in trying to reform the D.C. schools represented another empathic moment for me as someone working in human services, an industry that on a good day can still make you want to pull your hair out.

Though teacher's unions are not quite "villains" in the film, what you see and hear of them does not come across in a positive way. The film raises what seem to be legitimate questions about things such as tenure but does not provide much of an opportunity to hear the teacher's unions really make their case. In fact, for a movie about education you don't hear as much from teachers as you might expect. I found this to be a weakness of the film that leaves it vulnerable to being dismissed as anti-teacher or anti-teacher's union propaganda. This would be unfortunate because this is a movie that needs to be seen and whose message needs to be heard. The message is that failing to educate all our children is neither inevitable nor acceptable. Isn't that something we should all agree with?

By far, the most poignant portion of the film is watching the children and families as they sit through the lotteries that will determine whether the kids get into their preferred schools. You heard that right, lotteries. The anxiety on the faces of the kids and adults is palpable through the screen. The results are not a Hollywood ending. I found myself completely flabbergasted by the power of a randomly chosen numbered ball or piece of paper with a name on it in these people's lives. What kind of nation would leave the future of its children, leave its own future to chance?!

"How long shall we drift on the wings of passion and vain desire; how long shall we spend our days like barbarians in the depths of ignorance and abomination? God has given us eyes, that we may look about us at the world, and lay hold of whatsoever will further civilization and the arts of living. He has given us ears, that we may hear and profit by the wisdom of scholars and philosophers and arise to promote and practice it. Senses and faculties have been bestowed upon us, to be devoted to the service of the general good; so that we, distinguished above all other forms of life for perceptiveness and reason, should labor at all times and along all lines, whether the occasion be great or small, ordinary or extraordinary, until all mankind are safely gathered into the impregnable stronghold of knowledge." (Abdu'l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 2)


  1. Elizabeth11:10 AM

    As someone who worked in public schools for twenty-seven years and in parochial schools for three years, I found the majority of teachers to be competent to superior. As the only non-educator employed in a professional capacity in these schools, I saw the system as an 'outsider'. My view of the union/association evolved over the years from negative to positive primarily from direct and/or indirect experience with them. Teacher unions and tenure protect more good and excellent staff members then incompetent ones. As one administrator said 'as soon as some of you get tenure, you start to speak up' and I would add 'because tenure offers you some element of protection from retaliation for speaking the truth'. Teachers and social workers enter their professions not for monetary gains but to serve others. They receive their reward for watching children develop academically, socially and emotionally. Teachers work together in a collaborative fashion and spend time mentoring less experienced staff. When it was obvious that a teacher was not going to be successful in the profession, I saw the majority leave the job in the first three to five years. The job is too stressful for someone to stay in for the money or the job security. Tenure does not give one a job for life but guarantees 'due process' and, if an administrator does their job correctly, they have the tools to have tenure revoked or to not give tenure to a teacher.

  2. Elizabeth11:11 AM

    During my thirty years working as a School Social Worker, I witnessed a great shift in the social and behavioral norms of students. In the middle 1970s a child would be suspended for cursing in school; for blatant disrespect; for fighting; or for breaking school rules. Parents were more supportive of the school staff and frankly more courteous. Today cursing, fighting, and a general disregard for adult authority is acceptable and supported by too many parents or guardians. Children are exposed to adult topics and materials without anyone helping them process that material. Too many parents come into school with an attitude that the teachers are wrong and their children are right. Parents are unable enormous financial pressures with both working to make ends meet. Teachers are expected to teach a curriculum and to use teaching methods that are in conflict with the latest brain research on how we learn. Teachers are not part of the consultative group that governs their daily professional lives. Education has become a political divisive tool and teachers are their targets. Unfortunately this is resulting in less consultation and the real reasons for low student achievement (most schools are successful though you would not believe it by the media coverage) are not simplistic such as it's because of bad teachers, greedy teachers, or the teacher unions. I can give you plenty of examples of successful children in dysfunctional families or who had negative experiences with teachers and examples of children with every advantage who struggle in school or as adults. Simplistic reasons are emotionally powerful but rarely true.

    I worked on a diagnostic team to identify children with school difficulties and over the last twenty years saw a sharp increase in children/youth struggling with depression, oppositional-defiant disorder, conduct disorder, social phobias, and neurological disorders that accelerated in numbers in the 1990s. These problems weren't caused solely by 'bad' teachers who needed to be weeded out or by teacher whose salary increases were based upon seniority. These emotional and social difficulties interfered with their overall school functioning and their future adult lives.

  3. Elizabeth11:12 AM

    Adult success can not be measured only by academic success. I worked with many wonderful children with learning disabilities or cognitive impairment who are now functional young adults. They are courteous, hardworking, and honest individuals. In contrast I worked with academically successful students who are now in jail or unable to keep a job because of their social, emotional, or behavioral difficulties. Teachers are not the only variable in the development of a human being and doing well in calculus does not guarantee one will become a functioning member of society. As my fellow social workers used to say, we could generally predict a child's future. It was the child who had a significant person in their lives who loved them, made sense out of their lives with predictable rules and expectations, made sure that they were prepared for school, met their basic physical needs, and developed their spiritual or moral self, these children were successful. Over my career, I realized when a child's moral character was not developed that was more of a danger to themselves and others then if they didn't understand algebra or struggled with academics. I met many academically capable students who scored high on academic tests yet didn't respect basic societal norms.

    Education is more then academics but about the development of the whole person. Yes, I believe that every child deserves a good academic education and should graduate school with strong reading, math, science, social studies, and an appreciation for the arts, however, moral/character development is essential. Right now, too many people are focusing on the academic aspect of education while forgetting that school readiness is more then just knowing your shapes, numbers, and letters. If a child's basic physical, emotional, social and spiritual needs are not met outside of school, they will not be available for learning even from the most excellent of teachers.

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  5. Elizabeth, thanks for sharing all your thoughts. I'd be curious to hear what other people working in related fields think.

    Rachel Neil thanks for the invite. Maybe I'll take you up on it sometime.

  6. Phillipe, based on seeing this on your blog (without even reading the review!) I watched this last night. It is, as you say, heart-breaking, and I struggled fruitlessly to stop crying.

    I did most of my schooling in New Zealand, where I am pretty sure we don't have things like lotteries for the desirable schools. And my husband pointed out that with those schools that have hundreds of applicants and only tens of spaces, you'd think people would realise that that school needed to be expanded. Or, if not physically possible, then to expand the model of that school, since it is successful.

    But this documentary does point out a lot of these sorts of things, that do not seem to be common-sensical.

    After reading all of Elizabeth's very interesting comments, as well as your review, I do agree with what was said about an absence of teachers themselves from the movie, and that the intense focus on teachers unions and good-vs-bad teachers did seem a little misdirected. In the end, I decided to take it for what it was: not a thorough analysis of what is fundamentally wrong with the system, but what is wrong with this part of the system.

    I do think that there are some positives to almost anything, including unions, and those aspects (like Elizabeth said, "as soon as some of you get tenure, you start to speak up") should be preserved in the infrastructure of schools. But one set of statistics that really spoke to me was the bit about the number of doctors and lawyers who, because of unprofessionalism, lose their licenses, versus how many teachers that happens to.

    My personal experience was overwhelmingly one of phenomenal teachers. I think I had maybe two crap teachers throughout my primary and secondary education. And it's true that they can make a huge difference in the life of a child or a classroom of children. But I do think that what's going on with the CRAZY inequalities and injustices with the education of this country's children is a little bit beyond how many "bad" teachers are still in the system.

    It's just a truism that teachers are chronically overworked and underpaid and -appreciated. There's a lot there that needs to be addressed, and without investigating it further, the film's presentation of Michelle Rhee's idea of getting rid of tenure but adding in the possibility of a six-figure salary was intriguing to me. I think it might be a good idea. It was so interesting that the union didn't even allow people to vote on that idea.

    So, basically, Phillipe, I don't work in a related field, but as a mother of a child who will be going to an American preschool in the near future, this film made me want to homeschool! I'm serious! between my humanities/English proficiency, and my engineering husband's math and science background, we should be able to shake and education together, right?

    Keep more documentary reviews + recs coming, please! Although not so many heart-breaking ones, please. I will run out of tears.

  7. Anonymous7:52 PM

    Before completely capitulating to the hype, please, please read this, by one of the early architects of the No Child Left Behind craziness who has since had something of a conversion experience:
    As a long-time professional researcher in the education field, I know that the situation is of a very different sort than "Superman" mis-analyzes and reduces it to.