People who care about the nation’s schools – and the nation’s children – should probably take heart in the buzz that’s being generated by the new documentary Waiting for Superman. Anything that gets people excited about the importance of schools should have potential for good.
But accounts from people who have seen the film – which premiered this week in Washington, D.C., after months of feverish build-up — suggest that director Davis Guggenheim may be asking the right questions but leaping to the wrong answers.
Guggenheim, who won an Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary about Al Gore and climate change, tells a dramatic story of five young students who are entered in lotteries for coveted slots in charter schools – portrayed as a make-or-break gamble for their educational future. Besides the kids and their parents, its heroes include Michelle Rhee, the controversial chancellor of District of Columbia Schools, and Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone.
And Waiting for Superman isn’t just a movie. It’s a crusade, with audiences pledging to see the film and get involved, corporations pouring money into promotional activities, and Washington politicians, Hollywood types and pop music stars getting into the act. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman went all wide-eyed over the film. Multibillionaire Bill Gates and musician John Legend are among the many celebrities joining Guggenheim to promote it.
The title comes from Geoffrey Canada, who makes the point that we can’t wait for Superman to rescue us from our problems; we have to rescue ourselves. But it sounds a lot like Guggenheim, the director, is making comic-book heroes of Canada, Rhee and some cherry-picked charter schools.
Left on the cutting-room floor, apparently, was any reference to the studies that have found little or no difference in educational effectiveness between charter schools and traditional public schools.
Longtime education journalist John Merrow writes that there’s “much to admire” about Waiting for Superman. “That said,” he writes, “the film strikes me as a mishmash of contradictions and unsupportable generalizations, even half-truths. And while it may make for box office, its message is oversimplified to the point of being insulting … The message of the movie can be reduced to a couple of aphorisms: charter schools are good, unions are bad, and great teachers are good.”
Merrow says the film demonizes the American Federation of Teachers and its president, Randi Weingarten, but gives a pass to the bigger and arguably more obstructionist National Education Association. It glorifies “great teachers” without exploring what makes teachers great (“… although if memory serves almost all of the teachers who were on the screen when ‘goodness’ and ‘greatness’ were being talked about were young and white”).
Worst of all, he says, it exploits Geoffrey Canada’s onscreen charisma for an agenda that falls far short of Harlem Children’s Zone’s radical and comprehensive approach to social services.
Merrow is as passionate an advocate for better schools and better teachers as you will find. His Learning Matters TV newscasts just spent three years chronicling Michelle Rhee’s reforms in Washington. He endorsed the Los Angeles Times project that made public the “value-added” effectiveness ratings of individual teachers, against angry opposition by the LA teachers’ union.
He urges people to see Waiting for Superman and make up their own minds about it. “I’d like to see public support for films about education,” he writes, “even if my own title for this particular movie would be Waiting for Superficial Man, or something like that.”