Writing about ‘Waiting for “Superman”’

Whatever the merits of the new movie Waiting for “Superman,” it’s inspiring some good education journalism, including stories in publications that usually don’t devote much ink to schools. Here are a few examples:

Dana Goldstein’s long piece in The Nation is titled “Grading ‘Waiting for ‘Superman,’” and the article does fault the movie for its heroes-and-villains plot line, calling it “a moving but vastly oversimplified brief on American educational inequality.” But Goldstein goes further, writing a balanced and well researched story that examines the influence in the school-policy debate of billionaire Bill Gates and journalist Steven Brill and reports how teachers’ unions in Denver, Memphis and Los Angeles have taken the lead in pushing for reform.

Goldstein is spending the year writing about education as a Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at Columbia University. At a time when some newspapers and magazines seem to be cutting back on education coverage, hats off to the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation for helping fill the gap.

In the New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann make a persuasive case that America’s education system, on the whole, is succeeding. “So it’s odd that a narrative of crisis, of a systemic failure, in American education is currently so persuasive,” he writes, citing Waiting for “Superman” as a leading example.

Lemann says we should be suspicious when “an enormous, complicated realm of life takes on the characteristics of a stock drama” – and we should be wary of plans to reform large, complex systems. “We deregulated the banking system,” he writes. “We tried to remake Iraq. In education, we would do well to appreciate what our country has built, and to try to fix what is undeniably wrong without declaring the entire system to be broken.”

Eduwonk blogger Andrew J. Rotherham, a reform supporter writing in Time magazine, calls the movie “a hard-hitting documentary that lays bare many of America’s education problems.” But he throws cold water on some of the enthusiasm it has generated. “One reason for the slow pace of reform is because American public schools are fundamentally conservative — and because Americans are fundamentally conservative about their schools,” he writes.

And if that’s not enough, the Education Writers Association has a resource page with links to two dozen reviews and articles about Waiting for “Superman.”

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