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“Waiting for Superman”: Don’t Believe the Hype

Waiting for SupermanWaiting for Superman,” the new education reform documentary by Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”) hits select theaters this Friday. Having generated plenty of buzz at the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals, and at its premiere at the Newseum in D.C. last week, it’s already being called the hottest documentary of the year. The reviewer for New York magazine called it “one of the most galvanizing documentaries I’ve ever seen.”

Though the “Superman” of the title is a reference to Geoffrey Canada’s childhood wish for a savior, the film does have its heroes (Michelle Rhee, et al.) and villains (unions), with Randi Weingarten cast as Lex Luthor. Many in the “blame the teacher” crowd are feeling triumphant (though Mike Petrilli is exercising caution), and presumably well-meaning folks are hoping this film will drive the national conversation, just as “An Inconvenient Truth” did for global warming.

At the Huffington Post, education professor Rick Ayers posted a thoughtful piece on why allowing this film to frame the school reform debate  is a heartbreaking prospect.

Davis Guggenheim’s 2010 film Waiting for Superman is a slick marketing piece full of half-truths and distortions. The film suggests the problems in education are the fault of teachers and teacher unions alone, and it asserts that the solution to those problems is a greater focus on top-down instruction driven by test scores. It rejects the inconvenient truth that our schools are being starved of funds and other necessary resources, and instead opts for an era of privatization and market-driven school change. Its focus effectively suppresses a more complex and nuanced discussion of what it might actually take to leave no child behind, such as a living wage, a full-employment economy, the de-militarization of our schools, and an education based on the democratic ideal that the fullest development of each is the condition for the full development of all.

Aaron Pallas is also critical of the film, but doubts that it will have much impact on education policy despite its buzz, because the film gives short shrift to the real-world, substantive issues behind the usual talking points.

Waiting for “Superman” may well broaden public understanding of the condition of public schooling in America. But it is far less successful in communicating a clear vision of why so few American students are achieving at high levels, and in creating momentum for collective action by the film’s audience.

A lot of the film reduces to a morality play that pits the good-guy reformers and charter-school leaders (e.g., Canada, Rhee) against the bad-guy unions, without taking into account the broader political and social context in the U.S that should frame the debate. The film gives no sense of the complexity of our goals for public education, reducing outcomes to test scores (and maybe going to college).

Another obvious problem is the film’s championing of Rhee, since the result of last Tuesday’s primary in D.C., in which Mayor Adrian Fenty lost his bid for re-election, was widely seen as a referendum on the schools chancellor. And as Diane Ravitch writes, those journalists and pundits who attempt to explain Fenty’s trouncing in African American districts as the work of the teachers union, miss the point and ignore the agency of black voters.

Finally, the film fails to address thoughtfully ideas about learning and pedagogy. Back to Ayers:

Waiting for Superman accepts a theory of learning that is embarrassing in its stupidity. In one of its many little cartoon segments, it 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 film-makers betray no understanding of how people actually learn, the active and agentive participation of students in the learning process. They ignore the social construction of knowledge, the difference between deep learning and rote memorization. The film unquestioningly bows down to standardized tests as the measure of student knowledge, school success.

So far, the conversation surrounding “Waiting for Superman” has been mostly limited to film reviews and education blogs. Starting Friday, we’ll begin to see whether the film captures the imagination — and box-office dollars — of the broader public.