Are You Still Waiting?

Sorry I haven't blogged in a has been interfering. But I decided to write tonight before it all flew out of my mind.

Tonight the University of Redlands sponsored a free screening of the documentary, "Waiting for Superman." The movie is written and directed by David Guggenheim, of "An Inconvenient Truth" fame. After the screening, we had a (too brief) panel discussion. The panel was made up of two awesome professors in our Ed.D. program and two fabulous doctoral students. They were knowledgeable and diverse in their opinions, and I really enjoyed what they had to say. Here are my gut reactions about the movie itself.

The movie's "stars" were 5 adorable children. I actually kept hoping that there would be at least one not-so-attractive child in the movie, since most children are, honestly, NOT that cute. While it was obvious from the beginning that Waiting for Superman was going to be an exercise in emotional blackmail, it was really hard not to root for those little ones.

Waiting for Superman uses statistics to back up its claims that public schools are failing. I agree that U.S. education misses the mark on many counts. However, the statistics cited in the movie do not match what I have learned in my study. For example, at one point in the movie, we are told that test scores have remained flat for many years. This is not true; test scores have, in fact, been improving. We are also led to believe that the achievement gap between poor and non-poor students is not narrowing. This is demonstrated by two seemingly parallel lines with a positive slope. However, this contradicts the earlier statement that test scores are "flat." If they were flat, then why the positive slope? Also, the articles I have read show that the achievement gap is narrowing. There is most definitely still a gap, and it is not narrowing nearly as quickly as all of us would like (think glacier), but it IS narrowing. One statement had me particularly riled up. The narrator stated how many public school students fail to finish high school and go on to college and then said that over 90% of students from the "top charter schools" attend college. I'm sure that if we chose the "top public schools" we could find the same statistic, especially since "top" is not clearly defined. Guggenheim's failure to be truthful in these instances dilutes the message of his film.

Waiting for Superman blames the public school system and its teachers for the deficiencies in American education. The fact is that public schools are full of dedicated, competent, hard-working teachers who do an amazing job for little respect, money, and resources. I go to school with public school teachers by whom I am constantly amazed. If you were to believe Guggenheim, the schools are rampant with lazy, horrible educators who do nothing but draw a paycheck, because "it is impossible" to fire them. This characterization is unfair and hurts those teachers who do such an amazing job every day. In a profession that is already under-respected, educators need to be lifted up rather than beaten down.

Guggenheim and others like him like to compare the United States to other countries. We are "behind" other countries in math and science. This alarming comparison has been used since the 1950's and was emphasized during the 1980's with "A Nation at Risk." However, these well-meaning people ignore the fact that many of the countries they like to compare us to track their students at an early age and so do not strive to provide the same type of education to all children. Of course those students do better in math; they were chosen because of their abilities. Perhaps Guggenheim should examine some recent research; even the 20-year-old Sandia Report will do.

Waiting for Superman would have us believe that charter schools are the educational equivalent of the Second Coming, with charter school founders as The Savior. However, most charter schools do not help students' test scores improve; just as with traditional public, private, and parochial schools, some are good and some are bad. One of the front-runners in our current gubernatorial race recently released a new commercial that claims she wants to increase the number of charter schools. Why? Why doesn't she find a way to help the existing traditional public schools instead? Because the candidate, like so many others, believes the charter school propaganda that is being spread.

The fact is that most students in charter schools are already ahead, as is apparent in the movie. Students in charter schools have parents who care enough about their children's education to figure out what a charter school is, where the good ones are, and how to get in. Many students don't have such parents, and thus don't have what the children in the movie have. We can't compare students who have this kind of support to the students who don't, and it's not fair to anyone to think that we can.

Two things in the movie really bugged me on a personal level. First, the movie talked about our need for quality math and science teachers. I have heard this for my entire career. However, I have never had an easy time finding work. I am intelligent, certified, educated, and experienced, and, frankly, I am an amazing teacher. And at the same time that President Obama announces his push to recruit thousands of new math and science teachers, I can't even get an interview.

WARNING! SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH ONLY! The second thing that got to me personally got me so riled up that I am still upset about it. At one point in the movie, a beautiful child sits in her windowsill, looking at the children going to school across the street. The child's mother tearfully explains that she had fallen behind in her tuition payments for the parochial school and that her daughter could not attend that day's graduation. It's a touching scene that tugs at the viewers' heartstrings. This scene just made me angry. Here's my beef. David Guggenheim, who made millions on his last movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," and yet couldn't turn his camera off, walk across the street, and pull out his checkbook so that this little girl could attend her graduation. Instead, Guggenheim continued to film the mother, with tears running down her face, for the sake of this movie. Any respect I may have had for this filmmaker was lost when I watched that scene.

Parts of this movie actually made some good points. Sadly,the good was masked by the propaganda and half-truths told by the filmmaker.

When I decided to pursue a doctorate in Leadership for Educational Justice, a very wise woman told me that she thought it was an amazing degree. "You're like a superhero!" she exclaimed. I see superheroes in education every single day, superheroes who are devoted to their students, to learning, and to educational justice. So instead of wasting my time and energy waiting for Superman, I will use my talents, education, and experience to support, respect, and work alongside with the real superheroes.


Emily said...

Interesting. My econ teacher in college always told us that statistics were great ways to tell anyone's truth. He would constantly use the phrase, "cooking the books!"

I've wondered about this movie... thanks for your honest review!

Empress KT said...

I'm the math guru, so it's hard for me not to scrutinize statistics and graphs.

The movie COULD have a good message, if you look for just have to cut through the politicizing to find it.

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