A friend and I made the journey to a neighboring city to see Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman while it was still in limited release. After a mildly frustrating year teaching in a failing public middle school, I was eager for a new focus on questions of public education. But six weeks later I fear that what could be the beginning of a meaningful conversation will instead become merely another list of easily-forgotten policy recommendations.
Guggenheim’s latest crusade, like his 2006 apocalyptic An Inconvenient Truth, attained a rare level of attention for a documentary film. A review of radio morning shows (with a survey population scientifically selected by the pre-set buttons on my car radio) found the film promoted not only on newstalk and political talk stations but also on Rock Top 40, Soft Rock and Country music stations. President Obama invited the children in the movie to the White House. The companion book is a New York Times Bestseller. But while the buzz surrounding Waiting for Superman is reminiscent of the Inconvenient Truth hype, Guggenheim seems to have outdone himself when it comes to getting people on the bandwagon.
Many people remained unconvinced by Inconvenient Truth despite Al Gore’s insistence that “this is not a political issue – it is a moral issue.” As environmentalists continue to claim consensus, both the immediate response to the film and the more recent exposés of some of the data sources demonstrate how unfounded such a claim is. Waiting for Superman seems, thus far at least, to be a different story. The same people who scoffed at Inconvenient Truth for alarmism laud Waiting for Superman for its “honesty.”
Indeed, apart from the actual teachers unions (whose defensiveness is understandable if not excusable) there have been few objections to Guggenheim’s call to action. And even those who protest do so rather weakly, whining about Guggenheim’s “endorsement of corporate charter schools” and “drum-beat of attacks on teachers as the first and really the only problem.”  They gripe that in comparing public schools to charter schools Guggenheim focused only on the “best of the best” charter schools – that many charter schools aren’t doing better than public schools. But this is a point Guggenheim concedes upfront. Nor is it relevant to an argument, not that all charter schools are equal successes, but that too many public schools are equal failures.
For the most part however, the film and the critical response to it suggest that here, for once, is a problem we can agree on with a solution we can rally around. On one level, this is praiseworthy. It is to the credit of Guggenheim’s earlier critics that they do not dismiss his work out of hand because he is “on the other side.” And Waiting for Superman offers valuable publicity to problems that should have been addressed long ago. But even where there is much to praise, there is value in qualified enthusiasm: in remembering the difference between embracing a specific remedy and lauding that remedy as a panacea for our educational woes. It would be unfortunate if Waiting for Superman serves only as a lobbying tool rather than as a valuable piece in an extended conversation.
Such a conversation could begin (so long as it does not end) by considering Guggenheim’s proposals. The most disturbing images and statistics in the film focus on problems created by teachers unions. And indeed, the story Guggenheim tells is bleak. It’s a story where tenure comes easily, where hard work goes unrewarded and laziness goes unpunished. The movie claims that, annually, about 1 in 57 medical doctors and 1 in 97 lawyers lose their licenses for malpractice while only 1 in 2,500 unionized teachers lose their credentials. It portrays, through clever graphics, the “lemon dance” conducted by districts every year as bad teachers are shuffled from one school to another, and shows footage of the “rubber room” in the state of New York where teachers awaiting hearings are paid full salaries to do . . . nothing.
Rick Ayer’s argument, quoted earlier, that Waiting for Superman portrays teachers as “the first and really the only problem” is, in fact, a reversal of the film’s repeated assertion that good teachers are the real solution. And it is difficult to assert that the film promotes low pay for teachers when Guggenheim describes DC Public School Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s proposal to increase teacher pay in exchange for giving up tenure. A six figure salary is hardly a raw deal. But, the film laments, the union wouldn’t let this proposal come to a vote.
Teachers unions respond that it is unfair and dangerous to reward teachers based on students’ performance on standardized tests when “teaching to the test” is itself a problem with our education system. This is among the more valid of the unions’ objections, but it is not exactly an insurmountable problem. Teachers evaluations could include any number of standards besides test scores – peer evaluation, student performance on locally created and administered written or oral tests, classroom observation time, etc. Having worked in a public school, I can assure the reader that co-workers (and students) know exactly which are the good and bad teachers. If we’re going to reform the union system we can surely reform the evaluation system as well.
Waiting for Superman’s campaign against the unions is strong – even damning – but the viewer would do well not to embrace the message of the whole film on the strength of one argument. It is far easier to rally round a battle cry than to examine underlying assumptions, but if we neglect these, reform becomes simply reaction. In the opening scenes of the movie, Guggenheim is frank about the purpose of his crusade: we need to fix public schools, he argues, so that those of us who feel guilty driving our children to private schools can once again embrace the ideal of public education.
This mission becomes clear if we examine the actions Guggenheim hopes to inspire through the film. The website offers a checklist. Action items include “support great teachers; write your school board . . . Demand world-class standards; write your governor or candidates . . . Volunteer & Mentor (in a local school) . . . Donate (to a local classroom).” Through such recommendations, Guggenheim remains true to what Ayers calls “an education based on the democratic ideal that the fullest development of each is the condition for the full development of all.”
Perhaps this “democratic ideal” explains, in part, the film’s complete silence on what seems an obvious factor in the success of charter and private schools: self-selection of the student body. Even in tuition-free charter schools, families must take some initiative to enroll students. This almost guarantees students from families that value education. Good public school teachers know the frustration of calling parents who never respond, or who offer trite excuses when they do respond. Some of my students had parents who can’t be bothered to check their child’s homework. Some lived with older teenage siblings who had no idea how to motivate a younger teen. Despite their failing schools, the students in Guggenheim’s film all have one asset few students in my school could boast: concerned, proactive families.
This is an uncomfortable problem for staunch defenders of public education because it challenges a historical promise of universal public education. Since the early days of Progressivism, education has been offered as the answer for social reform. But we face a problem of causation. It is precisely the students from families most in need of “reform” that are least able to benefit from their education. Our conversation needs to recognize that the role of the teacher requires the support of the family, and to include the broader issue of decline of the family in modern culture.
Guggenheim admits to driving his children past public schools on the way to private schools because he is not willing to sacrifice them to a failing system. But what if reforming teachers unions fails to “fix the system”? Do we sacrifice education for equality? Or should we increase the quality of education for some through increased school choices even if that means an unfair disadvantage for those without family or whose families simply don’t care?
Guggenheim doesn’t seem to think so. Waiting for Superman looks to the accomplishments of certain charter schools, but sees charter schools as a model for public schools rather than as an alternative to them. Thus, the viewer may be outraged by the statistics about the teachers union, but she is moved to tears by the devastated faces of the families who lose the charter school “lottery.” Guggenheim does not suggest that we need more choices for parents so much as that we must eliminate the need for choices through reform. “There is no single solution to fixing our education system,” claims the film’s website, “but there are steps you can take to help ensure that every child gets a great education.”
Such a claim, however, assumes a common definition of a “great education,” which, in terms of both means and ends, is precisely the most significant piece missing from most debates about education. The film describes a good education as one which prepares students for the high-tech jobs available in 21st Century America. A few union supporters have objected – and I think many Front Porch Republic readers would agree – that the purpose of education is much broader (if not completely different than) vocational training: that it is fundamental to the growth of the child, not as an employee, but as a person. There is and will be disagreement over what this means. It raises questions about the relative value of community and cosmopolitanism, virtue and tolerance, individualism and the common good. This conversation may prove much more difficult than any debate over a specific policy proposal. We would like to think we already know why we send our children to school for the most significant portion of each day. However, it is not a question we can afford to ignore. Certainly, we cannot measure the success of education until we understand the purpose of education.
Clearly, the real conversation and controversy begin precisely where Guggenheim leaves off. If we expect the proposals offered in Waiting for Superman to “fix” American education, the project is be doomed before it begins. But if we are willing to engage in a conversation that cuts to the root of our ideas about education, we can measure success realistically – looking for improvement rather than perfection.
Ayers, Rick. “An Inconvenient Superman: Davis Guggenheim’s New Film Hijacks School Reform.” Huffington Post. September 17, 2010, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rick-ayers-/an-inconvenient-superman-_b_716420.html
“How You Can Help: Take Action,” last modified October 15, 2010, http://www.waitingforsuperman.com/action/page/what-you-can-do
Perhaps it’s time to take a hard look at the earliest proponents of mass education, people like Jefferson. His Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge envisioned a system of universal education in reading, writing and arithmetic; but of those basic schools, one student per school was to advance to the twenty public schools in the state that would then teach advanced subjects like Greek, Latin, and higher math; of those schools, one per school (!) was to advance on scholarship to the College of William and Mary. Twenty students each year were to be, in Jefferson’s words, “raked from the rubbish.”
In today’s system, when 51% of everyone will at least get some college, our presuppositions about the ratio of the educable to the general population are obviously very different. Bachelor’s degrees have become, as Charles Murray’s book Real Education amply proves, a mark of social status ideally acquired through academic coasting, rather than a mark of real intellectual accomplishment.
One of the invidious consequences of this system are that any individual of above-average intelligence, even if on the whole he could be more successful in life without proof of certified smarts, is pressured into the degree-track lifestyle. I had a dear friend who was an absolute mechanical genius; if allowed to simply pursue his talents and inclinations, he could easily have ended up running his own mechanic shop and being very prosperous. As it was, since he was of above-average book smarts, he was pressured into being a C student in psychology and is making an average income doing research. Status, and not wealth or intellectual accomplishment, is driving the masses into the degree mills.
Not to say our standards need to be as strict as Jefferson’s, but imagine a world where public colleges, free of the strain of the bottom line, took the chance to be MORE selective than private universities, and consequently granted more and not less prestigious credentials? Or a world where public schools drilled students in the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic (rather than the full range of multicultural dross), with little pressure to keep driving on unless someone’s talents really lay in book l’arnin’? Where advanced degrees were a mark of distinction for some, while most were judged just on their competence and work ethic?
I can tell you one reason for such low numbers for the removal of bad and incompetent teachers: cowardly administrators. While I’m sure there exist some overzealous teacher’s unions that protect their members at all costs, I’d be willing to say that most unions exist to protect their members rights of due process. If one wants to (one should actually) rid a school of a bad teacher then one must follow the process. I can’t speak for all systems, but ours has a course of action that involves notifying the teacher of poor performance and allowing that teacher a chance to improve. If after said time, say a semester or two, there is no documentable improvement then the teacher is sacked…and rightly so. There are at least two bad teachers in my building, why do they still have positions? It isn’t because the union is standing in front of the tanks in Tian’anmen Square; it’s because of cowardly, lazy, and incompetent administrators who won’t do their job.
Thomas Jefferson came to my mind too. We home schooled our sons and listened to several presentations by Oliver Van De Mille who wrote A Thomas Jefferson Education http://www.amazon.com/Thomas-Jefferson-Education-Generation-Twenty-first/dp/096712462X. De Mille emphasizes mentoring, reading classical texts starting from an early age, and respecting the developmental cycle of children which doesn’t fit with incarcerating them from age four or five. De Mille would like to see our educational system produce leaders.
A major challenge will be breaking the current cycle. Robert Kiyosaki points out that we educate employees, not citizens, not critical thinkers. In Kiyosaki’s view, not entrepreneur’s either. So we have several generations of educators who have not been trained to think critically.
As a society, we’re required to address increasingly entwined issues. However, we are training children with formulas and scripts rather than as people who love learning and can make their way through these issues to discover root causes.
Two questions: 1) With early exposure to technology and the capabilities that brings, do we really think children today learn in the same way as in the past? It seems we rely on circular learning, where the same material is revisited from year-to-year. Is this the correct model? Does it lead merely to memorization of facts that are easily accessible?
2) How do we have the discussion that is proposed? What is the forum? Policy makers continue to place an emphasis on oversight. The movie places an emphasis on competence “good teachers” as solution. How do we create an environment where good ideas, even those contributed by people who are not trained “experts” can be heard and considered fairly? Aleco Christakis talks about the Agora process at http://sites.google.com/site/21stcenturyagora/. This might be a venue for the voices which need to be heard.
I appreciate your thoughtful engagement with Guggenheim’s film. I am especially heartened by your call for a conversation about the purpose of education. I agree with you: this is both neglected and essential. It’s hard to tell if we’re succeeding unless we know what success looks like.
Unfortunately, these days it seems the only measure for success is standardized testing, and as a public school teacher in a “failing school” let me tell you: feeling that your value hinges on a standardized test is soul-crushing for both teachers and students. The students don’t want to learn it if it isn’t on the test and administrators don’t want us to teach it if it’s not on the test. When I told an administrator that I was reading Julius Caesar with my students, his only response was, “Will that help them on the test?” For this administrator at least, literature has no value beyond its relationship to a 65-item multiple-choice test.
Neil Postman has a book on the end of education which is titled the same. In it, he discusses the purposes of education that are both dominant and deficient: education for employment and consumption (of bogus material, ideological and technological “goods”), and multiculturalism. He then proposes alternatives that he finds superior: stewardship, citizenship, and epistemic humility. I’m not using his terms, but I think the ideas conveyed correspond well enough.
Finally, it needs to be pointed out that while Guggenheim’s film seems to generate some resentment of teacher’s unions, it also holds up Finland as a model of a good educational system. Without having seen it, I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think the film mentions that something like 95% of Finland’s teachers belong to the teacher’s union. Clearly, the union isn’t preventing good teaching in Finland. Finland seems to suggest that unions are not an obstacle to teaching and learning.
I’m all for a reasonable discussion about the end of education. In the hopes of clarifying my own thoughts, I’d love to hear Porcher’s perspective on this.
You raise some very important questions. I appreciate your mention of alternatives to dominant understandings of education; I have not read Neil Postman’s book, but perhaps should add it to my ever-growing “to read” list.
On the question of standardized tests: I too taught in a failing school and can certainly sympathize with the frustration of having performance measured by the results of a Scantron test (although in my case, as a Social Studies teacher, it proved a mixed blessing; on the one hand I had to convince my students that my topic was important even though it wasn’t tested, but on the other I had far more leeway to teach outside our horrible and painfully boring textbook since the administration cared even less about my subject than the students did). In addition to the point you raised about teaching to the test, standardized tests offer no real measure of communication, imagination or critical thinking (as, say, an essay would). Nor do they, in any way, allow for accommodation of the individual student (or teacher). They are what they claim to be: standardized.
I did note in the essay, that I think there are better ways of evaluating students. However, I realize that the types of evaluations I suggested (peer evaluation, locally administered written – not multiple choice- tests, classroom observation time) themselves require significant changes to the education system. Even when we aren’t talking about Federal involvement in public schools, most education in America is administered on a grand scale. My home state has a population the size of Canada’s. Evaluation and administration on that scale is impracticable and, in my opinion, undesirable.
But moving evaluations of students and teachers to a more local level again raises the problem of equality. Equality has long been a priority in education policy (we want no child left behind, right?). I can’t help thinking, equality at what price? If our standardized tests are an example of equality, I, for one, would prefer diversity. But I’ve noticed that proponents of inequality tend not to get too far in the world of education policy.
Certainly the very idea of what an education is needs to be reformed, or rather rediscovered. And unions need to be curbed and incompetent teachers removed. But let me suggest that school is the last, and perhaps least part of the educational process. Most of us are educated, to the degree that we are educated, because we came from homes that valued education, and were willing to support it. But with the deterioration of the family, and its economic base, the process has been farmed out to a bureaucracy that cannot replace the family and the community; it can only supplement them.
And of course school and family are themselves a small part of the resources that go into education. The real bucks–and the real talent–is in the advertising industry and its entertainment appendage (which is only another form of advertising.) This is the real teacher of our children, and parents often find that despite their best efforts, someone else has taken control of their children’s minds. First task of the educator is to turn off the TV. This is difficult if the chief educators aren’t at home, or if they are glued to the TV set themselves at the times that they are. And then there is the truly evil trend of “Channel One,” which gives “free” TVs to schools in return for a compulsory viewing by all students of their infotainment (ugly word) broadcasts each day.
Our educational system is based off the deep reverence for socialized citizens of the grand state, finding its origins in the thinkers of socialist-driven Horace Mann and John Dewey. The idea of the movie reminds me of Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” from 1988, a book forgotten or no longer known to the general public (and absolutely not mentioned in education classes; for I have taken two different educational history classes at both a state and Christian school). The children being taken away from the family and community to be given national standards. Of Dewey’s original concerns, was the ridding of regional differences and endearment for one’s place. This was in order to properly create a nationalized citizenry. I could go on and on with this, but I hope the point is well-taken. Lasch, in his wonderful work, “Haven in a Heartless World,” discusses a bit about the children being taken away from the home, where the parents are no longer the ruling educators of their children. In my opinion, the movement toward a classical education and smaller/home schooling is the proper method. I for one know, that I will never send my own children to a public school. Its foundation and history is contrary to localism, and dare I say, Christianity.
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