Waiting for "Superman"
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From the Academy Award-winning Director of An Inconvenient Truth comes the groundbreaking feature film that provides an engaging and inspiring look at public education in the United States. Waiting For “Superman” has helped launch a movement to achieve a real and lasting change through the compelling stories of five unforgettable students such as Emily, a Silicon Valley eighth-grader who is afraid of being labeled as unfit for college and Francisco, a Bronx first-grader whose mom will do anything to give him a shot at a better life. Waiting For “Superman” will leave a lasting and powerful impression that you will want to share with your friends and family.
Changing the Odds: A look at innovative programs that are changing public education
Public Education Updates: Changes which have taken place since the making of the film
A Conversation with Davis Guggenheim
The Future Is In Our Classrooms
The Making of "Shine": the film’s title track by musician John Legend Commentary by Director Davis Guggenheim and Producer Lesley Chilcott
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The most conspicuous feature of this film is its absolutely, willfully, blinkered ignoring of any data and especially any causal factors in low student achievement - except for Guggenheim's villains of the piece: Teachers and their unions. He even cues up the Jaws music when the union leaders are shown. This is an exercise in blame: Placing all the blame for poor student performance on teachers and their unions. And I mean all of it: No other groups are apportioned ANY responsibility for student performance in this film, including, conspicuously, the parents and the students themselves, who are presented as passive victims rather than the most important actors in the story.
For instance, he blames schools and teachers, entirely, for the fact that kids don't show up for school. Do the parents, neighborhood, and the kids themselves (the actual ones failing to show up) have ANY responsibility here? Does accountability extend only to teachers? Apparently, for Davis Guggenheim, it does.
Mr. Guggenheim would like you to believe that the following have no impact on student performance: Parental involvement, income level, educational level of the parents, the surrounding culture in which the children live, violence, drug addiction and dealing, unemployment, incarceration rates among the parents and relations of the students, sleep, nutrition, etc. They are not even given lip-service in the film, not even acknowledged as factors. All people involved in education know that parental involvement is the most important factor in student performance. This all-important factor is tacitly waved away with a handful of anecdotes.
Mr. Guggenheim presents a tiny handful of involved parents (anecdotes) and you are supposed to believe that they accurately represent the norm in the school districts shown in the film, and by implication, all struggling school districts. This is nonsense. He also looks at a tiny sample of the school population (in highly unusual schools) and tries to imply that these examples could be just up-sized to the whole population and all issues would be solved.
Mr. Guggenheim presents the KIPP Academies and Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone's Promise Academies as successful models for public education. All can acknowledge that they do good work. The numbers of students presented for these two systems are, if I'm remembering correctly from the film, 3000 students and 24,000 students. Let's round up to a total of 30,000 students. There are approximately 50 million students in K-12 in US schools (and based on how the film presents them we should conclude that almost all of them are terrible students). His examples account for 6 one-hundredths of 1 percent of the student population (0.06%, about 1/20th of 1%, or 1 out of every 1700 students). A miniscule sample size indeed.
What is never presented in the film is how these example schools do their work (a rather glaring omission). (Most basically: What are their class sizes?) You're left to infer that they got rid of the unions and that took care of everything (though it's still unclear whether their teachers are unionized or not). I've heard both Davis Guggenheim and Geoffrey Canada interviewed at length. How do they do it? They do it by working the teachers much harder and longer and more invasively than is reasonable.
For instance: Longer work days, evening teaching/tutoring, summer school, weekend tutoring, teachers on call 24/7 on their private cell phones, teachers going into the students' homes and doing their homework with them. (Teachers already spend many hours per week outside of school hours preparing, grading, etc.: It is very far from a 40-hour per week job.) Anyone would consider such expansion of their work to be a huge pay cut and an extreme invasion of their private lives. (And, unsurprisingly, these are just the sort of workplace degradations that unions resist.) This isn't teaching, this is surrogate parenting. This is expecting teachers to devote their entire lives (not their working hours) to educate and support other people's kids, instead of their own families. You may be able to find a few super-dedicated people willing to sacrifice their lives for other people's kids. This is not a viable option for 99% of teachers, who, not surprisingly, expect it to be a job and to have time off and to be able to participate in their own families.
One of the examples shown in the film is a boarding school in LA that takes the students 24 hours a day and does not allow TV, video games, etc. This is (stern, intensive) surrogate parenting, not teaching. We are left to wonder about the tiny class sizes in this school and the labor costs of parenting the kids 24/7.
I called in a question to Mr. Guggenheim during a radio interview: I asked what happens to the kids whose parents do not fulfill their contracts with the school (among other things, he said (in the interview, not in the film) that the parents in these schools have to sign a contract with obligations to support their student). He didn't answer. I can: They go back into the failing public school that has no choice but to take all comers. They have to take the kids whose parents can't hack KIPP or HCZ, those kids who misbehave and are expelled from private schools, those kids who are special needs and cost too much for the private schools and the special academies.
The reason Mr. Guggenheim doesn't present the actual methods used in these schools is that they are not teaching, but surrogate parenting. He is tacitly but clearly acknowledging what all educators know: Parental involvement is the most important factor in student performance. All his examples are surrogate parenting + teaching.
Many things are presented in misleading ways in this film. For instance:
Guggenheim shows (fake) charts that indicate: Great teachers produce better student performance (test scores). Well, how were those teachers rated great? By their students test scores. So, teachers with students with great test scores have students with great test scores. Very enlightening.
He presents rising educational spending against flat achievement without giving the reasons for the increasing spending, which are largely a continuous stream of Federal and State mandates, conspicuously the "mainstreaming" of special needs kids formerly placed in other institutions, which both increase costs and dictate higher achievement standards. (What is the y-axis on that chart, and how is it normalized?) Many special needs kids require a full time aid: One employee dedicated to a single student. Does that cost money?
He compares the "best teachers" - say the top 5% - against the "worst teachers" - say the bottom 5% - and notes that the top group does much better than the bottom group. Is this a surprise to anyone? Comparing the best to the worst among ANY group will produce this result! It's in the definition of the proposition: We DEFINE the best or top people as being much better than the bottom or worst.
Mr. Guggenheim notes that a lower percentage of teachers lose their certification due to performance (1 in 1600) than lawyers or doctors do. This is supposed to imply that bad teachers are retained in crazy numbers. Of course, some bad teachers are retained, as in any profession. But he fails to note that between 5% and 9% of teachers permanently leave the profession annually (between 1 in 20 and 1 in 11) and these percentages have risen steadily since the 1980s. 50% call it quits within their first 5 years on the job. The ones that remain can usually hack it. (Teacher Attrition and Mobility: Results from the 2004-05 Teacher Follow-up Survey, January 2007, National Center for Education Statistics)
In the end, all Mr. Guggenheim has is anecdotes from a tiny fraction of the students in the country in a few highly unusual schools. He would have you believe that if we just busted the teachers' unions (the dream of the current crop of GOP governors) then all would be sweetness and light and the "achievement gap" would disappear, all the kids in those tough urban districts would come back to school and complete their high school education and go on to college. If those lazy, incompetent teachers can just be put back in their place - like back in the good old days when they were poorly paid, had no voice and no protections, and did what they were told - all will be well. Case not made.
Contrary to what he asserts, not every public school is failing and charter schools are not the answer. It seems to me that Guggenheim has recently become interested in education because his wealthy buddies just discovered that they could make money off of the privatization of public education.
So many inconsistencies throughout this film, including Guggenheim's constant hailing of Michelle Rhee as a savior. Perhaps the viewer should ask him/herself why the vast majority of voters in Washington D.C. voted her patron out of office and replaced him with a new Mayor that was very critical of her policies. Clearly the D.C. public did not agree with Guggenheim's view on Rhee.
While watching this film, perhaps the viewer should ask these questions: What are Guggenheim's real intentions in making this film? What expertise does he possess which qualifies him to reach his conclusions? Are we to believe he is a benevolent figure for public school reform? Did he send his own children to public schools...or does he want his theoretical vision of what it should be like to be imposed on and experimented with on your children?
If you would like to learn more about the other side of this issue, then read Diane Ravitch's book...
The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education
Ravitch's book, unlike this movie, is worthy of your attention.