A teacher reviews “Waiting for Superman”

May 25th, 2011

We know many teachers who have avoided watching the documentary Waiting for Superman because of what they’ve heard about the film’s view of public school teachers. We asked teacher educator Maureen Barbieri for her thoughts about the film and the messages it sends. After working as a teacher, principal, and literacy coach for many years, Maureen currently teaches literacy courses at the University of New Hampshire, volunteers at a local elementary school, and takes care of two young grandchildren every week.  This is the first in a series of blog posts by Maureen.

Too many of our inner city students are not thriving in school.  So along comes Waiting for Superman, a compelling documentary produced by Davis Guggenheim, to raise the question: “What is our obligation to other people’s children?” The film is an indictment of the public school system with particular criticism aimed at teachers’ unions, the villains of the piece.  Heralded as “inspiring” and “one of the best films of the year,” it left me heartsick. The movie is slick and manipulative, advocating a school reform agenda that pushes charter schools and “teacher accountability” tied to students’ standardized test scores.

Guggenheim deserves credit for shining a light on education, but his solutions are simplistic and ignore the fact that societal inequities are more powerful than any force teachers can bring to bear in schools.  The pedagogy of rote learning, endorsed in the film, is one that many contemporary educators have abandoned in favor of a more student-centered approach that recognizes that knowledge is a process of coming to understand, connecting new information to previously held concepts.

Waiting for Superman casts a rosy glow on Geoffrey Canada, founding principal of Harlem Success Academy, who narrates a short cartoon in which a teacher walks from student to student, opening heads and pouring something from a pitcher.  “It should be simple,” he says. “A teacher filling her students’ heads with knowledge and sending them on their way.  But we’ve made it complicated.” This feels like a leap back into the past; what we really want is students who are much more active participants in their own learning.

Waiting for Superman accuses teachers’ unions of being the monkey wrench in school reform.  If only we could torpedo teacher tenure and move to merit pay, insists the film’s other star, Michelle Rhee, everything would improve.  Rhee, former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. schools, closed 23 schools in one year and offered teachers huge salary increases, if they would agree to forfeit tenure.  Now she travels around the country advancing the idea that unions are the enemy of school reform, and she has been persuasive.  She is not alone in her disdain for the unions, as we have seen in Wisconsin, Ohio, and New Hampshire, where some people place blame on unions for everything from low test scores to budget deficits.

In New York City today, teachers applying for tenure go through a rigorous process of compiling a portfolio, securing letters of endorsement, and being observed and interviewed.  The vast majority of teachers I’ve known over the past 28 years, twelve spent in New York City as a literacy coach, principal, and university instructor, have been conscientious in their commitment to students, something the film ignores.  Teachers do not seek job security at the expense of students’ welfare, as Rhee asserts; they seek to be treated as professionals.

These issues are complex and it won’t be a “superman” who will address them.  The film’s melodramatic portrayal of moms too poor to pay Catholic school tuition, its blanket condemnation of unions, and its presentation of dubious statistics will do little to help. Other, more constructive, ideas abound.

For every dedicated educator shown in the film who is working at a charter or private schools in New York, there are thousands of equally committed and creative teachers working within the public school system. In addition to being excellent teachers in the classroom, they devote hours of free time to their students beyond the school day. I am thinking about two young teachers from IS 131 in New York’s Chinatown who spent their Saturdays taking immigrant kids on walks around the city, encouraging them to make observations, ask questions, and wonder about the implications of what they had seen.  I’m remembering the year a science teacher and I took a group of eighth grade “feisty females” to art museums, cafes, and bookstores every Friday after school. I’m thinking about a fifth grade teacher at PS 11 in Chelsea who designed and implemented a social justice curriculum requiring children to observe and write about what was unfair in their communities and then develop action plans to make changes.

These days I get emails from former NYU students, telling tales of being compelled to follow scripted reading programs. They’re dismayed at the lack of value placed on the teaching of writing and at the obsession with test scores.  They love working with students, but they are disheartened to have such little voice in what happens in their classrooms.  Several have left in frustration already, pursuing journalism or law careers.  Among my current students at UNH there is a sense of foreboding where there was once a sense of joy.  They lament the lack of respect for teachers in the media and among the general public, and they are uneasy about their futures.  I worry that they will lose heart.

Waiting for Superman shows little respect for teachers’ intelligence, integrity, or creativity. Unless we can counter this mind-set, we can anticipate that talented teachers will leave the profession and smart young college students will make other career choices.  The stakes are too high here to allow the nation’s attention to be hijacked by such a narrow, simplistic agenda as the film advances.  Other voices are sorely needed in this conversation: the voices of thinkers like Diane Ravitch, Alfie Kohn, and Linda Darling Hammond; the voices of families whose children are thriving in many types of schools; and, most of all, the voices of teachers who know better than anyone else what it means to work and learn and think alongside other people’s children.

For more information about the issues raised by Waiting for Superman—and the reality behind them– check out these links:

  • Diane Ravitch looks at the reality behind the schools and reforms profiled in the film in her review in the New York Times Review of Books.
  • The Grassroots Education Movement of New York has just released a documentary challenging the picture of public education portrayed in the Guggenheim film.
  • “Good teaching alone can’t overcome the many obstacles” students face when they are not in school writes Joe Nocera in a recent column in the NY Times.
  • Alfie Kohn takes school reformers to task for advocating what he calls “poor teaching for poor children” in this recent commentary in Education Week.

Entry Filed under: Questions & Authors

17 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mrs. V  |  May 25th, 2011 at 10:54 am

    I really enjoyed this review of Waiting for Superman. I saw it back in the fall, and there were some aspects that were different than I remembered. For example, I did not think they were advocating for rote learning. To the contrary, I was thinking they were against it. This review makes me want to go back and watch it again to see why I am remembering it that way.

    I always love seeing different perspectives, so it was great to see the experience that Barbieri brings as her lens to review the film, and I look forward to seeing more of her posts.

    I still have not had a chance to see Race to Nowhere. I would love to see a post similar to this one focusing on that documentary.

  • 2. Stephanie  |  May 26th, 2011 at 11:34 pm

    I politely disagree with Maureen. I am a teacher also and saw the movie in a totally different light. I think the movie definitely praises GREAT teachers and discusses the effect of terrible ones.

    I teach in California in a district where teachers get tenure after 2 years. No portfolios are required, no interview, nothing! You get it simply by fulfilling your time. My school is in a very high poverty area with predominately ELLS. Our kids are behind as it is, and they are stuck with terrible teachers year after year who are protected by a bogus contract and a terrible teachers union that protects it.

    As a teacher who strives to be a professional, I came out of the movie feeling very good with myself knowing that I am one of those fabulous “works of art” as Geoffrey Canada put it!

  • 3. Karen  |  May 27th, 2011 at 5:09 am

    It was nice to hear someone reflect many of the views that I had about Waiting for Superman. I can only keep hoping that eventually the tide will turn and the reformers will have to admit they’ve been wrong.

  • 4. Rebecca Northcutt  |  May 27th, 2011 at 6:12 am

    “Teachers do not seek job security at the expense of students’ welfare, as Rhee asserts; they seek to be treated as professionals.”

    Unfortunately, this statement is untrue because it includes all teachers. Michelle Rhee fdidn’t fire all of the teachers, just the teachers who didn’t show up to work, or who committed other serious unprofessional behavior.

    I taught in DC Public Schools and I know that there were many dedicated teachers who got amazing results from their work with their students but there were also teachers in my school who sat at their desks all day and watched soap operas while the students copied from the board. Copying from the board is the only thing many students do in DC Public Schools, both elementary and middle schools. People with money pull their kids out and put them in priovate schools, people with luck might get their kids scholarships, and the rest of the families have charteer schools as their only other option.

    The teachers in the classrooms next to me shouted at their students and made them sit with their hands folded and do nothing. Sitting with hands folded is big in DC Public Schools. My students used to ask as we walked down the hall, “Don’t Miss Reeves’ children ever DO anything?” My principal told me that inner city children were not like the children where I came from, saying, “Our children need structure.” When I asked a school psychologist about it he said, “They structure the students’ behavior. You structure the learning.”

    There was a math teacher in my school who had an EdD. He came into each classroom for 30 minutes a week. He put problems on the board, had the students copy them, put the answers on the board, had the students copy them, collected the papers, and left. EVERY WEEK. The students hated that time and begged me to keep him out but as a new teacher and the only white teacher in the school I didn’t have enough power. So we all suffered through that wastedhalf hour every week and he got paid twice what I was making to do NOTHING of any value to the students. But he had piles and piles of student work with the right answers on it if prove that he was working.

    The biggest reason teachers need unions is that educational administrators are not always the best and the brightest. When my friend’s car broke down on the way to school and the tow truck delivered her to school 20 minutes late, she had to sit outside the school and wait while the custodian sat in her classroom for the entire morning and the children just sat there in silence with their hands folded. She was being punished for being late by losing half a day’s pay and the children were being punished for… what?. I know that this happened because I visited her classroom that day and saw it happen.

    When I was saw that my children’s ball-and-stick letters were making it difficult for others to read their writing because ‘d’ looked like ‘o l’ or ‘b’ looked like ‘l o’, I showed them how to make each letter without lifting the pencil from the paper, keeping the lines of each letter connected. I was scolded by my DCPublic Schools principal for doing that and told to return to ball and stick printing. As you can imagine, I did not, and I also found a job in another district.

    A mother in my neighborhood complained to the teacher and principal that her son, a 5th grader in a special ed class was being given 2nd grade work after previously succeeding at 4th grade work. The teacher defended dumbing down his assignments because, “He’s the only one in the class who can do that. I made his assignments consistent with the other children.” She doesn’t get it that an IEP is individual. Maybe she doesn’t know what Individual means. And the principal showed zero understanding that assigning work 3 grade levels too low and assigning work to one kid based on the ability of other kids are both wrong.

    My other neighbor was told, “If you don’t put him on Ritalin, I can’t teach him.” Can Ms Barbieri explain how this is either creative or professional? Then she needs to stop defending all teachers and help figure out what to do with the bad ones, because they’re out there and they’re destroying childrens’ spirits and damaging their educations every day.

  • 5. Sarah Stitzlein  |  May 27th, 2011 at 8:23 am

    I encourage people who are seeking better approaches to school reform that arise from and are endorsed by many teachers to check out the Save Our School March and National Call to Action at http://www.saveourschoolsmarch.org/. This march will take place in Washington D.C. on July 30 and aims to combat some of the problems put forward in Waiting for Superman while still celebrating the hard working teachers that the film highlights.

  • 6. Mrs. H  |  May 27th, 2011 at 10:13 am

    I am so glad there are others who are not racing to discredit this movie which truly puts things in perspective. As the last writer said, let’s stop defending all techers. There are some really bad ones out there; we all know it and have seen it. The problem with unions is they defend all teachers: even the BAD ones. You want to be treated like a professional? Then act like one. In most professions, you are held accountable by what you do and what results you get from your job. So this movie comes along, and it is not polictically correct because it calls a spade a spade and some people just can’t stand it. We are too worried about being politically correct and not nearly worried enough about doing a good job!!!

  • 7. Marc Antal  |  May 27th, 2011 at 2:35 pm

    I would agree with some posts that unions-which I completely support-need to do a better job of representing only those that mean high standards. There are many ineffective teachers, and I don’t think it is fair they are represented in the same way I am when I know I put a lot into my work, am constantly trying to improve it and they do not or don’t care to. ITeacher’s Unions need to weed out low quality teachers. This would improve the unions stature, and shut up a lot of its critics that paint all with the same broad, small minded brush. As to this movie-very biased with a clear agenda, and unfair in many respects.

  • 8. Andrea  |  May 29th, 2011 at 8:36 am

    As is true in every profession, not everyone is passionate, knowledgeable or hard working. I too, have experienced schools (usually in poor neighborhoods, such as the one that new teacher Rebecca survived), in which the majority of the staff – principal included – is overwhelmed and under qualified. My teaching career began in such an environment.

    But these horror stories have been told before. (As have horror stories of hospitals, law firms, police departments, military units, wedding planners…)

    Barbieri acknowledges them, and writes that she agrees with the problem, and appreciates the opening of the conversation, that is the premiss of “Waiting for Superman.”

    She neither writes “all teachers” when she describes the good nor the struggling. She seems to be careful not to get into dualities, black or white declarations. She writes that “The vast majority…have been conscientious in their commitment to students.” This has been my finding as I have worked with schools from DC to San Diego, from Liberia to Peru.

    The courageous stance that Barbieri takes is with educators at a time when they are being vilified and turned into scapegoats. She brings up an important point: if young, committed and conscientious teachers like Rebecca, and brilliant, knowledgeable veteran teachers are to stay in education, they need to be celebrated, supported and held accountable in ways that improve teaching and learning.

    The reality of inequality in our education system is not a new one. What might be new is that big business has become interested. Their intentions may be good, but their quick fixes for a problem this complex, is bound for failure. And I doubt that they would allow cameras film them desperately fighting to get their own children into what they believe is an only-chance-school.

    We must not jump on any band wagon. Instead, we need to come together to hear all sides. It wouldn’t be a bad thing to have the money of the billionaires, the expertise of the educators and the voices of the children.

  • 9. Shawna Coppola  |  May 29th, 2011 at 11:18 am

    Maureen, thank you for seeing this documentary and for writing this review. I could not bring myself to even watch Waiting for Superman; it made me sick to think of the inaccuracies and “half-truths” that were being dramatized for storytelling’s sake. The fear and lack of faith in public school teachers has even extended to my own best friend, who has known me since childhood, has known my struggles as an educator, and whose son is starting kindergarten in the fall. Based upon the idle conversations of a few parents in the community, she is already questioning her town’s school system and wants to look into having her son attend the charter school nearby–based on nothing but hearsay! It is amazing how ubiquitous this lack of faith is among even the most conscientious and well-educated , and this “documentary” only fuels the fire. “Heartsick” is exactly how I feel, too.

  • 10. Carol Gordon Ekster  |  May 30th, 2011 at 8:17 am

    This article was wonderful to read. There are many dedicated teachers. I was one of them. The movie made me cry because it was powerful in showing a teacher’s ability to inspire and touch lives. But I did work with teachers that I wish were not teaching our nation’s children. And I’m thrilled NY teachers goes through a difficult process to secure tenure. They should. We want only the best in the education field. But not all states and districts do that. I know I appreciated your support and mention of the many dedicated teachers you’ve encountered. And this problem can’t be easily solved…as it is most certainly not just the teachers. Besides policy made about testing and standards, we have some difficult parents who have gotten the children off on the wrong foot and it is hard, though not impossible, to help a child without the parents’ support. Again, thank you for this wonderful article.

  • 11. Maureen Barbieri  |  June 1st, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    Thanks so much to everyone who responded here. I love hearing from teachers, and I appreciate the many thoughtful points that you make. These are complex issues, and it is important to listen to one another, as we try to address them. I do realize that there are (a few) teachers who are not ideally suited to be in classrooms, and I believe that we need to develop professional evaluation that keeps students’ best interests front and center, while being fair to teachers at the same time. I hope to do another blog post in the near future reflecting further on school reform efforts, including recent initiatives to improve evaluation systems.

  • 12. Meredith  |  June 6th, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    Maureen, I appreciate your thoughtful review of this polarizing movie…. which, I’m actually sheepish to admit, I still haven’t forced myself to sit down and watch. Nonetheless, your critique of the film serves also as an all-too-accurate critique of the education “reform” movement itself, whose big names (Rhee, Canada, et al) seem to serve as the only superheroes in Guggenheim’s story. As discouraging as it is to read the news and hear the indictments of public schools and teachers, I believe that the more this film’s narrative is critiqued and complicated, the better our national debate around education will be. At the very least, this movie did vault education more into the public conversation than it was before — now it’s the job of committed and concerned educators to shine more light on the matter.

    One group of teachers and parents seems to be attempting just that, in a new film called “The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman” (clever title). This review suggests that there’s an even more nuanced story to be told than either of these two films has accomplished, but at least more voices are entering the debate. Thanks for raising yours :-) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/24/inconvenient-truth-behind-waiting-for-superman_n_865962.html

  • 13. Tim Springer  |  November 23rd, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    Thank you for a thoughtful review. As you note, the film is slick, well produced and well-funded. However, it should be noted, Mr. Guggenheim reveals his bias and sets the stage for the message of the entire film in his opening narrative:
    “My feelings about public education didn’t matter as much as the FEAR (emphasis added) of sending them to a failing public school.”
    Among the many things we need to address in our country is the culture of fear instilled and reinforced over the past eleven years. We are encouraged to fear change, to fear difference and so we view with suspicion anything or anyone who/that does not fall within our own comfortable zone.

    At a minimum I would hope we begin to examine statements of belief like Mr. Guggenheim’s in the sometimes harsh light of actual evidence. If and when we can do that. we may be able to begin to ask the right questions and not rely on anecdotes, beliefs, innuendo and media spin.

    Hopefully reasoned reactions like yours will facilitate a more rational dialog.

  • 14. Summertime Reading: To Co&hellip  |  May 23rd, 2012 at 10:52 am

    […] a great post from teacher educator Maureen Barbieri. She has written for the Stenhouse Blog before, reviewing Waiting for Superman and sharing the story of an inspirational writing group.  After working as a […]

  • 15. David L.  |  July 31st, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    I have to respectfully disagree, particularly with the comment “Waiting for Superman shows little respect for teachers’ intelligence, integrity, or creativity.”

    This is NOT what I gained from the film at all. Instead, the film went to great efforts to praise great teachers, and to show the negative effects to be had by supporting bad teachers. To any teachers out there, I would like to think this movie would be inspiring to go forth and continue doing the good work.

    The claim that the problem is “societal” issues, however not incorrect, is a bit lazy on the part of the author. For change to be made, people need to accept responsibility, not pass the buck. I’m not claiming that the author is a bad teacher, but there is no one in a better position to affect a child’s learning than the teacher (save for maybe the parent).

    I don’t doubt that there are plenty of great teachers out there, and to them, I commend you. But I think this film cast a great light on the unions, and the dramatic harm they are causing. They are forcing good teachers to be underpaid, they are bleeding the taxpayers dry, and then turn around and ask for more money.

  • 16. Valerie  |  January 24th, 2013 at 4:15 am

    I believe David L. is sadly mistaken. (And I very much appreciate and agree with much of Maureen’s article.)

    The teachers unions are not forcing good teachers to be underpaid. Teachers are underpaid because this country disrespects the teaching profession, most states have low certification requirements, and the lack of quality teaching that follows many teachers is reflected in the education administration. For the most part, teachers unions are trying to address the problems and hardships they face in the present education system, only made worse by heavy-handed administrators who 1) lack the ability to differentiate test results and true quality teaching, 2) decide to incentivize teachers by rewarding higher pay for higher test scores rather than true quality teaching, and 3) distract taxpayers from the true social inequities of the system by not addressing teacher concerns and labeling the unions a self-centered interest group.

    Don’t get me wrong. I do not equate all teachers unions as altruistic and student-centered (as they ideally ought to be). But more often than not they are treated like self-interested scum and their voices unheard. Teachers and students are both abused by our present education system. It is a very good thing when the unions stand up for both parties and try to address our most pressing problems in education.

    It is not the teachers’ fault that our system needs comprehensive reform which requires policy change far above what only a teacher can do.

  • 17. Alyssa Lewinski  |  August 12th, 2013 at 11:03 am

    Awesome read. I just passed this onto a friend who was doing a little research on that. He actually bought me lunch since I found it for him! Thus let me rephrase: Thank you for lunch!

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