A teacher reviews “Waiting for Superman”

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.

18 comments May 25th, 2011


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