Movie Review: Waiting for Superman

Waiting for Superman, directed by Davis Guggenheim

Call it a new-found interest in educational issues; I love reading, watching, discussing and thinking about them. I’m inclined to blame it on grad school. Regardless of where it comes from, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to check out this movie, with all of the (non-educator) buzz about how “amazing,” “eye-opening” and “shocking” it is. It had popped up on the Netflix instant-play list a couple of weeks ago, so a friend (who is also a teacher) and I decided to watch it. It was quite thought-provoking, so I figured I would share a few things that came up.

There were a number of issues that the movie examined, many of which involved our “broken” educational system. It mainly follows three students; all minorities living in urban areas and all showing a clear affinity for learning and a great deal of intrinsic motivation. Their story lines mostly involved their school and home life, and their struggles to find a (charter) school that would offer them more/better educational opportunities than their “under-performing” public schools. It also features a former high school teacher, Geoffrey Canada, who created and runs a charter school in an extremely impoverished area in Harlem. The film even highlights Michelle Rhee‘s controversial stint as Chancellor of Schools in Washington DC.

The Good

There is no question – our educational system is not perfect. Although the government “tried” to prevent it, students get “left behind” in our school system. But it’s not just the students that are getting left behind, it’s that some students are also being held back from achieving their full potential. There could be a variety of reasons for this, including (but not limited to) peer groups, school resources, motivation, and their classroom teacher. The movie focuses predominantly on the issues involving the school (resources & teachers), and doesn’t do much to consider the influence of other factors.

The Curious

One factor that arose only briefly was the “outdated” idea of teacher tenure, which is an increasingly contentious component of teacher contracts. It made sure to show samples of video taken by students in public high schools of teachers not doing their job while in class (reading the newspaper, etc.). While it certainly is curious that tenured teachers could “get away with it,” it certainly is not justification for removing tenure. However, I’m still considering the idea that it needs to be reformed. The jury’s still out on this one.

The Questionable

While the movie brought up a number of reasonable problems, it also based many of its conclusions on flawed information. The most prevalent flaw involved the classification of “successful” schools, that seemed to rely on only two pieces of information: test scores and graduation rates.

The easiest strike is thrown by relying on standardized test results. There’s a slew of research that shows how worthless standardized tests are at measuring student learning. Yet schools are still being classified as good/bad (or passing/failing) based on the results. There’s a reason why NCLB was a flop!

The next strike is a bit of a screwball, and I had to think about it a bit before I realized what was happening. In the video, they show lots of fancy graphics that compare the graduation rates of “failing” schools (in some cases as low as 40%) to the graduation rates in the desired “high-performing” charter schools (all above 90%). But here’s the rub – the movie was played up the dramatics of the lottery system these charter schools use (which is the basis of another ed movie, The Lottery), showing how desperately the kids and their families want them to get in. When they do, the families are overjoyed at the idea that their student will be successful – and why shouldn’t they be? But with a student who recognizes the importance of the school and a family who will do virtually anything to get them to succeed, is it any wonder that these motivated students are graduating at a higher rate?? Of course not! I don’t mean to say that the school has nothing to do with the graduation rates, but merely to point out that the students applying to charter schools with limited spots WANT to be there – and that can make a huge difference.

But there’s one big, burning question that I still have – what about the other students? Sure, creating charter schools can provide opportunities for students to succeed (if they want to), but how do we reach everyone else? Let’s pretend for a moment that all of the students who wanted to go to successful charter schools were actually able to do so. Almost all of the charters would maintain their “high-performing” status – with students who are trying to make the most of their opportunities going on to be successful. They get to fulfill their potential as a human beings, it’s a happy ending, right?  If all of the motivated students leave, who is left in the public schools? All of the students who didn’t want to be there in the first place, and who don’t care enough (or have enough support) to try to get into a more successful school? The drop-outs, burn-outs, and slackers? Would it be the end of public education as we know it??

Uff-dah. Just thinking about working in a school like that makes my head hurt.


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