Thursday, October 14, 2010

Superman won't save us, we have to save ourselves

I finally had the opportunity to see the much-hyped movie Waiting for Superman not once but twice this week.

A group from North East ISD held a screening Monday morning in San Antonio, and Austin ISD hosted a screening at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum Tuesday night.

After the onslaught of media attention surrounding the film, including scores of reviews from advance screenings, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect.

It seems there have been two camps formed by those who have seen the film. For supporters of charters, it’s a window on what’s working and a two-hour promo for expanding and supporting charter schools. For mainstream public education, the film feels like a personal attack – highlighting only the negative and giving little credit for success in American public schools.

Here’s the way I saw the film: A powerful and moving narrative following the compelling stories of five children and their families. It had cool, catchy graphics and sprinkled footage of the 1950’s Superman series and other ‘50s-era film clips showing public schools as idyllic places as comic relief. But it was a completely over-simplified look at the problems and challenges of public schools. Director Davis Guggenheim picks and chooses both his statistics and his examples of good schools to lead the viewer to one conclusion – charter schools have the answer and teachers unions are the root of all that is wrong in education.

Of course, there are major flaws in those conclusions. First of all, Guggenheim – who also made the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth – all but ignores the fact that the vast majority of charter schools are not doing any better than traditional public schools in their area. In fact, many do much worse. The schools he highlights in Waiting for Superman are the exception, not the rule.

And while in some states teachers unions have hamstrung administrators, making it difficult to fire poor-performing teachers (New York City’s infamous rubber room where teachers awaited the outcome of grievance hearings for years while collecting full salaries is perhaps the most egregious example,) you can’t blame the unions in states like Texas where unions are essentially powerless due to right-to-work laws. Yet we still have more than our fair share of failing schools in poor, usually urban, areas.

Four of the five children featured in the movie live in some of the most blighted neighborhoods in the country and are zoned for struggling, in some cases failing, schools. The neighborhoods are plagued with high rates of crime, poverty and unemployment and have some of the highest foster care rates in the country.

Yet Guggenheim doesn’t address how these factors affect a child’s education. He points out that the successful charter schools adhere to a “no excuses” policy and a firm belief that every child can learn. He goes farther to suggest that bad neighborhoods don’t beget bad schools, but that maybe bad schools beget bad neighborhoods.

There’s nothing wrong with a “no excuses” approach and I believe every public school teacher worth his or her salt will tell you that every child can learn, but guess how those successful charter schools Guggenheim features pull it off? At SEED in Washington D.C., the children live at the school, removed from their neighborhood and all its influences 24 hours a day. Promise Academy in Harlem is part of the Harlem Children’s Zone created by charismatic entrepreneur Geoffrey Canada, where a community partnership provides a host of wraparound services beginning at birth for children and their families. As Canada puts it, they are transforming their neighborhood block by block. And at KIPP LA Prep, children attend longer school days, Saturday school and parents must commit to being a part of their child’s education.

You can’t watch the film and not pull for the struggling parents working so hard to get a better education for their children. They pin their hopes to a ball dropping out of a spinning basket, a name chosen out of a pile, or a number randomly picked by a computer. Most go to these lotteries with little chance of getting in because of few open spots and a huge number of applicants. But teachers at traditional public schools don’t get to tell their parents they must be invested in their child’s education. Their children don’t withdraw and go to a different school if they can’t make the grade. So how is that model a wholesale answer to the problems of public education?

Despite the contradictions, I encourage everyone – especially educators – to see the film. Any time we can get the entire country focusing on education, it’s a good thing. And it’s important that we don’t try to deny or minimize the problems. They are there, they are real and they are critical. We have to figure out how public education can once again be the great equalizer, how children from every racial, ethnic and economic background can receive a world-class education and be ready for college.

Guggenheim sums up what education needs at the end of the movie in five points: Quality teachers, more class time, world class standards, high expectations, and real accountability.

I agree with every one of those. The question the movie seems to think it answers but doesn’t is: "How do we get there?"

People who have devoted their lives to public education need to be at the forefront of this conversation. Why is it that the word “reformer” is suddenly only applied to newcomers? At TASA, we like to use the word “transform.” Our Academy for Transformational Leadership, for example, is about creating a new vision for public schools and shaking up the status quo.

My fear is that this movie will only polarize two different schools of thought when it comes to reforming education. My hope is that we can realize we all want the same result and politics and egos should be set aside. The focus should be on the children of this country.

We can’t afford to let this problem go unresolved.


  1. To quote from the above article: "But teachers at traditional public schools don’t get to tell their parents they must be invested in their child’s education." Why not? I think when we answer that question, we can begin to solve the problem. A successful education has to start at home.

  2. I absolutely agree that a successful education starts at home, but my point was a public school teacher can't require that a parent be involved because what's the answer to the question "or what?" In other words, at charter, magnet and private schools, teachers can require parental involvement or the student might have to go to a different school. The neighborhood public school has no such option. They're the last line of defense and they can't turn anyone away. Also, at schools in poor neighborhoods, teachers often deal with the children of people who are homeless, on drugs or incarcerated. Or children with loving, concerned parents who are working three jobs to keep a roof over their heads, or who don't speak English and feel they can't help. The bottom line is there are parents out there who will never be part of their child's education but that doesn't mean we give up on the child.