Recently I saw the documentary Waiting For Superman. I went in with almost no expectations, and came out wondering whether I had just donated $10 to spread right wing propaganda in the guise of liberal pablum.
I am interested in other peoples' impressions of the movie, and until I can be convinced otherwise, I hope to discourage others from forking over the money to see it.
So, beneath the fold we will examine what could be wrong with a documentary about lovable poor minority kids being let down by the school system.
As I mentioned, Waiting For Superman tugs on your heartstrings by following these lovable kids and families who are stuck in "failing schools" and stake their futures on the lotteries which allow kids into charter schools.
The movie attempts to examine what is wrong with American schools, especially those that serve less advantaged communities. We are told very early on that the problem is not funding, or inequitable funding, because the per pupil expenditure has nearly doubled in 30 years, but test scores have remained the same.
So what is the problem then? Waiting For Superman places the blame almost entirely on - wait for it: Unions!
That's right, if it wasn't for the big bad teachers' unions, there would be better contracts where bad teachers could be fired and good and "innovative" teachers could have pay based on merit. The movie even says we could pay the "good" ones 6 figure salaries! (there is, of course, no discussion of how to do that if we've already decided that more money for schools isn't the solution)
"Yay!" we are all supposed to think. There's the answer! Then we are shown all of these gleaming charter schools where all of the great education happens and we have all of these wonderful outcomes.
There are some stats and anecdotes presented that paint charter schools as utopias. There are no discussions of the possible systematic biases in these determinations, such as these schools are already selecting for a very non-representative subset of students and parents who are willing to spend entire days attending lotteries to get their 7 year old on the right track.
Another huge beef I have is this notion that you can evaluate teacher performance based on constant standardized tests, and that you should be firing the "bad" ones. The movie even claims something like "just by getting rid of the bottom 10% we could make a huge difference." It's like Lake Wobegon, where everyone is somehow going to be above average. By definition, some people, in any population, with a distribution of any criterion, are going have to be below the average (in fact roughly half of them will be). Do we get rid of the bottom 10% every year? Have they done the math on that? Who will be attracted to teaching when the profession is void of its one remaining calling card, that of reasonable job security? Under such a system, wouldn't teachers fight tooth and nail to be placed in the wealthiest schools with the whitest kids, so they can get the highest test scores?
The movie has nothing to say about these crucial issues. It's just those big bad unions.
Finally, there are some ridiculous inconsistencies. In one line, the narrator bemoans how bad US schools do compared to all of the high performing European and Asian countries. "38th in the world in science" and that kind of thing. We are shown pictures of kids in some Asian country somewhere doing military style exercises and studying hard. In the very next breath, the narrator cries about how a certain public school somewhere is 'tracking' kids into a college path and a non-college path, and how horrible that is. There is no blush at the hypocrisy, even though tracking is an essential part of all of these high performing European and Asian systems that the narrator just busted a nutt over.
In the end, I don't understand what Davis Guggenheim, who also directed An Inconvenient Truth, could have been trying to accomplish with this movie, other than spreading some right wing memes or boosting his "political independent" cred for some unknown reason. Because when I see a movie about inner city schools that states straight out that funding and inequality are not the problem, and then spends two hours solely bashing teachers' unions and fellating charter schools and constant standardized testing, I have to wonder what is going on.
Whether Waiting for Superman was intended to plant right wing memes, it is, at best, an extraordinarily flaccid attempt to explain the problems in American education.