Still Waiting: A teacher's take on 'Waiting for Superman'
Evidence of the failure of the American public school system has been piling up for years. We read of soaring dropout rates, gang wars, bullying and sex between faculty and students, while countries from China to Finland soar ahead of us in their math and science scores. Meanwhile, a string of candidates for mayor, governor and president swear to confront the crisis in American education.
My own problem may seem minor in comparison. After three years teaching high school and over 40 at five Jesuit colleges and universities, including the last ten at an inner-city college with a special mission toward underachieving students, I worry that many students don’t know the difference between “then” and “than” and between “were” and “where.” So I approached Waiting for Superman, the documentary on secondary education directed by Davis Guggenheim, the same man who brought us Al Gore in “An Inconvenient Truth,” with the hope that, even if the film did not solve my problem, I would know that I was not alone.
The story is framed around four, mostly minority, lower-income families with elementary school children inspired by the American Dream. You can become anything you wish if you are willing to do your homework, says the Dream. The big step in fulfilling the Dream is gaining admission to the local charter school, which while publicly financed is not inhibited by the same bureaucratic governance as the big public school down the street. The charter school may lack a gym and pool, but it has smaller classes, more personal attention from teachers, greater classroom discipline and more creative leadership. But since new admissions may be as few as 20, the child is accepted through a public lottery, which resembles a Bingo game, with all its screams of joy and tears of loss, in the old parish hall.
Where “An Inconvenient Truth” taught with Power Point, “Superman” illustrates with cartoon animation. The post-1970 flat-line exam scores, the shifting of bad teachers from one school to another, the abominable tracking system that lumps bright, middle and slow students together—each trend is brought to life in vivid color. In an upper-income neighborhood in California we see a well-equipped public high school as sleek and sparkling as a movie set only to learn that its dropout rate is scandalous, while the nearby Spartan charter school sends all its graduates to college.
Why do students perform poorly in public schools? Because: so many of the them come from homes where the parents are not educated or speak a language other than English; where there are no books and the television is always blaring; where the children are allowed to wander in the neighborhood at night rather than study; where there is no father, or the father is living with another woman and has children from three or four relationships; and where the students are in the thrall of the culture of distraction, “friending” far-away strangers on Facebook, answering cell phones and texting in the middle of conversations, walking glassy-eyed through life, oblivious of their surroundings, with iPods in their ears. Another major problem is college education departments that fail to prepare young teachers for the rigors of the classroom.
“Superman” deals with none of these issues. Its villain is the teachers’ unions. The unions oppose experimentation, change and merit pay and use the tenure system to protect the worst teachers. One enduring image is New York’s “rubber room,” the holding pen filled with bad teachers who have been removed from the classroom, now lolling around, hanging over their desks, fully paid, waiting for years before their firing can be adjudicated. If this were a film about a prison or mental hospital this would be called “the hole.”
Meanwhile we weep with the black single mother whose daughter has not been allowed to attend graduation at her Catholic school across the street because the mother was behind on her tuition payments. We would like to know more. Did the filmmakers ask the school’s principal about this?
Gail Collins has noted that only 17 percent of charter schools do a better job that the local public school, while more than a third did “significantly worse.” And states with strong teachers’ unions do best on the standardized tests. Other critics inform us that many charter schools are, in fact, unionized and that reform movements within the teachers unions, nudged by the film, are seeking creative ways to confront the education crisis.
Those who have taught in either high school or college approach a film like this with high expectations. We have seen minds wasted and futures lost for two basic reasons: first, society’s failure to provide a climate that nurtures the intellectual life, including the intellectual lives of 12 year olds; and second, the school’s failure to challenge the young minds. If “Frontline” were tackling this issue there would be graphic footage from the classroom and the neighborhood showing us why a school is failing, the talking heads would be top scholars, and the recommendations for change would be more developed than the catchwords (smaller classrooms, creativity) Guggenheim floats before the film’s final credits.
It also frustrating that “Superman” does not touch on the then/than, were/where—or illiteracy—problem. My students did not know how to use these words because they were not properly taught in grammar school or high school. I have met college sophomores who claim to have never read a book in their lives, as well as students who can neither spell nor compose a sentence but who received As and Bs in English in high school. How can this be? Guggenheim does not provide an answer. “Superman” interviews children, but no teachers get to speak.
The only classroom example of a “good” teacher is one who uses rap music to teach math. In fact math is the only subject that gets much attention. Literature? History? The great CBS news commentator Eric Sevareid in his last years lamented that fact that young people know no history. “How can we know where we are if we do not know where we’ve been?” he asks.
The film ends with an old film clip from a Superman serial where a school bus is careening down a steep mountain road out of control and about to plunge over a cliff. Superman swoops out of the sky and grabs the back fender and pulls it to a halt. An authority comes up and thanks Superman for saving all these children’s lives. But the audience members who paid attention had to notice that all the time the bus was empty. In some ways, so is the film.