The 12 most frustrating things I saw – or didn’t see – watching Waiting for Superman:
– The way Davis Guggenheim used the kids’ stories. Each of the kids was sympathetic, and they dramatized the deep inequality of opportunity in America. But neither the kids nor their parents got much chance to talk about what they thought would make their school better or worse. Instead we got Guggenheim intoning that if this girl didn’t get into a charter school, her life would basically be hopeless. If Guggenheim believes that these kids are suffering because too many of their teachers should be fired but won’t be, why not let the kids say so? If he believes these kids are suffering because teachers or administrators have low expectations for them, why not let the kids say that? And if the kids instead talked about classes that were too big, or teachers that were overwhelmed or undertrained, or being hungry in class, that would have been interesting too.
- Something that sounded like Darth Vader’s Imperial March played over slow motion shots of Democrats appearing with members of teachers’ unions. This was especially agitating watching the movie as the Governor of Wisconsin is trying to permanently eliminate teachers’ bargaining rights in the name of closing a deficit he created with corporate tax cuts.
- The repeated montages of lots of US presidents signing bills and talking about education, implying that nothing of significance has changed in the past several decades in US education. Especially galling: the lack of any mention of school integration, which was kind of a big deal (no mention either of how schools have been becoming more segregated, or how that affects kids’ learning). Especially awkward: Tee-ing up No Child Left Behind with some shpiel about how it looked like people were “reaching across the partisan blah blah blah” and then…never mentioning it again. Does Davis Guggenheim think NCLB was a good idea or a bad idea? Not a rhetorical question.
This undifferentiated montage of politicians that didn’t fix education reminded me of the biggest omission in An Inconvenient Truth: What about the eight years that Al Gore was Vice President of the United States?
- The off-hand mention that only one out of five charter schools gets really good results. Why does Guggenheim think this is? The other ones aren’t firing enough teachers? They’re located too close to non-charter schools and mediocrity just rubs off on them? Again, not a rhetorical question.
- The repeated implication that education funding just isn’t that important. This is especially aggravating given that the film came out during a period of nationwide teacher layoffs. Related: Jeffrey Canada gets a shout-out for wanting to prepare kids for success from the time they’re babies, but you wouldn’t know from watching this movie that there are programs out there like Head Start and public preschool, or that there are big fights over funding them. (Jennifer Hochschild and Nathan Scovronick’s book The American Dream and Public Schools showed some of the problems with funding stats like Guggenheim’s, including how those stats ignore special education).
- The too-cute moment when Guggenheim says something like “Teachers should just be putting knowledge in students’ brains, but instead…” and then says non-uniform local and state educational standards get in the way. I’m not trying to be obtuse, but the cartoon showing lots of lines bouncing across a map and numbers falling out of kids brains did not help me understand how Guggenheim thinks the process of putting knowledge in kids heads is just being disrupted by disparities in standards. Related: What does he think about NCLB? Also, if standards were all that gets in the way of teachers putting knowledge in kids heads, how is it the teachers’ fault?
- Speaking of which, the moment when he says that Michelle Rhee “solved the most intractable problem in public education” by proposing that teachers give up job security for higher pay. Because “the greatest challenge in education” is how to fire more teachers.
- Then we hear that “the Union was so threatened by Rhee’s proposal, it didn’t even let the members vote on it.” Does Guggenheim believe that union democracy requires that the members hold a vote every time management makes them an offer? Did he also want Adrian Fenty’s constituents to vote every time the union made an offer back? Guggenheim could have made an argument that the union leadership, or the negotiating committee, was out of step with what the members wanted. But to do that, he would have needed to talk to the members.
(Which brings us to the most frustrating moments missing from the movie…)
- Guggenheim didn’t talk to any of the current members. In DC, or anywhere else. He didn’t talk to any current teachers that aren’t administrators (the closest thing was clips from a movie he made ten years ago showing that teaching is really hard). Instead, we got journalists and administrators talking about teachers, and cartoons. (He talked to kids, but didn’t really ask them about their teachers either) And we got Jonathan Alter telling us that teachers are great but their unions are “a menace.” Another non-rhetorical question: Does Guggenheim think that most teachers support the changes he wants to see in their working conditions? If so, why not interview some of them? If not, why not come out and say that teachers are wrong rather than just bashing unions?
Policies don’t just appear out of thin air. Most rules governing work are either there because workers wanted them or management wanted them. If Guggenheim really believes that union leaders have gotten rules in place members don’t support, show us that. If he thinks the rules in place reflect what the majority of teachers want, let us hear from them. Tell us why they’re wrong. Then either tell us teaching jobs are too good overall, or that we should make them better in some ways in exchange for coming after their job security.
- Also not heard from regarding the job security that represents “the most intractable problem in public education”: those dread union leaders. Randi Weingarten is given the chance to explain why teachers’ unions started way back when, and to criticize Michelle Rhee’s style a little, but a viewer would come away with no idea what she has to say about job security in today’s schools, or longer school days, or standards, or teacher evaluations, or tracking, or having high expectations for kids. You would think, having gotten this menacing woman on camera, Guggenheim would want to put her on the spot Michael Moore-style and expose the flaws in her arguments. Either he didn’t try, or he did try and it must not have gone very well for him. It’s hard to imagine that Guggenheim had great footage of himself stumping the head of a 1.5 million member teacher’s union and he cut it out to make room for more cartoons.
- Absolutely no mention of successful unionized charter schools, like the Green Dot schools.
- Also would have liked to hear from some of the academics and experts out there engaging with how factors like poverty, integration, health, teacher training, and funding impact education. It’s not too much to expect a documentarian to try talking to people he disagrees with about the things he cares about (check out Inside Job). Were none of the advocates and academics behind the Broader, Bolder platform available? Instead, Guggenheim makes the outrageous implication that people who say we should be attacking poverty to improve education don’t believe in poor kids.
(Quotes are from memory. Diane Ravitch’s more comprehensive take on the movie here)