Ira Shor, City University of New York
October 4, 2010, for NOT Waiting for Superman
Waiting for Superman is a painful movie to watch for public school advocates. Overall, it benefits the hedge-fund billionaires now bankrolling charter schools and conservative politicians who want to privatize the $500 billion/year school market. Teachers and schoolkids are on the verge of becoming a business bonanza. Recently, the public sector was plundered by Wall Street and its Bailout. But the transfer of public wealth to private hands will be even larger if school tax moneys can be funneled to private charter schools.
This transfer is already underway but it will accelerate if public opinion turns violently against public education and if teacher unions are destroyed. Waiting for Superman helps make that happen; it undermines public confidence in public education and it demonizes teacher unions.
With political stakes high, this film by Davis Guggenheim is an asset to those forces favoring privatization. Currently, public policy over-funds and under-regulates charter schools while under-funding and over-regulating public schools. Such an equation is corroding school systems around the country. But, film-maker Guggenheim shows little interest in exposing the long-term suffocation of public schools by deep budget cuts and by annual testing regimes. He conveniently ignores the policies which enforce decline on public education. Instead, he glamorizes charter schools but wisely does so through irresistible stories of adorable, deserving kids and their desperate parents who pin their hopes on lotteries for admission to charter schools.
The gorgeous kids and devoted parents searching for the golden ticket to a favored school are blameless. With no one to turn tono parent associations to reform their local schools and to lobby city hall, no teacher-activists to ally with, no community associations to defend their needs, no mass movements to bring their situation to a larger stage of politicsthey face the formidable school system alone. They are underdogs for whom Guggenheim easily provokes sympathy, so much so that the climactic lottery scene at the end is unbearable to watch because the odds are against the kids who all deserve better.
In the fateful lotteries, large rooms are packed with mostly low-income parents and kids who hold their breath as numbers are called off by officials onstage in imperial isolation from the families below them. Lotteries like these divide-and-conquer populations who need solidarity rather than a lottery ticket. In the film, the lower-income families compete against each other. A few will win, but most lose. To my mind, organizing such disappointment for kids is a form of child abuse. While most kids and parents suffer painful loss, the charter schools enhance their stature from such spectacles, because they are in demand by families with no other options. Guggenheims film makes the kids and parents sympathetic but he refuses to wrestle with the predatory power relations at work here, choosing instead the simplistic display of how desirable charter schools are.
Guggenheims manipulative story-telling is a very narrow view of American education. For example, he represents mostly one model of good teaching–the talking teacher at the front of the room. In a cartoon version, the teacher is actually represented as pouring knowledge directly into student heads by tilting open their skulls. A century ago John Dewey denounced this method of pouring in facts, favoring interactive, project-based, and problem-solving methods instead. Forty years ago, Paulo Freire denounced teacher-talk classrooms as the banking method that treats students as deficits. Weve known for 100 years how to enhance achievement with learning that is constructivist, student-centered, and problem-based, but this pedagogical knowledge appears in the Guggenheim film only once, practiced by a gifted inner-city math teacher from whom the charter-school founders of KIPP Academies get their inspiration. Guggenheims answer for why such smart strategies must migrate to charter schools for success: the power-mongering teacher unions and the implacable school bureaucracy. Unfortunate clips of AFT chief Randi Weingartens bellowing at union conferences and evading clear answers to direct questions on camera confirm the singular problem of union interference. But, long before unions were a force in public education, experimental teaching and learning worked for kids, according to the famous Eight-Year Study of the 1940s by scholar Ralph Tyler, and the public schools still turned away from such methods. In addition, we know that from the mid-70s to the late-80s, the black-white achievement gap narrowed significantly before plateauing in the 90s. Mass movements from the 1960s and 1970s helped produce such positive effects in public schools, but Guggenheim is unaware of such a landmark moment or else uninterested in telling this story.
Perhaps most damaging is that Guggenheim fails to portray the continual budget cuts imposed on public schooling which have undermined its capacity. He sees one primary enemythe teacher unions and the bad teachers protected by them. Guggenheim chose not to interview prominent education critics who could have provided an alternative point of view, people like Deborah Meier, Alfie Kohn, Jonathan Kozol, Jeannie Oakes, Monty Neill, David Berliner, Mike Rose, or Richard Rothstein. Even Diane Ravitch would have given him an earful on the effects of privatization and testing in the last 30 years. Guggenheims film is missing the substantial efforts underway to improve public education from the bottom up by activists in and out of the classroom. Waiting for Superman gives great screen-time to a figure like Geoffrey Canada while ignoring teacher, parent and community activists who advocate for children inside the public schools. Among them is Rethinking Schools, in the field now for 25 years. Organized community opposition is the only force that can challenge billionaires like Bill Gatess who are meddling with schooling. The public sector and its public schools are precious assets of democracy which no private unit can equal or replace.
Julia Willebrand 05 October 2010, 13:46juliaforcomptroller.com
To find out more about the importance of protecting the public school system from privatization at Rethinking Schools