Waiting for Superman: A Critical Rethink

Yesterday, I wrote a rather laudatory review of the 2010 documentary film, Waiting for Superman. Today I want to give you my second look at the film. Why?

Shortly after seeing this worthwhile film I wrote the review that you read yesterday. Then I spoke in South Holland, Illinois, to the mayor, the city council and the community leaders network. This was a dinner gathering on March 5, the evening before I flew to Rome for my nine-day pilgrimage that I will write about tomorrow. My topic that evening was on how faith and freedom work best in the civic sphere.

Before dinner I met a very articulate educator who had spent 36 years in the Chicago public schools, both as a teacher and an administrator. This gracious, highly educated, very thoughtful Christian woman gave me considerable pause about my zeal for this film when I asked her, with a very honest desire to get feedback, “Have you seen Waiting for Superman? If so, what do you think is wrong with it?” Her answer, given in less than five minutes, challenged several of my arguments. I listened and pondered her wise words and then had to wonder, “What shall I do with this blog that I just wrote?” My answer was to let my blog stand, thus yesterday’s post and the positive review. I then reasoned that I should provide a “critical rethink” in today’s post. My purpose is to allow two things to happen: (1) To show you how I try to understand an issue by reading, thinking, asking questions, etc. (2) To reveal how unwise I was to jump to a completely positive conclusion based upon  emotion and the power of an argument that I did not think through carefully enough. If you want to read blogs by writers who know their own mind perfectly, and then write with deep certainty about what they believe on almost every issue they think about, then this is definitely not the place to be on the Internet. I reasoned, my friends do need to see how I messed up and then tried to work this one out.

President Make no mistake about it, this film has justly earned praise and criticism from commentators, reformers, and educators. Even President Obama has shown it at the White House. He praised it. And as documentaries go it has done exceptionally well. It had a 88% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes on January 1, 2011. Remember, this film is made by the same producer/director who gave us the famous Al Gore film, An Inconvenient Truth. That film, rightly or wrongly, won the Academy Award for best documentary the year it was up for awards. I think this film is far superior, as such films go.

Remember, further, that documentaries are “opinion” films if there was ever such a category. The opinion expressed is always that of the person who wants to get the audience to adopt a position or take a specific point of view. Think of An Inconvenient Truth for a moment and stay calm while you read my words. The film was pretty good, especially as such films go. I remember feeling, as I left the theater, "This was not as bad as the conservatives told me it would be. In fact, there was a lot of good to be seen and learned from it." I still believe that is true. The fundamental flaw, however, is that the whole premise of the documentary is that humans are the primary cause of global warming (there really is observable global warming going on) and thus humans can stop global warming if they adopt a set of rather simplistic solutions offered in the film by the former Vice President. This is the point at which any thinking person should ask hard specific questions. And this is precisely the point I missed yesterday. I failed to ask the hard questions when I saw Waiting for Superman. I think I know why but will save that for the end of this post.

Film critic Roger Ebert, who I agree with about 80% of the time, gave the movie 3.5 stars out of 4 and wrote, "What struck me most of all was Geoffrey Canada's confidence that a charter school run on his model can make virtually any first-grader a high school graduate who's accepted to college. A good education, therefore, is not ruled out by poverty, uneducated parents or crime- and drug-infested neighborhoods. In fact, those are the very areas where he has success." Scott Bowles of USA Today lauded the film for its focus on the students: "It's hard to deny the power of Guggenheim's lingering shots on these children." And Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly gave the film an A-, calling it "powerful, passionate, and potentially revolution-inducing." Well, Lisa Schwarzbaum gets it right if, and this is huge, the film gets the facts and the solutions right. But this is the problem. Other papers and periodicals praised the film, including the conservative Wall Street Journal, New York Post and Forbes magazine.

What strikes me as odd here is that so many conservative publications praise a film made by the same people who produced “An Inconvenient Truth,” a film they hated on the whole. At the same time more liberal media sources criticized this film; e.g. Salon.com and The Village Voice. You can read as much of this as you would like on many sites. It is all readily available but I had not read it before I wrote yesterday’s praise.

The most important concerns I had after my conversation with the educator referred to above came in two areas: (1) Accuracy (2) Solutions.

IMG_1423 A study was done by Stanford University on charter schools. It found that charter schools, on average, perform about the same or worse compared to public schools. I found this information shocking since the film treats charter schools as “the big answer” for the present moment in time. Here is a response that would parallel what my educator friend told me:

"The film dismisses with a side comment the inconvenient truth that our schools are criminally underfunded. Money's not the answer, it glibly declares. Nor does it suggest that students would have better outcomes if their communities had jobs, health care, decent housing, and a living wage. Particularly dishonest is the fact that Guggenheim never mentions the tens of millions of dollars of private money that has poured into the Harlem Children's Zone, the model and superman we are relentlessly instructed to aspire to."

— Rick Ayers, Adjunct Professor in Education at the University of San Francisco

Ayers challenges the accuracy of the film, describing it as "a slick marketing piece full of half-truths and distortions." In Ayers' view, the "corporate powerhouses and the ideological opponents of all things public" have employed the film to try and break the teacher’s unions. (Here we get into politics and we must be honest about this. I asked my educator friend if she thought that we needed an easier and more efficient way to get rid of bad teachers. She completely agreed that this was a serious problem. The devil, as they say, is in the details.)

The film accurately says that since 1971, inflation-adjusted per-student spending has more than doubled, "from $4,300 to more than $9,000 per student.” Has this increased the educational outcome? The simple answer is obvious. Over the same period, test scores have "flat-lined." But Ayers further contends that "schools are more segregated today than before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954", and thus criticized the film for not mentioning that in his view, "black and brown students are being suspended, expelled, searched, and criminalized.” I do not think this is entirely fair if you take the film in full. Decide for yourself but be aware that race remains a major problem in American society and a huge problem in education, not to even speak of the local church.

But the big flaw here is the overwhelming assumption that drives the film. That assumption is that charter schools out perform other schools. Diane Ravitch notes that a study by Stanford University economist Margaret Raymond of 5000 charter schools found that only 17% are superior in math test performance to a matched public school. The film presents none of this evidence but it subtly admits that most charter schools do not outperform regular schools. This is why it focuses on those charter schools that do succeed, and some do succeed famously. In fairness the film explicitly stated that only 1 in 5 charter schools (close to the 17% statistic) were truly superior schools. Ravitch is further critical in her observation that many charter schools also perform badly and become involved in "unsavory real estate deals" and expel low-performing students before testing days to ensure higher test scores. The most substantial distortion in the film, at least according to Ravitch, is the film's claim that "70 percent of eighth-grade students cannot read at grade level.” She says the statement is based on a misuse of the actual terms used in testing. Grade-level is not actually tested. The categories used are “basic,” “proficient” and “advanced.” 

Princeton professor Cornel West said, "I have great love and respect for brother Geoffrey Canada. But I had a deep critique of the film, in which he was central. Waiting for Superman scapegoats teachers' unions. Yet those countries with the best education systems in the world, like Finland, have over 90% of their teachers unionized, and their students take few, if any standardized tests. In Finland there are 2 teachers in classrooms of 14. Teachers receive the salaries of many of our businesspeople. Fifteen percent of their college graduates teach in schools rather than make their way to Wall Street to be millionaires. They reflect a fundamentally different set of priorities in America. And if we don’t adapt to those priorities, we will continue to scapegoat, demonize, and thereby undercut the morale of our teachers.”

I must admit that I am not deeply involved in these issues day-to-day. Much of it is beyond my level of comprehension. I am emotionally and intellectually disposed to think that one should always listen to both sides of debate before they decide how to think about a complex issue like public education in America.

In my reading of the various reviews about this film, pro and con, I note that almost no one brings up what my educator friend did on March 5th. She challenged the far too simple thesis that we could improve public education dramatically without changing families and neighborhoods. Let me explain what I heard her say to me.

Our families are broken, seriously broken. Our neighborhoods are badly broken as well. The idea that we can fix public education with more emphasis on charter schools, through better testing and by removing a significant number of truly bad teachers (which I’ve already said is desperately needed), is deeply flawed. It is, in one word, utopian! The film gives a strong impression that the solution lies in the system being fixed and the results will follow. There is much in this thesis that is good but it is way too simplistic.

24trut.2.600 Here is what I should have written after seeing the film. This is a good, indeed a must-see, film. But like An Inconvenient Truth it offers far too many simple answers to complex issues and problems. Come to think of it conservatives are prone to this kind of reasoning and I am not sure why, especially if they believe in personal and systemic sin and the need for real community. Sometimes I wonder if they say they believe these things but then act as if the solution is to attack what we have and then embrace the easy solutions offered by films and media sources. Life is just a little more complex than this version of conservatism understands. What we need is a little of the older form of conservatism, the kind that we once called “classical liberalism” before these words got hijacked by modern political opinion shapers.

Why then did I miss all this when I saw the film? Like most everyone else I want answers and this film gives them. I want hope, and this film offers it. And I would like to see everything in the best light, a weakness of mine at times. So I was taken up by the powerful answer this film offered me about a complex issue that I think Christians must grapple with deeply in our present cultural breakdown. My thinking is now more sober but I would still urge you to see the film.

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