The Politics of “Waiting for Superman”

I fidgeted throughout the film Waiting for Superman, through the bells and whistles, the graphs, the close-ups of the five cute kids and their caring single moms, grandmas and parents, having read enough reviews, and having listened to enough critiques to know that I wasn’t going to like the film.  And I didn’t,  but what disturbed me the most wasn’t Davis Guggenheim, the film maker,  playing fast and loose with data and attacking teachers and their unions every chance he had.  As is turned out, for me, the most painful moments of the film were the charter school admissions scenes at the end.

I watched these kids and their parents waiting anxiously in big gymnasiums for their number to be called.   Since there were approximately ten applicants for every single opening in these “high performing” non-union charter schools,   the kids had to hit the lottery to get in.  So these kids were hoping, against all odds, that lady luck would smile upon them.  And, of course, for most, she didn’t.  And you could see the pain on the faces of these kids and their parents also.  And, in case we didn’t get it,  Guggenheim  subtitled the words  “Not Accepted” by each kid whose number didn’t come up.

And I thought, what kind of values does a school, and its principal and its teachers and its supporters have, that sets up a gym and a lottery  and a process of pure anxiety  in which 90% of these hopeful and well-meaning  students are rejected?  Even if Guggenheim wants a world without unions and without bad teachers, why do the schools that he favors push such a heartless acceptance process?

The basic message of Waiting for Superman goes like this: powerful teacher unions keep bad teachers from being fired in our public schools and so our children keep failing; public charter schools that are non-union do a good job in part because they can get rid of the bad teachers; so let’s fight the teacher unions and establish more charter schools.   In his animus towards teachers unions, Guggenheim doesn’t go so far as to bring in a clip of former Secretary of Education Roderick Paige labeling the largest education union in the United States a “terrorist organization,” but if he had, that  wouldn’t have surprised me.

Guggenheim’s film is devoid of any class or structural analysis. Poverty?  No problem, as kids who are poor will flourish in the schools that Guggenheim favors.  Like other reformers, Guggenheim criticizes tracking,  but he doesn’t mention the major reason they oppose it  — and that is its class bias.   Tracking, like I.Q. and SAT tests and all the high stakes testing that No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top foster, is biased towards middle and upper class kids.

Waiting for Superman reminded me of Guggenheim’s earlier big film,   with Al Gore,  An Inconvenient Truth. There as well, Guggenheim attempted to tackle a big problem, global warming;  and  Al Gore’s lecture does  a good job showing the evidence that global warming is real.   But his solutions to global warming were fairly tepid, along the “change your light bulbs” variety.   No discussion of the power of the oil and coal companies, of the auto industry, of consumerism  — no, no need to change the structure of power relations in the country.

In Waiting for Superman also, Guggenheim shows us the problem: a lot of kids aren’t doing well in school and too many drop out. Similarly, his solution is simplistic and individualistic:  get rid of bad teachers (and concurrently get rid of teacher unions that protect those teachers); and give the good teachers free rein to bring us into the promised land.  That’s it.  Don’t even think of poverty, inequality, unemployment, hunger, racism or any other social problem.

As the narrator,  Guggenheim  mentions at one point that only one in five charters gets really good results.   But, almost as if he hadn’t said it, he goes on to push the film’s basic narrative:  charters yes, union-run public schools, no.  Could anyone argue that both good and bad teachers and curricula can’t be found in both types of schools?

Guggenheim has gotten a good deal of favorable media coverage for the film.  On the Tavis Smiley show, he stated that he originally didn’t want to do the film because it was a “story telling quagmire.”  But he said he decided to do it when he realized that most kids were consigned to poor schools because their families didn’t have the same wealth and privilege he had, which allowed his children to attend high-performing private schools.   While his motive seems to be sharing class privilege, its effects may be the reverse.  The film that Davis Guggenheim has made is in fact a “story telling quagmire”  —   but one which fits squarely into the fast-growing ideological narrative in the country, one that blames social spending and public employees for our many miseries. 

6 Responses

  1. I was hoping this post would be different from all the other analyses I’ve read about this film.

    You’re 100% right about the lack of analysis of social class. Yes, the problem in our public schools has everything to do with social class inequalities.

    I wish the director had focused in on both the SEED schools and Harlem Children’s Zone to find out why they are successful–Guggenheim claims it’s because those schools operate outside of the teacher unions. But if you look closely, you see that the kids at SEED and HCZ are getting from the schools what middle and owning class families give their kids in the suburbs: educational opportunities outside of school, a learning-rich environment, and middle class social skills.

    Sociologist Annette Lareau has written a book on the differences in child rearing called “Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life,” that makes explicit home lives that she says are most different between social classes. In poor and working class families, their parenting style is “natural rearing,” where they let the child’s predilections and gifts get managed by the school. In middle and upper class families, they have a “managed” style of child rearing where they seek opportunities outside of school to nurture their child’s gifts. Poor and working class parents teach their kids to respect authority, to do what they are told. Middle and upper class parents teach their kids to challenge authority, to think for themselves. And guess what. Middle and upper class families read and read and read. Of course, give an urban kid lots of books, high expectations, and cultural learning, and they’ll do as well as their suburban counterpart!

    Maynard, you fail to answer a valid criticism of the current public school system that the director brings up. All of the critics of the film say it’s not the fault of the teachers or the unions. However, you (and all the other film critics) haven’t suggested a solution to the problem–you seem to want the schools to go on doing the same thing. We’ve been doing the same thing for decades and we’re getting the same result. And that’s because the whole system is one that supports and reinforces social class. No matter their intention.

    As long as we’re arguing about whether or not teachers or unions are to blame, we’re never going to get anywhere!

    We MUST do what SEED and HCZ are doing in order to change the paradigm. We must reconsider the term “equal education” because middle class families do not need the kind of education that SEED and HCZ provide.

    And quite honestly, I’d dismantle the unions if I could get that to happen.

  2. CP

    [Ms. Burns] Unions: I’ve been in unions that worked well and unions that didn’t. The problem is NOT unions per se, it’s the culture and organization of those that don’t work so well that is unhealthy, typically due to the dysfunction of their “adversary”– management or in the case of education, the administration/school district. Unions often have too narrow a focus, keeping teachers in their jobs, because in public education, the owning class wants to not have to pay taxes and don’t want to have to pay for “someone else’s” education, so teachers are always first on the block and cuts are made every single year.
    Not answering the question: uh, read the article again. It’s not a ‘here’s the answer to the problem’ piece it’s a commentary on the film. Offering an answer is not the point of the piece [/Ms. Burns]

    A nuanced critique of Guggenheim’s film is necessary. Not all charter schools are bad. the non-profit ones run by parents and teachers are not the same animal as the for-profit charters the filmmaker uncritically lauds. It’s extremely important when making distinctions.

    Same thing with teachers and unions. When a union protects a teacher’s job in spite of empirical data and a historical pattern of parent complaints, kids in therapy, etc., that’s not a sign of a bad union but a flawed union process and/or scope of purpose. Believe me, my eldest had a horrible year because of two teachers. After nearly twenty consistent years of complaints–almost a decade of documented student attrition in these two teachers’ courses vs. that of their peers–over these same two, the solution? Union says we have to keep them, so promote them to high school. Bad decision because of bad process. (A disclaimer: my wife’s a teacher so please understand when I say “parent complaints” I don’t mean the frivolous hoohah, I mean the substantiated complaints arising from psychological damage to one’s child, documented by professionals.) The solution isn’t to dismantle the union, it’s to change the purpose and function of them AND changing the purpose and function of grossly overpaid administrators, whose salaries often dwarf those of even experienced professional teachers. Let’s face it, most unions are modeled on the collective bargaining idea typical to a factory with assembly line workers. Look, this ain’t rocket science here, a school just is NOT a darned factory, even if the owning class thinks it ought to be. SO the form and function needs to shift in many teacher’s unions.

    This is not an either/or problem like so many upper class people are so desperate to paint it. Bean counting like NCLB won’t cut it. Merely dismantling public schools and unions won’t cut it.

    As for answers, a whole lot of people have thought long and hard about that but few ever listen to them. The platform for the Green Party on Education has a few ideas. Several other educators have more ideas. Even some *gasp* private schools and parent-teacher run non-profit charter schools like SAGE in Ventura, CA and Bridges Charter in Thousand Oaks, CA have a few things to say about what solutions look like. Education nerds like NCLB critics advocating for concepts-based education vs. standards-based ed have a few ideas about what a functioning public ed system looks like.

    The problem is the owning class has a veritable choke hold on the decision making process and they just refuse to listen to anyone but their own echo chambers. Until they either quit listening to the stoopid or let go of absolute total control and full spectrum dominance on decision making, nothing will change.

  3. CP: You say that no one listens, but everyone is listening now. None of the critics of the film have offered up solutions, when they’ve had an opportunity and the platform to do so. All they’ve done is cry foul. And I’ve read a ton of them because I’m VERY interested. Even for you, it’s at the very end and is only a vague reference to what could be different. Like “Oh yeah, them over there, they have a solution.”

    You say that change requires the owning class letting go of their “veritable choke hold” on the decision making process. But when I look throughout history (and literature about history), I see that it’s the “weak” classes that have had to act to make that happen.

    In Montgomery, Alabama and Soweto, South Africa and Seneca Falls, New York and Lowell, Massachusetts, it wasn’t the powerful who willingly gave up their power.

    I see in Geoffrey Canada and the people running the Seed schools in Baltimore and Washington, DC something different, taking the power away from the owning classes, and actually making a real difference in the achievement gap.

    I’m a Quaker and am very critical of our private schools. But there is one in Portland, Oregon, also doing something very different, much more radical than anything I’ve ever seen, and much more true to a whole-person education. Wellsprings Friends School [link: educate the young people who are having the hardest time in the Portland public schools, and focus not on test scores but on education that matches each person’s gifts and goals.

    My money is on these three until I see a real and broad movement to change the status quo in our public school system.

  4. Oh, and the reason I’m not helping organize is that the same people who are complaining about the film say I have no credibility because I have no degree in education, and no master’s in education and no PhD in education and no experience teaching.

    I am, however, a product of a public education that decided that I and all the people I grew up with were not smart enough for college, so tracked us into vocational classes and schools. I feel profoundly how public school failed me.

    And for me, that’s enough.

  5. x x

    Charter schools would not have bad teachers because they are not run by the union and their policy therefore, they can fire the ineffective teachers. And this film is clearly giving one message: poor education in America. Not racism, not poverty and not hunger. This is one film on one subject, not all the problems in the world.

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