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.