Waiting for Superman: Too Many Stories

I saw Davis Guggenheim’s documentary about American public education, “Waiting for Superman,” at the cinema recently because of its relevance to a chapter of my forthcoming book Governing Fables. The chapter deals with transformational teachers in inner-city public high schools and discusses stories of those who succeed (“Stand and Deliver” and “Freedom Writers”) and those who fail (“Cheaters” and “Half-Nelson”). My preference is to screen a movie on the computer at home where I can take notes, rather than in a darkened cinema, but Waiting for Superman is not yet available on DVD.

Waiting for Superman attempts to do too much, by telling too many stories. There are 5 stories of children attempting to be admitted to successful charter schools. One of the heroes of the charter school movement, Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, is featured. Finally, educational reformer Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of the Washington D.C. public schools is also profiled. Since one of the issues Rhee takes on is tenure for incompetent teachers, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten is presented as what the New York Times calls “a demonic opponent of change.”

The movie ends on several rather sad notes. As any economist would predict, there is excess demand for successful charter schools, and the law requires that excess demand be dealt with by publicly-held admissions lotteries. Of the five students presented, one is successful in the lottery, a second makes it on the wait list, and three are unsuccessful. Michelle Rhee proposes a contract that pays substantial bonuses to the most effective teachers, but the proposal fails in collective bargaining. Rhee begins the movie looking young and dynamic but by the end appears to have aged two decades. Indeed, following the defeat of Mayor Adrian Fenty, she decided to resign.

The movie was produced by Jeffrey Skoll’s activist Participant Media and, consistent with Skoll’s approach, ends by interspersing with the credits text urging the viewer to take action. The actions suggested include parents writing their school boards to demand great teachers, volunteering their time, or donating money. All of this strikes me as well-meaning, but it is not clear that it would have much impact.

To go back to the movie, my criticism is that, by attempting to tell so many stories, it doesn’t tell any one of them in sufficient depth. First, there are many successful charter schools, but also many that, by any standard, aren’t doing any better than the public schools they seek to challenge. So what differentiates the successful charter schools from the unsuccessful ones?

Second, was Michelle Rhee a successful reformer or did she crash and burn? Were her tactics – in particular the closing of schools and firing of teachers – warranted, or an unproductive shock and awe campaign?

Third, was Randi Weingarten being demonized because the plot line demanded an adversary? The New York Times, at least, suggests that Weingarten is more flexible than the film suggests. Any one of these stories could have been investigated – and presented – with more depth and nuance.

Much should be done to improve public education in the US. It is not clear to me that breaking teachers’ unions is the best way to do that. Reducing class size, coping with the effects of poverty, and making better use of technology are all part of the answer. All these, of course, require additional resources. The resources made available by foundations and by the Race to the Top initiative are part of the solution, but a real initiative would require support on a much greater scale. And it is not at all clear to me that the US is ready or able to make such a commitment.

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