Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Waiting for SuperSubstance

I had the good fortune to go see the documentary "Waiting for 'Superman'" a few days ago at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).  After the film, there was an on-stage interview with the film's directors, one of the film's stars, Geoffrey Canada, and educational philanthropist and billionaire, Bill Gates. (pictured to the left)

  In a nutshell the documentary is about the current state of U.S. public education, the reasons for its recent decline, and some hopeful solutions for its future. As a former teacher, I was very excited to see this movie because I thought it would bring to light many important issues and be a catalyst for conversation and change.  Two of the people featured in the movie are Geoffrey Canada, whom I'd read about in the phenomenal book "Whatever It Takes," and Michele Rhee, whom I'd seen speak at the Clinton School last year.

The film does do a good job of raising some important issues, but it left me more disappointed than anything else.  I've thought about it for a couple of days now, and I think the directors just bit off more than they could chew with this one.  It probably would have been a better movie if they'd focused on either Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children's Zone, or Michele Rhee and the DC public schools, or the KIPP charter schools.  Instead the movie looks at all three, and throws in a few more charter schools, and tells the story of several children going through the lottery system to get out of the public schools and into a charter school, and gives a history of public schools, and throws in the obligatory barb at George W making a grammar mistake.  It's too much.

In order to pack in that many elements corners had to be cut.  Unfortunately, those corners included an in-depth look at any of the problems, and the voices of teachers.  I agree with some of the points in the film - the tenure system is horribly flawed and does more harm than good; there is a significant degree of fiscal waste in the public education system; and great teachers have an enormous impact on their students to name a few.  However, I was disappointed by the portrayal of teachers' unions as complete villains.  And I was most disappointed by the absence of the voices of teachers.

The film makes the following logical links:  Great teachers = Good education.  Good education = Highly educated citizenry.  Highly educated citizenry = Necessary for national security.  Therefore, Great teachers are vital to our national security.  Another fine point that I agree with, but then the movie NEVER DEFINES GREAT TEACHING.  The two most significant clips that I can recall with teachers include a teacher teaching math by rapping and the U.S. Teacher of the Year explaining the cumbersome and ineffective process used to fire bad teachers.  Granted great teaching is really hard to define, but if you're making a film that is going to influence the national conversation on teaching, don't you think you explore those muddy waters a bit?

Despite my disappointment, I would encourage you to see the film.  Then I would encourage you to read the book "Whatever It Takes" because it does a more thorough job of delving into some of the issues more deeply.  I would also encourage you to read up about the adventures of Michele Rhee.  Then maybe you'll have a more complete picture and can have the informed conversation this movie is hoping you will.


  1. I haven't seen it, but I plan to. I think most teachers go into education hoping to make a difference, and if the education system did more to foster that, we'd see a lot more great teachers. And I agree with you that the union is not necessarily a villain- as you know, here in Texas, they have very little power, and if they had more, we could probably effect positive change all the way around. I know in some states, the union is looked at as having too much power, but that's definitely not the case here. Truly effective schools take everyone- students, parents, teachers, administrators, community- all working together.

  2. Looking forward to seeing it....good review.