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Waiting for Superman

October 23, 2010

Waiting for Superman

The American public school system is in appalling shape. This much everybody seems to agree on. Past that point, though, there doesn’t seem to be much agreement at all.

Waiting for “Superman” is Davis Guggenheim’s documentary about what’s going wrong and what can be done. Unfortunately, he closes it by saying that “the problem is complex, but the answer is simple”, which sounds about as well-thought-out as the young Geoffrey Canada saying he’d have the national education system all straightened out in about three years from becoming a teacher in the late 1970s. Worse, though, is the fact that many viewers seem to shut down at that point, as if not having everything right means he doesn’t have anything right at all.

The titular “Superman” is very clearly explained within the first five minutes as a metaphor for some sort of miracle that will eventually come along and set everything right. And it’s a miracle that doesn’t exist, and isn’t coming. Inaction, Guggenheim urges, is the same as waiting for just such a miracle, even though it’s not coming. I find it ironic that I’ve seen teachers review the movie absolutely convinced that “Superman” means a great teacher — or a whole slew of them — who will turn the system around. I just hope that these people who can’t grasp literary allusions and metaphors aren’t teaching English.

When the dust settles we have a hundred-minute movie that makes some necessarily-oversimplified points, and we have some even more oversimplified rebuttals. It seems like everyone wants easy, clear-cut answers on a topic that has no room for anything but equivocation. So let’s get to equivocating! There are many points that can be discussed, but I’ll restrict myself to one, lest this become a truly Wallacean review. For what follows: I am not myself a teacher, and though I like to think I pay more attention than most Americans, I by no means consider myself an expert in these matters.

One of the major cases that Guggenheim makes is that teachers’ unions, especially at the national level, have become a major force inhibiting reform. I think they probably do act to inhibit changes to the system, but I’m highly disinclined to get rid of them. I’m sure that there are principals acting in bad faith who would hire and fire teachers for political jockeying if they could, and I have no question that without collective bargaining teachers would get paid even less than they do now.

On the other hand, I can’t see the justification in the axiomatic assertion that all teachers are equivalent and must be compensated equivalently. Not only is there no disincentive for bad teaching (the movie’s focus), there’s no incentive to reward great teaching either. Do I have a sensible metric by which to measure teacher performance? No, I admit that I don’t. But for unions to throw their hands up and say that measuring performance is too hard and so we shouldn’t even bother looking for good metrics is just as much of a cop-out as it is to write off neighborhoods hosting “dropout factories” as having “unteachable” students. Just because I don’t know how to measure and quantify teachers’ performance and you don’t know how to doesn’t mean that there isn’t a way; and it doesn’t make it true that all teachers are equivalent just because we don’t have a good way of putting a number on the difference.

Besides which, I don’t have a contract. I don’t know many white-collar professions that do have contracts, besides higher education. And in higher education there are years and years of training, observation, and standards to be met before the tenure contract is even considered, let alone granted. Nothing legally prevents my employer from firing me because it advances his personal goals. Nothing ensures that I’ll have a hearing to contest the firing. Nothing guarantees any sort of measurement of my performance. I’d like to have all of those things too, but I and millions of others like me get by without them. Why would the teaching profession suddenly collapse if that were removed, or even modified?

There’s a lot more to be said, and there’s a lot that Guggenheim leaves out that should be in the discussion. But even as flawed as Waiting for “Superman” is, at least it’s saying something and trying to spark a conversation. Looking around and seeing so many others cursing the darkness, I can’t fault the movie for that effort.

Worth it: I think so; just don’t believe everything is exactly as it’s presented.
Bechdel test: doesn’t really apply to documentaries.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Sarah permalink
    October 25, 2010 01:17

    Hi, Mathochist-

    I appreciated your review of this movie. I really had some problems with this film, and am a bit dismayed (though not surprised) by how readily people have accepted its premise. If you’re interested, here’s my review: http://verbalcupcake.net/2010/10/15/waiting-for-superman/.

    Cheers,

    Sarah

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