Tuesday, October 5, 2010

No Longer "Waiting for Superman"

by Peggy Robin

I was anxiously waiting, waiting, to see Waiting for Superman and then last night I saw it.  Why was I anxious?  Because I knew I was coming in to Davis Guggenheim’s new documentary with a head full of preconceptions, and at the same time planning to write about the movie for All Life Is Local. Could I write fairly? First, let me confess the bias that I brought in with me: I had heard that the movie makes a hero of Michelle Rhee, who, as I see it, is a seriously flawed choice for the part. How can someone so abrasive, so politically tone-deaf, and so full of her own importance that she writes her own continued chancellorhood into foundation contracts as a prerequisite for grants, be held up as the examplar of “what works” in public education? That was my mindset going in, and in that mood I was expecting to argue with every frame of the movie -- or at the very least, find fault with its DC-based examples.

Now to the punchline: I came out totally convinced by the movie’s line of reasoning. This is a wonderfully informative and still very watchable movie. It marshals its evidence carefully, but it’s not in the least dry or coldly factual. Neither does it go too far in the opposite direction:  That is to say, it packs an emotional punch but it doesn’t milk your sympathies in  a tearjerking, or kneejerk, sort of way. The children and their families who serve as prime examples are not exploited for their cuteness nor for their poor family circumstances; they're just regular kids, none of them especially articulate. The director simply takes you along on each family’s quest to get a struggling student out of the neighborhood school that has already failed that child. In each of five cases, Guggenheim presents what the child’s family sees as a good solution, a chance to move the child over to a public school with a program that has been proven to produce great results. And then you see the problem: For each child who applies, there are three times the number, or ten times the number, or even twenty times the number of children vying for a space in the school that works. 

The film asks the question, who is responsible for this situation?  Why are there so many children at failing schools and so few schools available that can actually deliver an education?  We’re not talking triple diamond standard here, just a school that can keep the majority of its kids working at grade level, instead of letting most of them slip one, two or even three grade levels behind.  Here’s where we come to Michelle Rhee. She -- along with several other nationally known educational reformers -- puts the blame squarely on teachers’ unions for clinging to the tenure system that makes it all but impossible to fire a teacher after that teacher has performed adequately for just two years in the classroom.

The film is not really about Michelle Rhee so much as it is about what she and others decry:  the ironclad teacher contracts that stand in the way of reform. While Michelle Rhee gets some flattering camera angles and is featured looking tough and effective, the real spotlight is on Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Success Academy, who has far more screen time than Rhee, and who makes his points in a charming, soft-spoken, self-deprecating way that carries the weight of the argument.  As Canada wistfully talks about his own boyhood experience "waiting for Superman” to rescue him from dreary times at his crumbling public school, he not only provides the name for the movie but emerges as its true soul.  If anyone can be called the hero of this movie, he’s the one; Michelle Rhee is really more of a walk-on.  Her main contribution to Guggenheim’s film is to look young and energetic and somewhat glamorous, which helps the film’s thesis that the opponents of reform are, by contrast, old tired frumps who have run out of ideas.

As if on cue, on screen appears the head of the nation’s largest teachers’ union, Randi Weingarten, exemplifying all those qualities.  Now back to the problem of my prejudices going in to the show:  I was prepared to be outraged on Ms. Weingarten’s behalf -- indeed, on behalf of all professional women over 50 who may not wear trendy clothes or have a close-up camera-ready smile. But I have to say, it’s not Ms. Weingarten’s looks that do her in, it’s her words. We hear her, all pumped up at a union rally, promising her troops to defend their interests above all.  A bit of lip service, in something of an afterthought, goes to “the children.”  Her core loyalties are clear.  She’s giving no ground, nothing is wrong with our school system, and even if it is, there’s no reason for teachers to change.  They’re not to blame.  She stands strong against any effort to “divide” teachers, and in the context of her speech, it’s clear that the “division” she opposes is any attempt to identify and fire the weakest teachers. 

To me the single most affecting scene in the movie involves a weak teacher that we never see on camera.  You don’t even hear the teacher’s voice -- all you see is a mother of a first grader with reading problems trying to reach that teacher on the phone. We see her leaving one of many voicemail messages begging for a conference to talk about her son’s reading. The teacher never calls back, and you see the frustration in the mother’s face as she struggles to accept the fact that the teacher is never going to call back. That mother is powerless: She knows she has no way to make the teacher call back, and worst of all, she has no way to get her son switched into the sort of school whose teachers do call back . It’s such a simple request, a little courtesy:  a returned phone call from a teacher. The refrain from teacher’s unions is that the parents don’t do enough, yet here is this mother doing everything possible to get her child a better education and what does she get for her efforts?  Dead air time.  She’s not in tears, but much of the audience will be choked up.  And after that, angry.  The film may not make an airtight case that our urban public schools are failing most of our kids, but there can be no argument that it’s failed in this case, with this family, with this little boy.  He needs the option to go to a different school, as do thousands of other children like him who are stuck in schools (like DC’s system) with a majority of children testing well below grade level.

However, in order to give those children alternatives, you need someone in charge who recognizes that the schools have a problem and is set on fixing it.  What Randi Weingarten fails to get across in her moments on screen is that she believes the problem is real.  (I later heard Ms. Weingarten on NPR complaining that that the film did not focus on mainstream public schools that are successful.  But that would have been a different film.  And perhaps one set in a different time, as well --  back in the 60's, perhaps, when the US was number one in the world when it came to public education.)

I went in to this movie with a mindset that said “OK, Davis Guggenheim, see if you can persuade me” …and came out persuaded. I recommend Waiting for Superman to anyone with the slightest interest in the future of public education, and even those who have no interest -- because I think you will come out of this movie interested.  I very much want your reactions, too.  Has my head been turned too fast?  Did the filmmaker put anything past me?  Or was he right on the mark?

No comments:

Post a Comment