The Documentary Waiting For Superman its Propaganda and Problems

Those who read my work regularly have no doubt noticed how many pieces I do on education, employment and the paradoxes regarding both everyone seems to ignore or be too befuddled by to engage in a conversation about. That being said, I didn’t want to embark on another several pages of saying the same old, tired things concerning what needs to happen to better these fields for all American’s, especially our children. However, after looking at the reviews for the film, looking at the dynamics of what it covered, seeing a director attempting to play education myth buster, watching one of the “heroes,” Michelle Rhee, on Oprah talking about what’s next after her headline making dismissal and her implication in the former D.C. mayors devastating loss, I decided I had something more to say on this vast issue. Namely that it (the documentary) serves only to anger the wrong people in all the wrong ways while ignoring bigger issues, over simplifying others, pushing better, more immediate, solutions aside and touting the same old formats for reform.

First and foremost, “Waiting For Superman” centers around the lottery system of charter schools throughout grade levels, explores downsides of teacher unions and teacher tenure, features one student whose trouble with math will put her in a lower track of academic coursework; having her number drawn will help her go to a school with no such tracking system. At the same time, it portrays Rhee and Harlem Children’s Zone founder, Geoffrey Canada, as reformers, more insidiously as the only ones near their respective areas. Charter schools and voucher programs that have been accused of siphoning money from desperate public schools while helping only a few, proponents selling it as the best we have, a social Band-Aid for kids that can be saved until a better idea comes along. Teacher unions have always been at odds with cities, school districts who claim they can’t afford to pay more, tight wad citizens refusing bonds and other voter choice issues to give schools more funds; opponents, some cited in the film, pointing to teachers accused of wrong doing, entitled to long, drawn out hearings lasting months, possibly years, in the meantime sitting in vacant rooms all day drawing salaries. Teacher tenor, given after only 2 years, seemed insane to Oprah, but A- without competitive wages there is no other way to keep teachers, especially in urban areas, and B- there are those who would fight giving tenor to any teacher, even the best; 6 of one half a dozen of the other anyone? Tracking systems to opponents are viewed as limiting students’ education options; those in support of them say it would drastically improve our education system, if used across the board, as it would prevent students, having no interest in high level academic curriculum, who would do better in a trade or specialized field, from asking why they must study algebra, making the teacher want to pull out their own hair.

In other words they hit all the hot button issues, controversial for decades, to make a film, it seems with no other goal than to once again trash America’s schools, take aim at America’s teachers, to make people aware so they can line the pockets of organizations designed to put money into so called proven programs. Not truly surprising considering the director also directed the Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” heralded as film making ala Michael Moore, more docudrama, heavy on the drama light on documenting anything, aside from peoples shocked reactions to skewed stimuli. It appears to be combination scare tactic and call to arms but doesn’t tell people what they should do, advises them to get involved yet giving no examples of how, shows the reformer Rhee toppling the current system where she is but at a social cost of replacing it with what? Waiting For Superman’s reformers would have you believe it’s replacing bad teachers with good ones, reforming the tenure system to not tenure teachers after just 2 years, saying you now have a job for life and can’t be fired, removing apathetic, ineffective administrators, replacing them with usually younger, more vigorous counterparts, all things almost anyone would support.

But then the obvious question to be asked, what constitutes bad teachers those guilty of misconduct, abusing students in one form or another, those who are inept, just plain bad at it? Ok, however the film conspicuously leaves out voices of teachers who talk about the day to day work, classroom teaching, combating concentrated urban poverty, segregation of communities by race, ethnicity, social class, no programs for infants, young children, in favor of voicing opinions held by students and parents who feel let down by the system, according to one critic. On the next page of his in depth review he points out the film clearly articulating the problem for one Bronx first grader is that his school is overcrowded, his teacher overworked with too many students, something never mentioned again. Something that Rhee and Canada’s programs, approach won’t fix; conversely, if Rhee had had her way, “good” schools would suddenly be inundated with students, teachers overwhelmed and the problem begins all over again. Next logical question being, if people who think like Rhee rise to power and stay there, how many would-be good teachers who could do better with more resources, less students will be classified as bad, then fired; how many already were because Rhee failed to recognize anything but individual teacher results?

Criticisms cited here are absolutely true preschool programs, like Head Start, have long waiting lists, parents looking to get early education, even for a delayed child are wont to find it without paying fees. It’s less about parents who cannot afford to send their kids to private school and more about parents so poor there are no books in the home, parents who can’t afford school supplies, parents so ill educated themselves they can’t help their child with homework or too busy working to keep food on the table, rent paid heat, lights on, to help. How can you be a good, never mind excellent, teacher when you have too many young people to help, kids coming into lower grades without ever having held a pencil, forget knowing how, when classrooms become about crowd control not learning, when you have dipped into your own pockets all you can and still have students showing up minus the supplies they need to be successful? Simultaneously you are defacto parent, social worker to kids who come to school hungry, dirty, kids who go home to houses with spotty or no electricity, sometimes no running water, kids who are homeless, kids bounced between their neglectful parent and foster care, group homes. How do you keep kids focused on school who have been shot, seen classmates, neighbors shot, students whose parents are on drugs, in jail? How do you keep kids interested in education when they see the open discrimination of local employers unwilling to give people from “that” neighborhood a job, poor kids who know they can make more on a street corner selling drugs than working a job?

Mr. Guggenheim, director and narrator, asserts money is not a problem for schools, evidenced by the US spending more per capita on education than ever before even while in another portion alluding to the fact that annual cost for 1 prison inmate is more than double what is spent on 1 public school student. When talking about the plight of rural and urban schools he nicknames dropout factories, he recounts the story of Anthony a Bronx fifth grader who’s father is on drugs, his mother indifferent, being raised by a paternal grandmother who knows she will need help keeping him focused. Putting forth his knowledge that other kids share Anthony’s poverty, he has greater faith that they will succeed backed by parents willing to push them as well as the system, while saying “but Anthony needs a savior; he needs a superman.” This echoing Mr. Canada talking about his disappointment, as a child, when he learned superman wasn’t real crying because there was no one coming to his tenement apartment to save them. Actually what the Anthony’s, Mr. Canadas’ of the world need is to learn how to be their own savior, their own superman; they need to know that that begins with doing your best, trying your hardest, no matter how “bad’ your school is, no matter how “bad” your teachers are, your neighborhood is, graduating high school. And charter, magnet schools should be about providing a place for the best and brightest routinely bored and unmotivated working at grade level, providing unique opportunities for young people gifted in language arts, creative arts, visual/media arts, math or science, not a new spin on the prep school, wedging kids into uniforms, a desperate escape for poor, disadvantaged youth.

Yet if Mr. Guggenheim is looking for saviors for Anthony or others, it could be a teacher, he has yet to meet who cared in art, music, present in his current school, an interest he has yet to find in sports or science. Neither is his grandmother helpless; minus a positive male role model, he is exactly who organizations the likes of Big Brothers Big Sisters is meant to help, fight to bring a chapter to your city, attempt to recruit volunteers. She could get him involved at the local YMCA, Boys & Girl’s Club, or push for a chapter where they live, sign him up with the local Parks & Recreation, enroll him in an extracurricular club or activity. Ah but there’s the rub; many schools have done away with art and music because of budget cuts, eliminated some, or all sports teams, relying completely on student/organizer fundraising to keep them going, all done after removing less utilized extracurriculars, after school tutoring programs. But money is not the problem, despite one New York school chancellor posting a column about firing the wrong teachers for budget reasons; what about schools everywhere lacking advanced placement courses because they can’t afford teachers to teach them, find enough students willing and able to take said classes, offsetting cost? Money is not a problem, regardless of continued state, city belt tightening where so called forgotten zip codes become extinct in the eyes of city managers at penny pinching times like these; sure.

Ms. Rhee is equally out of touch appearing on Oprah to announce her new foundation aimed at redesigning America’s education system in its entirety stating that if we replaced the bottom 5% of teachers with those only considered average it would be enough to take America from bottom to top internationally speaking. The problem, many schools nationwide, regardless of socioeconomic status, can’t find a warm body to occupy a classroom, never mind someone possessing an education degree, training, forget excellence in those areas. Urban schools have it even worse because no one wants to teach in a high-risk area, for almost no money, dealing with children deemed unwilling to learn. Same concept applies in reference to her comment that she can look at a student’s zip code and fairly well predict academic performance, quick to say it wasn’t the neighborhood. Reality, those “academically derelict” zip codes are the identical zip codes housing poor people, poor municipalities, families unable to afford books during pre K years, lacking funds for school supplies, god forbid a computer, internet access, compounded by drugs, gangs, violence, escalated by the negatives above. Lets also discuss this accusation meant to outrage viewers that teachers can’t be fired; perhaps both stars and director should tell that to the handful from across the country looking for new jobs due to “inappropriate” posts on Facebook or the grade school teacher dismissed after participating in a local radio stations bikini contest. Lets examine claims teacher unions block firings; a teacher at one school was not removed from her position even after a safety hold gone bad resulted in the death of a special needs student; why, not because unions were involved, instead because said school determined she did nothing wrong.

Equally juxtaposed controversially against heated and often debated concepts in the film, is the director’s portrayal of solutions, reinforcing the idea that the only way out for these young people is a charter, magnet school, reinforcing both resentment and learned helplessness as students watch their peers get their shot and they don’t, supporting those programs that either remove children from problem neighborhoods/schools or infuse them with drastic amounts of social services, contradicting the showcase ideal- education as the key to rehabilitating such areas. Those unimpressed with “Waiting for Superman” were dead on when they said it over simplifies, boiling success down to test scores, maybe going to college; part of education has to be about employing individuals, being able to put them in the workforce, something college does less and less. Ah and there is the other rub, top test scores not withstanding, there’s no money for them to continue their education anyway. And for what, so they can join thousands of other disaffected college graduates unable to find work, still working a minimum wage position gained in high school, during college? Here is another statistic for Ms Rhee, another 5% that should concern her; that’s the unemployment rate for college graduates, holding at least a B. A. Not bad considering nationally it’s nearly 10%, except it’s the highest in 30 years. Being the best educated doesn’t necessarily mean what people think it does; look at emerging China, arguably best education system worldwide, the majority of its college graduates living in hovels rivaling the worst inner city tenements.

Further, even those acknowledging truths within the docudrama, few though they may be, contend the movie’s ending is sad because the direction of young lives depends on dropping a ball from a plexiglass box, so many kids denied a chance to reach their dreams. Ironically it bears striking resemblance to what we do in competition for college scholarships, with college essays, interviews, an expert on the Today Show comparing 2 submissions, one talking about the music of Glee the other a talent show performance involving a Nirvana song. Among the critique was the latter essay made you feel like you were there; the unfair, subjective comparison, music of Glee was too new. Nirvana was better known, a classic, older. There is little difference than harsh realisms present in the employment world, people possessing nearly identical rèsumès one getting a job another handful not. No difference whatsoever in the amended slogan best characterized as, you can have your dream as long s it’s in education, healthcare social work, as long as it involves construction, medial, metal working, things you do with your hands. Guggenheim gives a startling statistic that by 2020 only 50 million Americans will be qualified to fill the 123 million high skilled, high paying jobs; what he leaves out or doesn’t understand is the cause. In addition to post secondary schooling being less affordable, less accessible, employers are the worse about declaring their needs, working with colleges local or nationwide to input programs teaching skills they need, are never found in junior highs, high schools, colleges talking to students or guidance counselors, getting them interested in growing careers.

Likewise no one values art anymore, artisans, journalism is reduced to everyone with a website, blog or taking advantage of numerous free hosting networks of same. Commentators using sharp wit and common sense are peddled for free or ignored. Photographers never have made a lot of money, but nowadays are more likely to be relegated to doing school pictures than spreads for GQ, Victoria Secret, National Geographic or something as simple as their local paper. Individuals entering traditionally high paid, successful work find themselves in medial jobs associated with their career field; lawyers working legal aid to be employed, business majors becoming peed on middle management. A group of 2009 college graduates were lucky to be employed; a biology major working in an office planning to become a dentist, rather than his original goal of working in a lab, an architecture major signed up for the Teach For America program, a psych/marketing major delving into marketing continued her job at Best Buy looking into graduate school; the history major, after taking a short internship, decided on law school, these being the lucky ones.

So if Mr. Canada, Ms. Rhee and Mr. Guggenheim don’t have the solution, aren’t on the right track, in the case of the latter seems to be skewing the facts; what is the answer, formula for turning education around? Before anything else, stop the chicken littleism, stop jamming the panic button, sounding a master alarm as if this plight applies to every student in every school throughout America, when it does not, not even a majority. This is the plight of urban, inner city schools, the same plight existing for decades. Now is it long past time we did something about it, of course, but that won’t happen if viewers catch on they are being used or lied to. It is not about failure of teacher unions, flaws in teacher tenure, ousting administrators, principals given a desk, a walk-y talk-y and told to keep order, to administrate. Mr. Guggenheim gave us a picture of the problem; kids parentless, role modeless, hopeless and conditioned to learned helplessness. As said before, it begins with ingraining in kids they can be their own saviors, by working hard, doing their best, graduating high school. Other ways out exist too, getting a job at 16, working to pay for college, tech school or training classes. Oddly enough, often ending up better off than their degree holding counterparts because of experience and solid work history, becoming manager at $11 an hour while a degree holder is over qualified, struggling to work.

Bad schools don’t mean completely out of options; however, it may mean going to a community college first, doing general education courses, getting good grades, then transferring to a 4 year institution. If you are going to drop out to avoid gangs, drugs, violence, first know about your local GED program, have a reasonable certainty you can assimilate the information in workbooks and materials. What solves the core issues in “Waiting For Superman;” more schools to ease overcrowding, translating to more money, making people more interested in becoming teachers so schools have more choices about who they hire, translating to more money for competitive wages. Schools paying attention to where they put the money they have, monetarily successful ones doing little better than urban counterparts should consider training teachers to integrate technology into their day to day classroom, purchasing laptops rented to students for use in completing class work rather than state of the art gyms, computer labs, giant pools.

Schools in Mr. Canada’s neighborhood struggling to afford equipment should consider software upgrades whenever possible over replacing all components, only replacing hardware as needed i.e. new standard keyboards for those missing keys. Coordinating with local organizations that refurbish old, discarded computers for those overseas or local underprivileged youth can be a good way to get hardware and software at lower cost or to place laptops in the hands of all students in these neighborhoods too, to be educated more on par with others nationally in ways that ensure learning. One Texas school got smart offering bussing home from after school tutoring, remediation, something that should be an option in every American school particularly inner city ones, even through high school, because it solves the problem of students without transportation home if they use such a program or work individually with a teacher. Intervention, counseling programs, access to social services must be in place for students to be able to cope with the coarser things they endure on a daily basis. Another key involves enticing businesses to work in concert with schools to provide early internships, real-world work experience, vocational training/experience.

Bringing life to blighted neighborhoods starts by demanding police actually police such areas, answer calls from there, work to remove drugs, gangs, violence, not only making living space safer but eliminating constant reminders, temptation to young people to get rich quick doing illicit activities. Then the city working to remove dilapidated, abandoned buildings, vacant lots replacing them with green space, parks, basketball courts, painting over graffiti, creating liaisons between cities and enterprise to bring back residential and commercial development. Organizing neighborhood watches, bringing in chapters of youth programs, creating your own community based childcare, after school programs, positive places for children to be. Inviting in needed social services, giving parenting education to parents, job-training programs geared to the local economy, rather than taking people, children out of the community for their chance. All of the above only happening when officials make it a priority, when they stop wringing their hands, calling it a lost cause, when they stop thinking in racial types, stereotypes. Perhaps federal funding should be pulled from states, counties that turn a blind eye to tenement conditions, let areas get so bad police refuse to enter, allowing police to refuse to help.

The truth is we are all waiting for a Superman, waiting for a superman to reform our financial system, waiting for a superman to help us find a job, get a better one, give us a shot at a better apartment or house, a chance to own either. Others are waiting for a superman to fix our love life, make us happy, make us prettier; unfortunately it will never happen. All we can do is do our best, reach for perfection and demand of government, institutions, societal foundations both integrity and function. The problem with “Waiting For Superman” is it does nothing to mobilize people in their neighborhoods, doesn’t set people to marching on their city hall demanding reallocation of monies toward better living areas, more schools. It does nothing to hold all pieces of the equation accountable; instead it flays parts of them, makes murky actions those wishing to get involved could take, it presents film’s participants as characters, you really can’t take seriously, and the loser is real reformers attempting to make a difference, to change the whole, lives and communities, not to mention America’s children, America’s future. Mr. Guggenheim should be ashamed of himself.

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About Natasha Sapp

Proclaiming an edgy voice of reason to America,while bringing back the common sense to social issues.

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