What culprit-seeking ‘Superman’ lacks: complexity

(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)

Teachers union members last week leafleted outside the Oakland movie house where I saw Davis Guggenheim’s film Waiting for Superman. And no doubt there’ve been countless protests elsewhere. The film, “and its unprecedented hype (and) … misleading or factually incorrect claims,” said the leaflets, “risk leading us dangerously astray from real solutions to real problems.”

No surprise about that. The movie makes teachers unions the prime culprits standing in the way of decent schools for nice (mostly minority) kids and portrays charter schools as their greatest hope. But conservatives like New York Times columnist Ross Douthat who read between the lines of Guggenheim’s film can easily come to a more radical conclusion: The only real answer is vouchers.

The movie’s strongest complaint – the problems caused by rigid seniority-and-tenure provisions of the teacher contracts that are standard in many districts – is hard to dismiss. Disciplining, much less firing teachers is often so long and costly a process that administrators don’t even try.

But even here, its choice of American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten as the prime ogre misses the mark. Next to the far larger, more powerful, and more troglodytic National Education Association, today’s AFT is a model of accommodation in developing acceptable practices in evaluating, promoting and disciplining teachers.

But what’s most notable about the film is its blatant oversimplification of the problems that confront schools – hardly unusual when it comes to that topic – and its omission of the countless other factors that contribute to them.

It’s a long list. The film makes passing reference to “the blob,” shorthand for the overlay of bureaucrats, politicians, ed school professors, and consultants who sit on top of the system and serve as its designated fixers. But it says nothing about the thousands of harried or incompetent and sometimes biased vice principals and other administrators who are supposed to evaluate and, if necessary, counsel errant teachers.

It says nothing about the thousands of schools where the toilets don’t work, the roofs leak, the windows are broken, and where there aren’t enough textbooks, much less lab materials and computers to go around.

The film says nothing about the endemic politicization of the system – by ideologues on state or local school boards, as in Texas, or by self-appointed watchdog groups looking for heresy, perversion, or subversion in textbooks and curricula. It doesn’t mention the endemic uncertainty and uncompromising fights over the proper way to teach reading or math and the frequent changes of curricula they impose top-down on teachers. There is no discussion of testing – what to test, how to use tests, and how to weigh the scores. And there’s no mention of about a thousand other things that contribute to the problems faced by schools.

More important, the film lets you assume that all parents and guardians are like the dedicated, striving adults in the film. However, anyone involved in education can tell you that many and, in some places, most parents are not engaged in their children’s education, can’t be induced even to appear for parent conferences, provide no encouragement to their children to learn and no place for them to study, never read to them, and in too many cases rarely talk with them at all.

The film doesn’t say that in places like California more than one fourth of children come from homes where English is not the primary language and that another large percentage come with mental, physical or emotional handicaps requiring special programs and/or extra personnel.

It doesn’t tell you that most charter schools are no better than public schools with similar enrollments and that many are worse. It doesn’t tell you that the KIPP schools, which it justly celebrates, demand additional commitments in time and effort from both parents and students that many are not prepared to make.

It doesn’t tell you that Finland, its model of educational success, like many other high-scoring countries, has strong teachers unions and teacher tenure and, more important, provides a rich range of health and social services to children and their families that this country does not provide.

And in declaring that this country once had the world’s best educational system, it makes no mention of the century of school segregation, or of the fact that until the 1970s large numbers of kids, Southern black kids particularly, didn’t go to school at all between April and October, and that the nation’s prestigious colleges had virtually no Blacks enrolled, and rigid quotas for Jews.

It makes no reference to the nation’s historic anti-intellectualism or its current manifestations in creationism and resistance to the teaching of evolution, or the denial of the overwhelming scientific evidence for the human causes of global warming. It fails to mention the countless communities where winning the Friday night football game is still a more important criterion for the local high school than academic distinction.

The real mystery of Waiting for Superman is how, despite all its flaws, it’s gotten so much attention so fast, even on the left. In part, that may be the result of the reputation Guggenheim achieved with his  An Inconvenient Truth, the film he made with Al Gore about global warming. Because of it, Guggenheim came on as a fully-certified liberal (which, of course, is also why the film has been embraced so warmly by the Wall Street Journal and other voices on the right).

But in our recession-driven swing to the right, much of the nation, including the left, may also have become so focused on the power and apparent intransigence of the teachers unions that everything else got neglected and things needed only a small spark to blow. Weingarten made the strategic mistake, probably well-intentioned, of sitting still for Guggenheim’s cameras. The leaders of the NEA, who are far more deserving of a hit, didn’t make the same mistake.

Still, none of that explains why Guggenheim so oversimplified his story. Not one of his talking heads – not Bill Gates, not his hero Michelle Rhee, the hard-charging reformer of the Washington schools – suggested the larger complexity of the nation’s educational problems.

Nor does it explain why Guggenheim didn’t fully identify the long-time voucher advocates, Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institution or Lance Izumi of the devotedly free-market Pacific Research Institute, who appeared in the film. Ultimately, the best explanation may be the oldest one: Complexity almost always makes for bad morality tales. Maybe Waiting for Superman will make more accommodations possible with the teachers unions. But it won’t solve the problems of American education.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report

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5 Responses to “What culprit-seeking ‘Superman’ lacks: complexity”

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  1. Paul Muench on Oct 13, 2010 at 11:21 pm10/13/2010 11:21 pm

    • 000

    There seems to be good evidence that our public school system has stagnated since the early 1970’s.  The number of high school graduates is not increasing and the quality of a high school education is not changing much.  To improve public education we need to start experimenting with new models.  Maybe there is some “super catalyst”  that will make the improvement(s) with only slight changes to how education dollars are spent, but we at least need to consider the possibility that we won’t find such a catalyst.  Since personnel accounts for the lion’s share of education funding, it seems fair to say that this is the most significant issue to be addressed.  So maybe the film didn’t hit the nail on the head, but at least it hit the nail on the point :)

  2. lori h on Oct 13, 2010 at 2:48 pm10/13/2010 2:48 pm

    • 000

    i appreciate all the points made in the article and would like to add another element of complexity to the mix: the high rate of turnover in leadership in urban districts, and the arrogance of some superintendents who come in to new districts and don’t mine the institutional memory/expertise about what is and isn’t working before they lay out a new plan that completely dismisses the sometimes valuable work already being done.  i have seen this happen with my own eyes in several big urban districts in california, and i know how much time, energy, and money has been wasted because some new guy came in and threw the baby out with the bathwater.  as someone who spearheaded some ambitious and rigorous reform work in a big district, i was appalled at how uninterested the new supe was in understanding anything we were doing.  if he had learned what we were up to and given us the time to carry it out, he could have taken credit for amazing results; instead though, he came in with the plan he had used in the district he came from (which was very different from ours in terms of numbers and demographics), and set our work aside, which wasn’t in students’ best interests.  and to make matters worse, he didn’t even stick around the district long enough to see his own plan out before he left for yet another big urban district (this one in another state)!
    this is a big problem, and one that seems to fly under the radar much of the time.  we hear a lot about how unions are bad because they prioritize adults over children (including quite an earful about that from Michelle Rhee in the movie)… but we don’t hear much about how sometimes the highest leaders are looking out for their own resumes at kids’ expense…

  3. R Wolf on Oct 13, 2010 at 1:28 pm10/13/2010 1:28 pm

    • 000

    It’s nice to finally read a story from an unbiased view of the world of education as to the challenges that confront educators in California and that does not glorify charter schools. The only thing that was missed was that parents don’t encourage or require their children to even attend school.

  4. Geoff Yount on Oct 13, 2010 at 1:22 pm10/13/2010 1:22 pm

    • 000

    I think you’ve hit a number of nails on the head, but some of them need to be struck again and again.  The people behind these “reform” movements keep repeating their lines until others start to take it as the truth–regardless of the evidence.  These same “reformers” are rally about finding a way to either get vouchers approved or create a school system that is tiered so that their kids don’t have to go to school with “those” kids, a phrase that I’ve actually heard used. 

    Furthermore, teachers unions aren’t the ogre they are portrayed to be.  It’s a myth that a teacher can’t be fired if the union is involved.  A truly bad teacher is no better for other teachers and the union than they are for the administration; however, there are also bad administrators who would fire teachers for all of the wrong reasons if those teachers didn’t have a voice.  The fact is that a state like California with collective bargaining (read unions) actually lays off a higher percentage of teachers than states without, but it does require administrators to do their job correctly.  Teachers unions and teachers in general advocate for all students, even those whose parents don’t speak English, don’t have a proper learning environment and encouragement outside of school, and don’t have the supplies and equipment they need in school.  Kids with hardships are still great kids and deserve every chance they can get.  As a parent, I’m proud that my kids go to a true public school with “those” kids, and I’m proud that there is a teachers union to give voice to those teachers and to try to achieve some parity with those on top who aren’t in the classroom but make decisions every day that they send down to the bottom–the classroom, students and teachers.

  5. Reilleyfam on Oct 13, 2010 at 11:40 am10/13/2010 11:40 am

    • 000

    Non-school factors including genetics, family systems and social/peer pressures are far more determinative of how a child turns out. Are we really that stupid that we think the schools and teachers can save otherwise defunct students? Do we really think that our teachers and schools are so bad that they take perfect kids and ruin them? No, the schools and teachers are likely at the bottom of that list in determining how kids turn out. The fervor over this film is a manifestation of the frustration of parents and ideologues at the situation and a desire to blame one single easily identified source as the cause of ALL the problems – politics is also at work here. Genetics, families and peers and the social world kids grow up in is far far more determinative. But that’s complex and we all want and an easy McDonald’s drive-thru answer to all our problems – which is part of the problem itself.