What did "Waiting For 'Superman'" get wrong?
A grassroots group of parents and teachers pokes big holes in last year's blockbuster documentary about America's schools -- insisting that real reform will require more than brand-conscious initiatives such as increased testing standards and access to charter schools.
The result is a new documentary, wryly titled "The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting For Superman."
"It says ... we're mad as hell and we're not gonna take it anymore," said Diane Ravitch, a New York University education historian and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, during a speech after a recent screening. "Teachers across this country are ... demoralized."
After months of seething about what they view as the one-sidedness of Davis Guggenheim's film, hundreds of teachers gathered at Riverside Church in uptown Manhattan to vent their frustrations and anger.
"We want to start a movement," Brian Jones, a teacher and one of the movie's narrators, said in a panel after the film. He linked the documentary with the recent waves of teacher-led protests that seem louder and larger than ever before. Julie Cavanagh, one of the film's producers and a teacher in Red Hook, Brooklyn, minced no words, thanking the audience for gathering "as we battle the corporate reform movement."
The movie, created by the Grassroots Education Movement, is both a product and a showcase of teachers and disaffected parents in the New York City school system. Scenes of Jones and Cavanagh describing their experiences as teachers are punctuated by interviews with parents turned off by the city's approach to public education. Those parents speak into the camera, relating tales of children disciplined for sneezing too loudly in charter schools; of public schools in harrowing class-sharing arrangement with charters; of children whose special education needs a charter school could not fulfill.
We see students yelling into bullhorns, teachers waving signs and kids in red capes, impersonating the hero that is allegedly coming to save their educational growth.
Guggenheim's assistant said he would be unable to comment due to travel.
"Waiting for 'Superman'" took viewers on an emotional journey, showing what it's like to be a parent with children slated to attend what Guggenheim called "dropout factories" or failing neighborhood schools. The film braided this narrative with animated history lessons and interviews with officials, giving airtime to the faces and ideas behind the current wave of changes known as the education reform movement, such as:
- Promoting charter schools, which are publicly funded but can be privately run, as an alternative for families that feel underserved.
- Linking teacher evaluations to performance.
- Hiring and firing teachers on the basis of their reviews, instead of their years in the classroom.
These policies, for the most part, stem from one common belief: better teachers mean better schools.
While few would argue with the notion that better teachers contribute to more learning, teachers feel stuck with the external problems they say crippled the schools in the first place. "The film promoted a false solution," Cavanagh said. Support low-performing neighborhood schools, they argue, instead of closing them, an alleged offense for which the United Federation of Teachers recently sued the New York City Department of Education.
The movie shows Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis saying of these reforms: "they're terrorism."
In the world of "The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman," there are "reformers", and then there are reformers. If this sounds confusing, that's because the pitched battle over what's best for this country's schools is also a war of labels. In this branding war, each side claims children's interests as its own, with Michelle Rhee even naming her new lobbying organization "StudentsFirst."
Each side seeks to paint its adversary as stifling true change. A pervasive criticism of the first film charged that Guggenheim painted teachers union leader Randi Weingarten as a fire-breathing stalwart who only cares about kickbacks for teachers. While that might be an accurate characterization of "Waiting for 'Superman'," the teachers did no better in its portrayal of Guggenheim's "reformer" stars.
The "reformers" such as Rhee, Harlem Children's Zone founder Geoffrey Canada, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, starred in "Waiting for 'Superman'," but its rebuttal film lists them as receiving "no thanks" in the credits. The film's teacher creators blame these figures for invading their profession, putting into place school policy leaders who spent little time in the classroom.
In the program, the producers list as "real reforms": smaller class sizes, "culturally relevant" curricula, less testing, "anti-racist education policies," parent and teacher leadership, a focus on community schools, expanded early childhood programs, "qualified and experienced educators and educational leaders" and unionism.
Of course, the "reformers" and reformers both say they have research on their sides. As if it's that simple.
At one point during the screening, the movie skipped, leaving teachers to chant "whose schools? Our schools" as technicians checked out the problem. One even called for a general strike.
After the screening, the film's creators distributed free DVDs and encouraged teachers to host their own screenings, leading up to July's "Save Our Schools March & National Call to Action" in Washington, D.C. "Any movement that wins starts small," Jones said.
Guggenheim's film was a technical triumph, with The New York Times calling it "powerful". The newest film? Not so much. But its creators didn't have access to Hollywood, its expertise or its big budgets. It's handmade.
Where "Waiting for 'Superman'" tells a story, "The Truth Behind Waiting for Superman" paints a landscape of stakeholders, blending footage of rallies with interviews. Though more polemic in style than its predecessor, the teachers' film does have emotional power, but in a more oblique way.
It's sometimes difficult to take in. If schools are failing, how can teachers be blameless? Yet, teachers execute a curriculum and policy from on high, worried that their students might fail without endless test preparation. These conflicts are intractable, nuanced, interrelated. Yet neither film defines them as such. Both tell only half a story. It leaves one with a desire for a third film, one that can rise above the rhetorical fray -- and occasional screaming -- that too often characterizes the education debate.
Watch a clip of the documentary below.
This article was updated to include a current link to the Save Our Schools March.