The film begins quietly. We are aware more of the silence than the lilting piano strokes that sound every 10 seconds. A father drives his son to school. The father is the narrator of “Waiting for Superman” and also its director, Davis Guggenheim. Every morning he drives past three public schools before dropping his son off at an expensive private school. The rest of the film explores why.
We quickly meet Superman. His name is Geoffrey Canada, and he has done what a hundred years of public education in this country could not. Through his charter school network, Harlem’s Children Zone, he has brought academic success to the poorest of the poor, the neediest of the needy, and the most distressed of the damsels. He truly is Superman. We only need to follow along to figure out how he finally overcame the kryptonite that is public education.
As a tenured teacher in a public high school serving a low-income community, my response to “Superman” is mixed. But unlike many of my irate colleagues, I think the film promotes just the kind of educational discourse this country so desperately needs right now.
What Davis Guggenheim does well is put a face to our education crisis—five faces, actually. Anthony, Daisy, Francisco, Bianca, and Emily. These kids and their families all face a lottery to get into the charter school nearest them. If they are not picked, and instead sent to the public schools in their neighborhoods, they will presumably end up destitute or dead.
Guggenheim follows these students as he uses old film clips and cartoons to alternately touch on the main problems in education today. The biggest evil—the Lex Luther, if you will—seems to be bad teachers and the unions that protect them. Guggenheim claims we’ve tried everything, including throwing money at our schools—doubling what we used to spend per student—to no avail. What seems to be holding us back, he suggests, is the impossibility of firing teachers who aren’t doing their job.
Superman’s alter ego isn’t mild-mannered Clark Kent, but Washington, D.C. Superintendent Michelle Rhee. The infamous homeroom wrecker is portrayed as clever and unabashed in her view that we can’t get to the underlying problems facing our students because we don’t want to anger the adults whose livelihoods depend on them. Rhee’s foil is Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. She represents the view that our teachers should be protected, and her miniscule role in the film compared with Rhee’s reinforces Guggenheim’s main theme that we need to clean house, starting with the concept of tenure.
Here, despite its shortcomings, the film has hit the main clot blocking the blood flow to our children’s brains. Teacher tenure is an outdated, ridiculous notion that needs to be redesigned so that it is much harder to earn. This is something I cannot say enough, and I’m glad Guggenheim has made it the film’s focus.
Teachers are the single most important indicator of a students’ learning. We are more important than the textbook. We are more important than the curriculum. We ARE education. If we are good, students learn; if we are bad, they don’t. Teachers are too influential to allow even a single bad one into a student’s schedule.
My favorite part of the film is when Guggenheim elaborates on the “lemon dance”—that is, the inter-district bartering of teachers who are lemons. At the end of every year, our principals swap lemons, trying to get rid of the teachers lowering their test scores, only to have more lemons arrive from another school. As a public school teacher, I had to laugh (in an exasperated way), thinking of the lemons we received at my school this year.
That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its blind spots. Guggenheim seems to claim that every president in the history of the United States has emptied Fort Knox for our schools. This idea is not only erroneous, it is ridiculous. If we have thrown so much money at our public schools, why do my colleagues and I have to buy our own blinds and drapes to cover our classroom windows? Why doesn’t my school have a computer lab? That’s right—the 2,200 low-income students at my high school don’t have access to computers in the year 2010. They can’t even word-process a term paper.
It was also offensive to see one of Guggenheim’s cartoon segments portraying teaching as simply opening a kids skull and pouring in letters. “It should be so simple,” Guggenheim tells us. If only…
The film leaves many questions unanswered. If charter schools are the new model, what do teacher pay and benefits look like? A good friend of mine teaches at one and gets paid less than the teachers in that city’s district—and she doesn’t have tenure. What’s more, by the film’s own admission, only one in five charter schools are producing positive results. If that is true, charter schools as a whole aren’t working any better than public schools.
Yet I must give credence to the idea that these new schools are innovating, and through the process of trial and error have produced places like the KIPP Schools that Guggenheim so admires. I have to ask: When was the last time our public schools did anything resembling the word “innovative”?
The film’s most touching moments come at the end, as the five children and their families hope against hope their number will get picked at the horrifying spectacle that is these public lotteries. The families not picked are reduced to tears, as well you might be when you watch it.
In the end, I agree with Guggenheim on a couple of key points. First, we could transform our schools if we could put an effective teacher in every classroom and get rid of the ones who are just there to collect a paycheck until they can retire. This would mean redesigning tenure and evaluating teachers in more a meaningful way—with the carrot being higher pay. If I were offered the chance to earn double what I make now by redesigning my tenure and submitting to performance evaluations, I would take that in a second—I’m not afraid of the job I’m doing.
Secondly, if all schools were like Mr. Canada’s inspiring Harlem Children’s Zone, public education would indeed be vastly improved. But public schools need his resources. Public education can benefit from some of the best practices of the high-performing charter schools, but without the sort of financial backing that Mr. Canada attracts from private donors and foundations, we won’t ever be able to match his success. Money is always the answer; we don’t have it, no matter what the film claims.
“Superman” is by no means perfect. Still, I am excited by the new kinds of conversations it is provoking—conversations that seem more important now than they’ve ever been. Whether you believe charter schools are the new Superman, or you’re still waiting for him, this documentary hammers home the reason Guggenheim drives so far every morning with his son. If you had the means, or the luck, you wouldn’t send your kids to our inner-city public schools, either.
Matt Amaral is a writer and high school English teacher from the San Francisco Bay Area. He is also the founder of www.teach4real.com, a website dedicated to Real Teachers in our Toughest Schools.