If you've ever left a documentary film truly pissed off, chances are the director accomplished his or her job. Americans don't conventionally gravitate toward cerebral films rooted in reality, but occasionally a director nails it and pisses enough people off to spread word-of-mouth, which translates to bodies in the cinema. Michael Moore mastered this with Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9-11.
The new, hot documentary wedging itself inside the collective crawl of intellectual bigwigs and the proletariat alike is Waiting for Superman, Davis Guggenheim's indictment of the nation's failed public school system. I got the gist of the film well before I ever watched it, since billionaire demigods like Oprah and Bill Gates have used their empires to promote it. As a current student pursuing a master's in teaching, comparing and contrasting my experiences with what I read about the film's direction inspired some negativity toward Superman before I had a chance to see it myself.
After finally seeing the film, I walked away with a bit less animosity than I had going in, for one main reason: It's the first mainstream doc of its kind that appears to have captured a mainstream audience and shines the light on a very relevant issue. Certainly, journalists have been writing stories about s**tty public schools for decades, but if it takes a big-shot Hollywood filmmaker, high production values and the goddess Oprah herself to galvanize the masses to at least think about it all, I'm with it.
My appreciation of the film's message stops there. In displaying what's wrong with America's grade-school-level education for nearly two hours, which are largely dedicated to following a handful of diverse parents nationwide as they attempt to get their children enrolled in hard-to-enter charter schools as an alternative to poor neighborhood public schools, Superman is remarkably myopic in its focus.
My issues with the film are twofold: the first is that it essentially promotes the merits of the charter school system as an always-superior substitute to chronically underperforming public schools; getting into the cream-of-the-crop charter schools - which is like a great private school without the tuition bill - is not easy and essentially requires the luck of the draw. The "moral" of the film includes the idea that we should consider putting more money into charters.
Where the film fails criminally is no mention anywhere of the surfeit of atrocious, underperforming charter schools in the country. While in school full-time, I substitute teach on a weekly basis in several of these underperforming charters that suffer from the same trappings of the public schools that good parents don't want their children to attend. Students walk through metal detectors only to enter a police state; idealistic teachers fresh out of school in their early-20s determine within just a few weeks that they can't handle their students, leaving for new schools after a year or less to avoid burnout while contributing to the lack of necessary consistency in the students' education; misguided administrations and inconsistent deans of discipline run academic sinkholes in which any reasonable person would seriously question the amount of actual learning going on.
No two charters are built alike, and here in Chicago - as I imagine is the case everywhere - many of them are performing far below many of the public schools. I can write an entirely separate column on the bulls**t I've witnessed personally, but it won't change the fact that the average, uninitiated Superman viewer will leave the movie thinking all charter schools are the answer.
The other, more nuanced issue involves Superman's Lex Lugers: the evil, apathetic, no-good teachers who catch tenure and coast through the school year collecting checks without actually contributing positively to the well-being of any students. I wouldn't dare insinuate that there are not many lousy teachers out there hiding out in the system or milking tenure, as I've had them personally as a grade-school student and witnessed a couple as an adult observer. But it seems every time I bat an eye, someone has written an article on how the teachers are failing our students, suggesting that the consummate answer to our failing students is wiping the slate clean of all lousy teachers and starting over with good ones.
This is the essence of not seeing the forest for the trees. There are 168 hours in a 7-day week. Schoolteachers get students for about 35 of them. Our most troubled schools are in our most troubled communities, and within those troubled communities, students are hit with a cacophony of socioeconomic issues that essentially place many of the teachers responsible for educating them on the starting line with a gunshot wound in the knee before the starter pistol is fired.
The parents in Waiting for Superman are all laudable superstars - determined to see their children succeed even within their own limited financial means and visibly distraught when their children don't draw the lottery ball to get placed in the schools they shot for. What Superman didn't show is the troubling number of American parents who aren't smart enough, savvy enough, or simply don't give enough of a s**t to contribute to the education of their children. If there's one thing I've learned in my nascent yet informative journey into grade-school education, it's that if the parents don't care about their child's education, it's very difficult - but not impossible - for an educator to get him or her to respond favorably.
Several columns have been penned - by intelligent people much better versed in education than I am - about the specious nature of Superman, but many of them are not presently or never have been hands-on in the "trenches" - what I call the worst schools and classrooms with the most challenging students that America has to offer. Broken homes, the pressures of drug and gang culture, malnourishment and general neglect are issues that the average inner-city teacher needs to navigate before instruction even begins in the classroom. In our most challenging schools, teachers spend far more time in the capacity of babysitter or problem-solver than they do as a teacher.
What I think people forget is, as idealistic and motivated as any one instructor may be, he is still a human. He has a family to go home to at night, and a personal life to cultivate. Most importantly, he has limitations: no one with sense would ever deem teaching anyone an "easy" occupation, but only the most patient and stalwart survive the jungle and simultaneously make a profound impact on the students whom they can reach.
Unfortunately, most teachers can't hold that weight, and I imagine that many who are placed in the "bad" category would actually function far better in a less-challenging environment; it's that teacher with something "extra" transcending content material knowledge that can do the best work in these environments.
What most talking heads and "experts" on the issue are unwilling to admit aloud is that there's probably no all-encompassing panacea for fixing bad schools, as the issue has many nuances and layers. Everyone has a solution, and everyone thinks everyone else's solutions are limited. But for all those who will see Waiting for Superman and think they have the problem figured out once John Legend's voice hits the closing credits, think again.