An incomplete truth
Waiting for Superman, the new documentary by Academy Award-winning director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth), advertises itself as a “clarion call” and “exploration of the current state of public education.” It certainly has prompted interest. Oprah dedicated an entire show to the film. NBC’s weeklong series Education Nation was based upon it. Local business leaders even paid for Washoe County School District principals to attend a screening.
The film’s message is simple and straightforward: Public education has failed. Money isn’t the solution. Teachers unions are to blame. Charter schools are the answer. But anyone looking to the film for nuance and complexity will be disappointed. Much like a superhero comic, it favors devious villains, virtuous heroes and dramatic moments over less exhilarating realities.
Example: Referencing a study conducted by Stanford economist Margaret Raymond, the film claims 17 percent of charter schools get “amazing results.” That’s not what the study says. It finds that 17 percent of charter schools do “better” than a comparable public school. The number of “amazing” charters is much lower.
The film also skips other findings in Raymond’s study—specifically, that 37 percent of charters perform worse than an equivalent public school, double the number of successful ones. Yet, while the film is filled with numerous failing public schools, not one failing charter is shown.
Other omissions are even more glaring. One of the successful charter schools shown in the film is part of the Harlem Children’s Zone, an organization that not only runs charter schools but also provides parenting classes, preschool, and a wide variety of health programs for children and their families. While the HCZ charter gets better results than nearby public schools, the film fails to mention that over two-thirds of its funding comes from private donors, or that its per pupil cost, including all services, is estimated at $25,000. Likewise, the film mentions the SEED School in Washington, D.C., but neglects $35,000 per student price tag. To celebrate these schools while maintaining that money isn’t the answer is, to say the least, deceptive.
Teachers unions play the role of villains in the film. Armed with tenure, the unions are presented as interested only in protecting bad teachers. Putting aside the fact that the states with the highest test scores in the United States are often the most unionized, there is a more fundamental question: Even if you fired the bottom 10 percent of teachers, how do you ensure that superstar teachers replace them? Or to put it another way, how do you lure the best and brightest away from the fields of law, medicine and finance? The film offers no answer.
Unfortunately, Waiting for Superman isn’t willing to engage the complexities facing public education. Rather than offer a broad, deep, and thoughtful analysis, it simply offers pulp fiction answers.