After months of intense marketing and promotion for “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” and six weeks after it opened to the general public, the initial buzz around the film, in part created by the media, has given way to a more sober and accurate analysis. This is underscored by three recent articles in the New York Review of Books, the Columbia Journalism Review and the New York Times—which are all linked below.
LynNell Hancock, author of the Columbia Journalism Review article, scolds the press for rushing to judgment on the film, and for not having enough background in education issues to know that the film’s solutions are “seductively simple.” Hancock writes that the filmmaker, Davis Guggenheim, does not examine good public schools or public school teachers, and vastly inflates the significance of charter schools by glossing over a recent Stanford University study that shows only 17 percent of charter schools performed better than traditional public schools, while 37 percent performed worse. Nor does Guggenheim take into account the worst economy since the Great Depression, growing child poverty and homelessness, and a lack of robust curricula when he blames failing schools. Hancock concludes that the press coverage of “Superman” has been woefully inadequate and “less than inspiring.”
Diane Ravitch, in a lengthy and thoughtful piece in the New York Review of Books, reveals that the narrative of the film is flawed and inaccurate in how it tries to explain why some public schools are failing. She writes that public schools should be much better than they are presently, but finds that the solutions offered in the film would do little or nothing to improve them. Ravitch carefully goes through the film and debunks its main claim: that schools are failing because of bad teachers, and that the way to fix them is to get rid of the teachers and build more charter schools. By using well-known research, she shows how uneven the performance of charter schools has been. The bigger problem, she says, is not bad teachers, but rather the fact that 50 percent of teachers leave the profession in the first five years due to lack of support and resources. Ravitch offers a more comprehensive set of solutions to transform our schools, such as offering a robust curriculum, providing better mentoring and support for teachers, and reducing child poverty.
Finally, Sharon Otterman’s recent article in the New York Times observes that Guggenheim shot a scene out of sequence in order to generate maximum emotional impact for the audience. The scene shows a mother touring a school as if it were her first time. In fact, her child had already been rejected by the lottery when Guggenheim shot the scene, which raises some serious questions about his approach to filming the movie. The article also points out the film’s several factual inaccuracies, which, again, appear to be an attempt by Guggenheim to inflate the emotional impact of the movie.
In short, as time has elapsed and more people have looked seriously at “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” the buzz has diminished. We have now returned to where we have been many times before: trying to get beyond yet another fad, and back to the hard and critically necessary work of making all public schools work for all our children.
Waiting for Substance
The Myth of Charter Schools