Waiting for Superman: What’s under the Cape

Written by: Colton Richardson

The public education system in the United States in obviously on a steady-to-downward spiral. But is the solution to form charter schools and to deny the right of a fair and just education to every child, thereby leaving a child’s education up to a lottery chance? Davis Gunggenheim would have us believe so. In his recent film, Waiting for Superman, Gunggenheim highlights the faults of the public education system at large and gives us insight into how it affects the lives of five young participants. Biases are all too common in the study and writings of public education, but today we are going to look past those biases to look at truths. We will focus on the message that the film is trying to convey, the effect that it has on the people that see it, and how the film makers achieved that effect.

One of the main ideals set forth in this film is that the teachers are the ones that make the difference in the system. The system either succeeds or fails upon the caliber of teacher that a school hires (Gunggenheim). What this movie does, though, is to attack teachers unions and to demonize them for their position on tenure and bargaining rights. Generalization is this film’s Achilles’ heel when it comes to the discussion of national teachers’ rights, tenure, and district policy on the firing of teachers. Every state has specific protocol for terminating teachers. It is a bit presumptuous to say all districts around the nation have the same methods of hiring and firing teachers, and it is unfair to give examples of only the most extreme bad behavior.Another fallacy in Waiting for Superman is the way that Gunggenheim generalizes about all teachers by focusing on inner city school teachers exclusively (Hanushek).  We will revisit this topic in our third point of review.

Another of the three main topics that this film highlights is charter school success; although, in actuality, charter schools perform worse than public schools on average (Hanushek, Denby).  In the film, Gunggenheim focuses his attention on the fleeting possibility that these children have of attaining actual knowledge is rested in these high level of learning facilities that are purported to be charter schools. How these schools operate is altogether another story. They are funded by receiving grants – grants that come from public funding, the same funding that goes toward public schools. The catch in this scenario, however, is that these schools are independently run and do not have to answer to a school board or district at all. The only measure of allowing admittance is that if the maximum number of seats open is outmatched by the number of applicants, the institution must hold a random drawing, more commonly referred to as a lottery (Guggenheim).  In this fashion, the schools can also hold selected students to a higher standard, which is inherently a good thing; but, if these students do not meet these levels of excellence, they are sent back to the public schools from which they come.

We must also ensure in our analysis that we separate charter schools from private schools. Private schools are self-funding schools that charge tuition as a cost to attend the school; the charter school system is a free public school. A distinction must also be made between the test scores of private and public schools. That is, charter schools in a private school structure, without normative levels of testing, are still forced to compete with the level of analysis and evaluation of both review boards and testing centers as large public schools that cater to all the students that inhabit the district (Knapp, Reid, Ginder, Grigg, Jenkins).

The last main point of criticism that this film draws is a comparison of the methods which Guggenheim employs when comparing urban and rural school districts. Not once does the director make reference to a rural school district in this film. He focuses mainly on inner city, impoverished, and usually danger-filled neighborhoods in large cities; three of the stories were from Burroughs of New York City and the other two were from Los Angeles and a small town outside of LA. It is puzzling to understand how this solution, i.e. charter schools, is supposed to help all of education when one cites only these larger cities as examples.

Just as in prior documentaries, the director uses many emotional cues to obtain the desired reaction from the audience. Gunggenheim uses pauses and revelation moments in this documentary to allow the poignant moments to settle in. It is sad to say, but what Gunggenheim is really doing in his use of inner city minority children for the documentary is exploiting them as token children. They have become the token Hispanic child or the repressed African American child, instead of just another child in a struggling educational system. This tactic is a very good one for Gunggenheim, though – it allows him to take the moments when each child is not accepted into a charter school and slow it down to show the challenges that these parents face in trying to get their children to a higher institution of knowledge.

Gunggenheim makes use of hot button topics, such as tenure, bargaining rights, “drop out factories,” and equal education.  He uses this tactic to rationalize his analyses of the entire public school system, even though he only shows us a very small example of the system in its entirety. He uses common dimensions and benchmarks to measure the progress of public education in the United States over the last decade and compares it to other international education systems (Gunggenheim). Another one of the overarching methods in which Gunggenheim approaches this documentary is with motivated reasoning. Since he produced a documentary in 1999, he already knew what he wanted to prove. Throughout the film, the viewer must fit all of these pieces of the puzzle together to form one coherent argument. It seems, though, that Gunggenheim only used the evidence and stories which helped him make his desired analysis.

The conclusion that public education needs to be fixed is a very obvious one to make, but the question lies in how we do it. Who has the real answer? Gunggenheim believes that charter schools are the way to do it. Although I am a firm believer in public education, I will also be one of the first to say when something needs to be fixed – and in a hurry. The ideas put forth in this documentary though, is not the way to do it. It has good intentions: promoting good teachers and what they do, providing a great education for all students. But the way that Gunggenheim reaches his conclusions perplexes me. Instead of fixing the problem that he identified throughout the entire film, he simply proposes alternative institutions of knowledge as a legitimate answer. As only 1 in 5 charter schools survive, while public education has been around for quite a substantial amount of time, they do not fix the problem. The solution that many reformers should take does not involve creating a new entity, but rather trying to restore the greatness that once was public education.

Bibliography

Waiting for Superman. Dir. Davis Gunggenheim. Electric Kinney Films, Participant Media, Walden Media, 2010. DVD.

Denby, David. “School Spirit.” The New Yorker 11 Oct. 2010: 1-2. The New Yorker. Web. 26 Mar. 2011. <http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/cinema/2010/10/11/101011crci_cinema_denby&gt;.

Knapp, L.G., Kelly-Reid, J.E., and Ginder, S.A. (2011). Enrollment in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2009; Graduation Rates, 2003 & 2006 Cohorts; and Financial Statistics, Fiscal Year 2009 (NCES 2011-230). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved [date] from http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch.

Braun, H., Jenkins, F., and Grigg, W. (2006). Comparing Private Schools and Public Schools Using Hierarchical LinearModeling (NCES 2006-461). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

USA. National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research The Urban Institute. The Evidence Behind Waiting for Superman: A CALDER Fact Sheet. By Eric Hanushek. Print.

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