Waiting For “Superman” Offers False Accusations, Faulty Solutions

Will Rubenstein, Columnist

This past Wednesday, Obies had the opportunity to view one of the latest fusillades in the public policy debate over education: Davis Guggenheim’s newest film, Waiting for “Superman.” Best known for his Oscar-winning 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, a call to save the earth’s climate from greenhouse gas emissions, Guggenheim uses his latest film as a call to save America’s schoolchildren from its public school systems. The screening in West Lecture Hall preceded a panel discussion with an array of educators from various corners of the profession — senior lecturer Malcolm Cash of Ohio State University’s Department of African American and African Studies department, Oberlin City Schools superintendent Geoff Andrews, Lorain Arts Academy headmaster Alexis Rainbow and Oberlin Ohio Education Association president Doug Sheldon — moderated by President Krislov.

About 20 minutes into the film, Guggenheim makes an absurd pronouncement that proves central to his thesis. “For generations, experts tended to blame failing schools on failing neighborhoods,” he announces as a video montage displays scenes of dilapidated slums and run-down public schools. “But reformers have begun to believe the opposite: that the problems of failing neighborhoods might be blamed on failing schools.”

And just like that, he completely lost me. The idea is that public schools are supposed to fix longstanding conditions like poverty, violence and urban decay on their own? A public school can’t give parents steady jobs, remove drug dealers and gang warfare from students’ street corners, provide families with proper health care and nutrition, or counteract many of the other poverty-related problems that impede students’ academic success in the kind of school shown in the aforementioned montage. Come to think of it, universal public education is less than two centuries old; how would Guggenheim have explained systemic poverty in the era before public schools were around to be his scapegoat?

The film requires many such suspensions of disbelief. In order for our students to compete with kids from countries with better schools than ours, like Finland, Guggenheim argues, we need to break the influence of powerful teachers’ unions and rewrite the labor contracts that protect bad teachers from losing their jobs. Furthermore, we need to greatly expand the number of charter schools, which receive public funding but are run by private operators with scant public oversight.

As one might suspect, though, nations like Finland, whose schools he praises as superior, didn’t build their school systems with such a typically American blend of privatization, deregulation and union-busting. Such countries instead invest in well-funded public schools, well-paid (and unionized) teachers and a huge welfare state that systematically attacks the core problem of poverty. Such systems depend on high taxes on the wealthy — and since America’s ruling class seems united these days in pushing for as low taxes as possible on the wealthy, it’s obvious why Guggenheim and his fellow elites might be anxious to promote an alternative, market-based narrative for improving education.

To support this narrative, Guggenheim documents the struggles of several poor, inner-city children and their devoted families to escape their neighborhood public schools by winning admission to prestigious charter schools. He fails to mention the torrents of private funding such schools receive from sources like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, allowing them to provide their students with many of the services of a strong social safety net. Only in passing does he mention a study showing that less than a fifth of charter schools achieve significantly higher standardized test scores than similar public schools, while over twice as many score significantly worse. Moreover, by only documenting children with a stable and education-focused home life, he ignores the children whose families are too busy, absent or dysfunctional to push their kids to succeed in school, let alone enter the application process for a charter school. Such children face some of the toughest barriers to academic success, and charter schools can mostly avoid having to deal with them, leaving “failing” public schools to take up the slack.

As Oberlin’s panel discussed the issues raised in the film, the socioeconomic differences between different schools were not elaborated upon as they should have been. Andrews and Rainbow (whose Lorain Arts Academy is a charter school) spoke of the high parental volunteerism in their schools, not emphasizing that such engaged parents would eliminate many if not most of the problems facing the schools depicted in the film. Sheldon, a local teachers’ union leader and grade school teacher, ably articulated some of the problems with Guggenheim’s arguments, such as the foolishness of using students’ standardized test scores to determine teachers’ salaries. However, it was Cash who seemed most conscious of the pivotal role student demographics play in determining a school’s success or failure.

The only consensus among the educators and attendees at the screening was a sense of puzzlement regarding how to fix the myriad problems with our public school system. Yet Guggenheim’s film, however many important questions it raises, provides ill-advised answers and makes sloppy and unbalanced arguments to support them. The reforms he champions are meant to be taken as the “Superman” from the film’s title, but I’d just as soon keep waiting.