Saturday, October 9, 2010

Waiting for Superman and Race to Nowhere

There’s a lot of hype right now about the new educational documentary Waiting for Superman. I saw it last spring and took some notes on it. These are my notes:

Ideas from Waiting for Superman that I thought were true:

- We all were promised the ideal that public schools could work
- We are placing our children in the hands of luck in public schools
- We all have a different definition of a great school
- A good teacher is the answer
- NEA is the largest campaign contributor to democrats
- NY rubber rooms waste $65 million/year
- The kids who get hurt are the ones in the middle
- Tenure was originally meant for university professors only
- Teacher’s unions were originally set up to protect women’s rights, yet 100 years later the union is still a major force
- Teacher’s unions say we shouldn’t make distinctions among teachers [then how do we reward good teachers or fire bad ones?]
- Cal State remediates 50% of freshman
- It is a lie that disadvantaged kids can’t learn

Ideas from Waiting for Superman that I question:

- Charters like KIPP are the answer
- A college education automatically means a career
- 1 in 5 charters produce good results (define good results)
- Up until 1970s US schools were best in the world (how was that measured?)
- Bill Gates’ emphasis on math, science and engineering only as the answer to saving schools

I’m thrilled educational documentaries are getting a lot of exposure right now because I’m on the Advisory board for the film Race to Nowhere. If you get a chance to see any educational documentaries, please do so, but if you have to choose between Race to Nowhere and Waiting for Superman, I’d recommend Race to Nowhere. And, here’s why…

Those in the media who are promoting Waiting for Superman claim the film can fix education. Be wary of anyone who claims to be able to fix education. Race to Nowhere offers a grassroots change, especially when it is screened in local theatres and schools that have discussions after the film. The film’s website also offers a facilitation guide to aid in post film discussions. RTN admits that education’s problems are vast and complex, and change needs to come from many places, including from within.

Another reason I’d recommend Race to Nowhere is that most readers of this blog will be able to relate to it. It highlights several schools in suburban communities and one urban school. I’m guessing that most readers of this blog live above the poverty line and in the suburbs, so the schools mentioned in RTN will look and feel familiar. Waiting for Superman is mainly about poor, urban schools and mentions only one suburban school, in Redwood City.

Waiting For Superman praises charter schools like KIPP. KIPP is a very regimented approach that claims to transform disadvantaged inner city kids with poor test scores into college bound students with high test scores. While this may be true of some KIPP students, KIPP schools seem to disregard a developmental, individual approach and turns kids into products that must produce at a certain level.

Even though not every charter is a good school, I like the idea of charter schools because they give parents more choice about where to send their kids to school. If there are several charters to choose from, parents can decide for themselves what is a good fit for their children.

In Race to Nowhere an innovative school is shown as an example of a school that works. This is the Blue School in New York. There are many wonderful charter and independent schools across the country. Please take a look at my sidebar on this blog under “My Recommendations – Noteworthy Schools/Programs” to see some that I’ve found to be worth checking out. One approach that I’m particularly impressed with is Big Picture Schools.

And lastly, while Waiting for Superman tends to blame the teacher’s union for many of education’s problems, Race to Nowhere doesn’t blame any one group but rather blames all involved parties. RTN asks us to question our own lives and try to make changes starting at home.

Here is a good review and comparison of Race to Nowhere and Waiting For Superman:

In my opinion, I prefer RTN because I identify with it more, but both documentaries are worth watching and if Waiting for Superman and Race to Nowhere help begin a national conversation about myriad issues gone wrong in American public education, that is a very good thing.

If you feel that RTN should get as much media attention as WFS, why not Face Book about it or write an editorial for your local paper or mention Race to Nowhere each time someone talks about Waiting for Superman?

Your thoughts?


  1. Such a well-written and fair-minded review of both films and their potential for impact.

    Since you're on the advisory board for RTN, can you possibly explain why the film is not in wide-release but instead only been screened on a handful of days this fall?

  2. It is VERY expensive to release films in theaters. RTN doesn't have the same financial backing that WFS has.

  3. I liked your review but truly feel that WFS did not exaggerate the depth of the 'badness' that the teachers' union contributes to the issues we face. The film was not at all critical about teachers...good teachers are our saviors and the film underscores this. The union is all about the adults - and has nothing to do with the children and their learning experiences.

    I saw both films this week and I would highly recommend both to anyone I see. They address different aspects of our educational issues and opportunities in this country - I truly think both come to very similar conclusions. Choice with charter schools is key to finding the best match for your child - whether he or she is an inner city, impoverished child or middle/upper class suburban child.

  4. One of my issue with WFS is no one defines what IS a 'good' teacher. Is a 'good' teacher determined by his/her kid's test scores? Because that seems to be the common measurement these days. So what do you do about the kids who just bubble in the answers randomly without trying, just to get the test done (It happens. Just ask any high school teacher who has overseen the tests). Are we judging teacher's abilities on these kids? Is that a fair assessment?

    Another thing that bothers me about WFS is there is no responsibility on the family. It's all the teacher's fault if a kid is failing. There are many families who do not value education and they are giving this message to their kids. No matter how much a teacher (or school) tries to relay the message of the importance of education, if it's not supported in the family, it most likely will not be absorbed. The family has the most influence on a child - period. We need to reach families, not just kids. It is beyond the scope of a teacher to do this.

    WFS talks about the teachers who work from 7am to 11pm and are on call all the time. Those teachers burn out, quickly. The average length of employment in these private charters with these expectations is 2 years! Why should we expect teachers to work 16 hour days!? If we expect teachers to keep doctor's hours, then at least they should be paid accordingly.

    I think RTN is far more realistic in it's viewpoint - and it's not driven by the almighty dollar. There are a multitude of changes that need to happen in ALL areas of public education. It's not just a teacher problem. That is just too simplistic of a view. The Gates and others are pushing private charter school companies, not trying to fix the public system. Do we really want to move towards handing over education to private corporations? Our education system is already in the pocket of the testing and text book companies and look where that has gotten us!

  5. I think that teacher tenure is in place FOR NOW because it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of a teacher. There are SOOOO many variables in a teacher's practice. This leads to a huge difference in what a teacher must do for each student, each class, and each school year. To compare my effectiveness with another biology teacher's would be fine IF all the other variables were the same...but since I teach in three different rooms and two different preps (biology and IPS) and have to wheel all my lab equipment (white board, papers, in-box, etc.) from room to room each day (taking up my brunch and lunch times), my practice may look different that year than my colleague's who teaches all biology classes in one room (her room). I have no control over my schedule from year-to-year. I have no control over the kids that are in my classes or the classroom dynamic that each group develops. I have no control over whether I get adequate lab donation money to fund all the cool labs I like to do. Furthermore, I may do a great job getting the students excited about biology, but maybe my colleague does a great job getting her students prepared for a test...who is the better teacher?