Monday, October 4, 2010

Those Who Can - Waiting for Superman

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the new film documentary, “Waiting for Superman” lays most of the blame for the current crisis in education at the feet of teachers and their horrible unions. According to filmmaker David Guggenheim (whose own offspring, he confides, are safely ensconced in private institutions) they are sucking all the money out of the system for living wages and harboring tenured reprobates in their bosoms. Without them, we could just get on with the joy of infusing the young with intelligence, proficiency and skills for success in life, just like we used to before they took over.

(Who ‘we’ are is never really disclosed).

It’s an easy shot. Who, among us, hasn’t had at least one (or ten) teachers we didn’t like, who made us suffer, picked on us just because we didn’t do our homework, made us throw away our gum, took away that note passed across the desks from the friend across the room, or, worst of all, gave us a detention for speaking out of turn? Depending on our own ability to adapt to the classroom, we might easily look back and recall a few names we’d like to see scratched out of the ‘Book of the Living’.
And yet, here many of us are, relatively well-educated, competent, at least, in what is referred to as ‘Basic Skills’, ‘Literacy’, ‘Numeracy’ and acceptable table manners, able to earn a living, manage a mortgage and raise a family and even survive the little challenges of life, like divorce and taxes, without too much calamity.

Casting his eyes around for a suitable subject for the successor to the controversial but highly popular sensation, “An Inconvenient Truth”, Guggenheim tells us he was struck by the sad state of the local public school he passed by daily when carpooling his kids to a much better private school. The fact that the American middle class (and increasingly the vanishing middle class up here, in Canada) has, over the years, withdrawn its support for, participation in and commitment to public education, like he has, himself, is a logical point he never acknowledges. There is an uncomfortable condescension to the ‘disadvantaged’ in the thesis of this film, which the nobody in the media seems to be noticing or commenting on as they hop on the bandwagon of praise for its shallow analysis.

Checking all this out is a big job…..say, it’s a job for….wait for it…..”Superman”!!!

Leave it to Mr. Simpleton, make that Guggenheim, to choose, as a name for his movie, a popular iconic metaphor, where kids are rescued by a ‘deus ex-machina’, instead of plain hard work. Everything about this documentary screams shallow cliché, from its throwing around of random statistics projected on the screen (in case you want to jot them down for future reference), tacky graphics, and the corny, time-worn doc convention of following a selection of sad-eyed child-contestants as they vie for some prize or other. In this case, unlike the excellent film “Spellbound”, which unfolded in a charming narrative structure accompanied by clever visual design and delightful music, where the parents and kids actually exhausted themselves working for their reward, or the outstanding documentary of several years ago, “WarDance”, which unfolded dramatically in the most gorgeous footage ever shot, the child/victims and their hapless parents in “Waiting for Superman” suffer under poor lighting, sitting passively by, waiting for their fates to be randomly decided in heartless lotteries while the cameramen hover like vultures, picking at the corpses.

You have to ask yourself why, in the course of this movie, no one asks the obvious questions….who thought this ridiculous system up? Why hasn’t anyone rebelled? You might also ask why there is no honest examination of the majority of those Charter schools which fail to measure up even adequately, or which narrow their curricula solely to readin’ and math and teach only to the test or hire (and fire, as needs be) uncertified, underpaid ‘teacher-facilitators’?

With all this emphasis on testing, what happens when a school does really well, year after year, scoring so well that there is no dramatic ‘improvement’? I’ll tell you. First of all, the school administration cannot draw favorable notices from on high, since their scores are static. They get less support, which, in education, means money and staffing. Resources are thrown down the bottomless pits while the tall poppies, as they are called, get lopped off. I taught at such a public school and the pride we felt for the success of our students was quickly shifted over to the parents and the community. After all, how could we teachers take any credit, when they gave us such excellently raised and motivated kids to work with? (But never seek to blame a community for poorly prepared pupils, on pain of PC death!)

There is no question that all is not well in the American educational system. In “Waiting for Superman”, most of the people with all the answers, have never really taught school at all, or if they have, it was brief step on the way up to academic bureaucracy, well above the ‘fray’. Some authorities are, themselves, the products of private education with ingrained prejudices about public schools. The irony is that a few, who pulled themselves up with hard work, now believe they must work outside the system. For profit, by the way. (There is no mention that the private sector must generate a profit or else it goes out of business!) This film would like you to forget about the many dedicated and sincere public school educators trying their best, every day, to make things better for their students.

Putting the blame for society’s educational ills mainly at the feet of the teachers’ unions and mocking due process for grievances is disingenuous, to say the least, especially when you can’t resist editing in some archival footage you’ve dug up showing ‘olden days’ schools and tell the audience that unions were first a ‘good thing’ since most of the staff were mere women who were being terribly exploited. (Hey, Mr. Guggenheim, that’s what usually, happens when workers have no contracts or agreements and can be terminated at will. Brush up on your Woody Guthrie songs). A highly respected, award-winning Science teacher I know was terminated at a prestigious private school because they could hire two starter teachers for the salary they were paying her! At another private school, a teacher/friend was told to keep her big mouth shut about how the sociopath in her Grade 9 class was interfering with the learning of the other high paying students. When she insisted his removal be considered, she was told, "You don't have a Private School mentality, my dear." She was 'let go' shortly thereafter.
Let's not even start about the 'credit mills' that popped up everywhere as soon as private school tuition became deductible. One of my students told me his father was told if he paid a little more, the marks might be more impressive!

Nothing is perfect, but to suggest that employees have a nerve to expect to be paid a living wage, have some job security and work in safe and decent circumstances is very 19th Century, if you ask me. Especially when you are entrusting, to them, the care and education of your most precious possessions.

The ‘inconvenient truth’ here is that when you insist on using a business model, refer to students as clients and treat staff as expendable if they don’t generate a ‘profit’, (ie. high test scores) no matter how poor the raw materials might be, you are setting yourself up for failure with a capital ‘F’.

1 comment:

  1. And now the maker of the "Superman" movie gets and audience with the President of the United States to be praised for his good work!