Thursday, September 23, 2010

waiting for "superman"

Video - Trailer for Waiting for "Superman"

Salon | It's no good blaming bad schools on poverty and economic segregation (as traditional social scientists have done) when ambitious educators have proven that even kids from the worst possible neighborhoods can thrive in school.

But there's almost as much in this movie that is downright baffling, beginning with the quotation marks in the title (to differentiate the DC Comics Man of Steel from the Nietzschean √úbermensch? Or what?) and moving on to Guggenheim's blithe certainty that he has all the answers, and his apparent lack of awareness that virtually every frame of his film is likely to piss somebody off. "Waiting for 'Superman'" was constructed to become a key element in a social-media activism campaign, much as were "Inconvenient Truth" and "Food, Inc." (not to mention less successful examples like "The End of the Line" or "Countdown to Zero"). But building a broad social consensus around addressing climate change looks like child's play compared to the poisonous realm of educational debate, where every question of fact is in dispute and where adults engage in ideological proxy wars, almost totally divorced from the question of how to educate children.

Pick your villains or your heroes: Teachers' unions, self-perpetuating bureaucracies, meddlesome state legislatures, corporate-style reformers, charter-school visionaries, testing and "accountability" mavens, the grand schemes and big promises of every president from Lyndon B. Johnson to Bush and Obama. Whoever you'd like to praise and castigate on that list, let's assume for the moment that they all mean what they say, and genuinely want to improve American schooling. They have also all manifestly failed to do it. As Guggenheim observes, educational spending per student has doubled since the 1970s (yes, that's adjusted for inflation), while our educational system has steadily lost ground to those of other countries.

Launching a campaign aimed at cutting through all the political noise and focusing on proven solutions sounds like an admirable goal -- but it assumes that there are proven solutions and that we know how they work. Many of the hottest issues in the contemporary educational debate never come up at all in "Waiting for 'Superman," including the compulsive and universal over-reliance on standardized testing. It never occurs to Guggenheim to question the exaggerated "academic" focus of early-grade education -- including the longer school day and school year, and homework in first grade or before -- which many researchers now believe is counterproductive on various levels. (Another recent documentary, "Road to Nowhere," addresses those issues well.)