September 27, 2010
Davis Guggenheim’s much-publicized documentary with the meaningless title of Waiting for “Superman” makes the (by now familiar) liberal centrist case for school reform: the cause of the achievement gap is bad schools, which are the fault of bad teachers, who are protected from termination by bad teachers’ unions. The solution is charter schools that fire bad teachers and hire not good but “great” teachers!
Ten years ago, there would have been a certain frisson if somebody so plugged into the Democratic Party—Guggenheim won an Oscar for directing Al Gore’s global warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, and helmed the Barack Obama biographical short shown at the 2008 Democratic convention—attacked the Party’s mainstay, the teachers’ unions.
Yet, anybody who has flipped through Newsweek or New York Times Magazine over the last decade won’t find anything new. The heroes of Waiting for “Superman” are the usuals: Michelle Rhee, the Korean-American school chancellor despised by black voters in Washington D.C., and Geoffrey Canada, the black Harlem school impresario. They are congratulated by other talking heads, such as Bill Gates, Washington Post education reporter Jay Matthews, and Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter.
Interwoven are the stories of five young students at neighborhood public schools. They are told, in effect, that if they don’t get picked in admission lotteries by celebrated charter schools such as Harlem Promise Academy, KIPP LA Prep, or Washington D.C.’s SEED public boarding school that they might as well start dealing crack right now.
It’s Yale or jail time, kids!
The unspoken goal of the most effective charter schools is to isolate minority students away from their own cultures and pound middle class values into them over endless school days. The SEED boarding school for the urban poor, for example, costs taxpayers and donors $35,000 per student per year. Still, a 2009 NYT Magazine article about it lamented how much more money is needed to prevent the students from regressing back to street corner culture by not letting them go home each weekend. Only 20 of each class of 70 graduate.
Nor does Guggenheim mention that this boarding school solution was tried on aboriginal children in Australia, Canada, and America a century ago by other progressive reformers. Yet, those well-meaning white people are now routinely denounced as racist scoundrels in such “Stolen Generations” movies as Rabbit-Proof Fence and Australia. In the mid-21st Century, when apologies to minorities for the new school reformers’ “Borrowed Generations” will likely be issued, Waiting for “Superman” might be similarly vilified.
This bad schools-bad teachers-bad unions idea (what the Chinese might call the Three Bads Theory) is now such conventional wisdom that few reviewers have noticed that this documentary fails to document visually its own thesis. I kept waiting for “Superman” to turn into an exposé featuring shocking classroom footage of bad teachers ruining the lives of innocent children. Yet, Guggenheim apparently finds his message too self-evident to bother shooting video that illustrates it. The main way I could distinguish between the bad neighborhood schools and the good charter schools shown in “Superman” is from the disapproving narration, unsettling camera angles, and ominous soundtrack versus the warm lighting and chirpy tone of voice.
Perhaps one reason Guggenheim didn’t show us his five students in class is that some of the tykes who seem so winsome when interviewed at home about their college dreams might actually be little hellions in school.
Eventually, Guggenheim regales us with a minute of surreptitious video once shot by a high school student in the traditionally awful Milwaukee system. But this footage is so vintage (1991) that we see students avidly shooting craps in the back of the class. Has any teenager voluntarily rolled boxcars in this millennium? I almost expected the hoodlums to break into a chorus of “Luck, Be a Lady Tonight.” And didn’t we learn from The Wire that if you teach inner city youth to shoot craps, they‘d immediately grasp the mathematics of probability?
Why do so many liberals swear by the Three Bads Theory?
Guggenheim recounts how he made a 2001 PBS documentary, First Year, about the heroism of public school teachers. Why did he change his mind? Because, he explains, his children grew old enough for school, and he found himself driving from his home in Venice, California past three public schools to a private school, thus “betraying the ideals I thought I lived by.”
How come? Evidently, he could tell that these three public schools were bad schools infested by bad teachers.
Yet, how could he divine that while driving by? Guggenheim doesn’t mention the names of these bad schools, but here’s a picture of one in Venice: Broadway Elementary. It looks okay, but if you drove by at recess, you’d notice the student body is about 80 percent Hispanic and 15 percent black. (Interestingly, Broadway is switching to a “Mandarin immersion” program, perhaps in pursuit of higher-scoring students.)
The Three Bads Theory lets liberal parents rationalize their white flight by publicly blaming teachers while they privately shun black and Latino students.
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