Here’s a red flag for you. I became aware of Waiting For Superman because I saw episodes of Oprah and Larry King about the film when those programs floated up at work. I saw Oprah first and, without audio, it was just this machine processing deep-fried Faberge eggs into tears in a way that seemed to eventually benefit a disadvantaged little girl who had been flown in for the occasion, so I thought that it must be OK. I didn’t completely realize how fortunate I was that the sound was off until I caught the lies and stupidity at full volume, tugging the standards of Larry King Live even further beneath the earth’s crust, which, by the way, is where they found that Piers Morgan guy. It was one of the most disturbing discussions I’ve seen on cable news, and I’ve never seen one that wasn’t at least troubling.
The main panel consisted of Ben Stein, Michelle Rhee, one of the films “stars,” and a reform-minded D.C. Superintendent, singer John Legend and Steve Perry, not the singer, but a “straight talker” who contributes to CNN on the subject of education. Really, they put this on TV. The latter three were there to argue that the plight of the struggling underclass in the United States is due to the greatest device for human cruelty ever conceived: a free public education. Largely to blame were the teachers. I swear to God, Ben Stein found himself in the position of having to defend public education and teachers. Ben Stein. I swear to God. Ben Stein. Ben Stein. I had to dredge up the transcript because I knew you would be skeptical, no matter how many times I said it.
One thing I noticed from this discussion endlessly is we blame the teachers, blame the teachers, blame the teachers, and I’m sure many of them deserve blame, but we don’t ever say, why don’t the kids wake up and smell the coffee and say, look, it’s up to us to do some work?
– Ben Stein
Meanwhile, Perry the lesser, Rhee and Legend presented a reductio ad absurdum of thoughtless pseudo- leftism. As we already know, the poor, especially if they are not white, never have culpability for anything. How did so many of the parents at poorly performing schools get kids they can’t support, for example? Whenever you notice something like that, a wizard did it. If some urban schools are graduating less than 50% of their kids, it is entirely the fault of schools and teachers because, obviously, it is a total coincidence that those families happen to be living in a ghetto and that the parents could easily be mistaken for the students’ older siblings. Certainly, cultural or personal shortcomings played no role in creating the situation. If certain classes of poor people are always completely blameless, the only option is the left’s version of blaming the victim, which is blaming the helper. The mechanisms that might help one out of poverty are the reason for poverty. A free education from college trained professionals is the reason for poor education.
Perry made one argument on King that evidenced a special kind of stupidity, even for a mass media chatter-clown. It’s hinted at in the film when a vacuous, wealthy, white mom is unable able to help her daughter with chemistry homework, even after investing almost ten seconds of effort and almost being late for a spa treatment.
Parents have an important role. But the parents are often blamed for that which the school is responsible for.
I have a son. I have two sons and they play the piano. And I don’t know how to play the piano. If my piano teacher ever came to our home and said, you know what, if you were a better pianist, your sons would be better piano — players, I’d fire him so quick he’d forget he ever taught my sons to play.
I paid that man to do this. We are asking parents who in some cases haven’t taken chemistry either in 12, 15, 20 years or if ever, to help a child with chemistry homework.
–Steve Perry The Lesser
So it is unfair of schools to demand that education begin at home, because parents often lack knowledge of the subjects at hand. If you hired a private piano teacher, you wouldn’t expect that they ask you to teach the piano to your kids, right? Well, in reality, they probably would ask you to oversee practice sessions, but never mind reality. Reality has nothing to do with this film and the views it advocates. It’s so much easier to point out that most of us don’t know high school chemistry. So how could parents possibly have a role in educating their children? It is the ever appealing political philosophy of Homer Simpson: Can’t someone else do it?
Anybody who has spent time around public schools should smell the bullshit from miles out. I was a sub in The Los Angeles Unified School District for a couple years, which is long enough to ascertain that the chief obstacle to learning in the home for most students is not the fact that their parents lack a working knowledge of chemistry.
One of the most difficult schools I worked at had 45% of students in foster care. That isn’t the kids’ fault, of course, but it isn’t the fault of the teachers either. In schools like this, it is not uncommon to send a student to the dean or vice principal and have them sent back minutes later because the disciplinary load is so overwhelming that there is physically no room for them. This doesn’t happen because the guardians or parents don’t know chemistry. It’s because they don’t care if their kids get into fights, never mind learn to read properly, never mind do any homework at all, never mind learn chemistry.
I know a full time teacher at a LAUSD school that is relatively lower-middle class. Students there often complain of being hungry in class. The school had to implement a “second chance,” free breakfast. Yes, there is a free breakfast in the morning. But it turns out that many of the parents in the area, on top of supposedly being unable to afford generic cereal, bread, beans and rice or eggs, also can’t be bothered to get their kids to school on time to eat for free. This was, of course, determined to be the school’s fault, so it was up to the school to adjust by adding a disruptive “second chance,” free breakfast to the schedule. But realistically, what do you expect a teacher to do with a kid whose parents cannot be bothered to feed their children, even when someone else is paying? Of course, many of these kids have overextended young single mothers, and one might question whether having kids you couldn’t afford to feed was such a great choice, or, since the historically disadvantaged cannot be held responsible for anything, maybe even blame the lack of access to family planning and birth control in certain neighborhoods instead of blaming the teachers, but that would only serve as a distraction from the indisputable fact that a wizard did it.
Here’s the most extreme case I encountered. None of this is exaggerated. I turned a student over to security because he punched another student. He wasn’t horsing around, it was a real, malicious punch in the face. I told the security guy what happened and that I didn’t want to see the kid for the rest of the day. He was back at the door less than five minutes later. Of course, I wasn’t allowed to touch him, so I just played offensive lineman and physically blocked him from walking through the door as he shoved me and threatened to kill me (he was only fourteen, and I am tall and a big fatso, so this was merely annoying) until I was able to flag down another staff member. She got the same security guy and I tried not to yell as I explained again what I meant when I said the student had punched another kid in the face and that there was no circumstance in which he and I would be in the same classroom for the rest of the day. I later learned that the boy’s single father ignored all reports of problems at school. It’s about as hard to expel a kid as it is to fire a tenured teacher. Therefore, the disciplinary apparatus of the school was pretty much helpless until he seriously hurt someone. Thanks to Waiting For Superman, I now realize this was all my fault. The reason this kid thought it was OK to go around punching people is that I expected his parents to teach him advanced chemistry. Maybe a little piano.
The point of the anecdotes is that, while the film blames educators and schools, we’re never given an even vaguely realistic picture of what they face. It’s like watching the CNN coverage of the first Gulf War and wondering why veterans have problems. Didn’t they just push buttons and make those cool smart bomb videos? It was just a big video game, right? In Superman, we meet about half a dozen great kids with active parents. That is 100% of the depiction of the students and parents in poorly performing schools. So teaching in poor, urban areas means dealing with bright, eager students and parents who can’t do enough to help, right?
What about the student who punches kids in the face, but can’t be expelled and doesn’t care if he’s suspended? What are teachers to do when they threaten to call home and a student can truthfully say, “they don’t care.” And yes, I’ve actually heard that exchange more than once. What about kids who are not only sent to school hungry, but arrive too late for the free food? Do you think that they received adequate stimulation in early childhood? Do you think that they received proper nutrition in the womb and early childhood? Do you think their mothers abstained from smoking, drinking and drugs during pregnancy? Do you think kids subjected to that kind of development resemble the kids highlighted in this film? Where were the gang bangers? Where were the parents who are gang bangers? The parents who despise learning? The neglectful foster parents, or overwhelmed grandparents? When dealing with parents who do not value education, don’t make their kids do homework and who don’t respect authority themselves, the teachers are supposed to wave a magic wand and fix it all, but the film never presents any of the actual problems teachers face and it certainly never explains how magic wands work. It just asserts that a free education is not an opportunity of which you take advantage. Rather, it’s an entitlement that should be bestowed upon you, with no effort on your part, even if you actively resist it.
The truth is that teachers aren’t really supposed to deal with many of these issues, but they do anyway. At least in LAUSD, teachers are not theoretically in charge of serious discipline. But in reality, if the student hasn’t committed a felony, the dean is too busy and the everyday teachers, as opposed to subs like me, are expected to call home and talk to parents (or whoever) about behavioral problems. This is not part of their job description, but they do it anyway. It’s quite common that the parent’s reaction will be one of anger towards the teacher. So, put yourself in that position. You teach a class of 30 that is disrupted by a few students. You send them to the dean and they are sent back. You go beyond the call of duty and call the parents (or whoever) to discuss the problem and they say, “why the fuck you calling me about this bullshit?” And here comes some idiot with a camera to tell you that it’s all your fault.
The film? I’m not sure what there is to review. The technique is average, if unoriginal. I think the trick of using outdated educational films as a humorous way to make your point is outdated. Though the film is not nearly as thoughtful as Football In The Groin, it leans heavily on “Simpsons” clips. It has original animation and I guess if there was any substance, it would go down smoother than an episode of “Bill Nye The Science Guy.” Instead, the lies and distortions come so fast and thick, I’m not sure how to categorize the film, since, it strains the definition of the word, “documentary.” I can’t believe that intelligent people of any political persuasion found it possible to overlook the direct contradictions, even in the film’s narration. Within the space of a few minutes, the narrator explains that public school funding per student has doubled in recent decades. Then he says the No Child Left Behind Act seemingly signaled the end of “years of empty lip service.” Obviously, he never really thought that No Child Left Behind was the solution. He is just pretending that he thought so, in order to create a narrative in which he is continually disappointed by our efforts at improving education. He never explains how doubling funding to education is “empty lip service.” I think it is possible that he does not know the meaning of that phrase. Mendacity or stupidity: who cares which?
I’m not a parent, and yet I’ve felt like one ever since I started making Waiting for “Superman.” Until now, I don’t think I’ve read sixteen books on any single subject ever…
– Lesley Chilcott, producer of Waiting For Superman blogging for CNN
In the same span, the narrator decries our level test scores in reading and math. On its face, it’s another piece of political thinking from a Simpsons character. Presumably, he believes test scores should always be on the rise because… I don’t know. Are people getting smarter every year? As always when discussing test scores, the fact that white and Asian American students test well compared to students in all other countries, and that our averages are dragged down almost entirely by the scores of black and Hispanic students (as I learned from the noted arch-conservative site Salon.com), is tiptoed around as testing data are chopped and sliced to disguise that truth without mentioning it.
For example,the film points out that our top 5% of test results is worse than the top 5% of students in most other rich countries. It’s a way for the film to deflect us from the actual test results of various ethnic groups without dirtying itself by ever mentioning the facts. We are left to assume that our top 5% excludes poor, urban students. So then it must be a direct comparison of our top white and Asian students against the top students in countries that are almost all white or Asian. This leads to the argument that even schools in affluent areas are failing. This is when we meet the affluent housewife who “can’t” help her daughter with chemistry.
Well, why not just skip all of that and present the top scores of white and Asian students? Let’s think it through. Countries like Finland and Japan have more homogeneous populations. We have large black and Hispanic populations and it is among these large groups that we see a dramatic fall off of test scores. So, while our top 5% will be predominantly white and Asian, it is still the result for the top 5% of the overall pool of students, so the scores are still diluted. The top 5% of just our white and Asian students would certainly test much closer to the top 5% of whites or Asians in predominantly white/Asian countries. I base this, again, on the fact that American whites and Asians, overall, test well compared to their counterparts abroad. If you still have trouble seeing this, imagine that you measured the test scores of the top 5% of Japanese students. Then, you injected a few million economic refugees from Mexico, and their children, into the Japanese system. Then you did a second study that measured the top 5% of the new pool, including the new students. Clearly the second set of test results would be lower, but the actual students included in the first top 5% would be just as smart and educated as they were before. If you consider that, you might wonder if level math and reading scores here in the US with the influx of millions of illegal immigrants and children of illegal immigrants into the system might actually be a pretty respectable result.
Regardless of what you do with the disparate results among American students, if you pretend the gap between racial groups isn’t there, you are not discussing reality. Or in the case of the film, you are trying to hide reality. Are the disparate test results due to white racism? Are they because whites (and Asians) are the master race? Is it the will of Xenu? I don’t propose to solve the problem here, but that is the problem. Education isn’t failing. The education of specific minorities, particularly poor members of those minorities is failing horribly. It is a very real problem. Too bad nobody is interested in discussing it.
Since much of the film is an attempt to misrepresent the problem it is ostensibly discussing, it doesn’t have any value. It’s like a movie about homelessness that treats the occasional instance of mental illness among the homeless as a coincidence. “Why are so many of these homeless people mentally ill?” you might wonder. The film would never address it, but it would include some mentally healthy homeless as subjects and play statistical shell games to conceal the rate of mental illness among the homeless. Well, what would be the point of that? How would it be in anyway helpful in addressing the problem? There would be no legitimate point and the film would be detrimental to the discussion of homelessness.
The hook of Superman is the lottery system by which some students get into exceptional, innovative, and demanding public schools. Mysteriously absent from the film are the parents who sell drugs out of their homes. None yell profanities at teachers who use their free time to call home about discipline. In the world of this film, Hispanic immigrants value higher education above all else, especially for their daughters. These handpicked parents are devoted to their kids’ educations and the absurd reverence this inspires in the filmmakers is condescending and embarrassing. The film kind of shoots itself in the foot here because the unintentional indication is that the norm is something less. Otherwise, why get so misty-eyed about the fact that these parents and students want a good education? One mom says that she will work multiple jobs to see that her daughter has the chance to go to college. Great. That’s called being a reasonably decent parent. But good for her. I can’t say I’d be so committed myself, which is one reason I don’t have kids (also, the wizard never gave me any, thank goodness!). Another mom in the film begs a lazy teacher for a conference. My friend teaches in a mostly minority community, though a more solidly working class one than those in the film. Most of those parents don’t turn up for parent teacher night, never mind PTA meetings. The turnout shrinks every year. I believe the scene in the film happened. I believe that there was one interested parent who could not arrange a conference with one lazy teacher. I also know that parent/teacher night turnouts can be well under 20%. So,which scenario do you think happens more often? By a factor of what? Go ahead and take a guess, because you won’t learn the answer from the film.
Another mom talks about how if the filmmakers were to visit her daughter’s school, they’d be unable to get past the security desk. We’re meant to stroke our chins and go, “wow man. Wow.” But, wait a sec. Particularly if your kid went to school in Harlem, would you want adults to roam in and out of the school at will? Even if your kid went to school in Beverly Hills, would you want the school to allow people to come in off the street and film them? When I was a sub I heard about a recent fight on campus. Two girls had gotten into it and when their moms showed up to take them home, they got into it. The mom fight started with extensions being pulled out and tossed to the ground and culminated with attempted murder by SUV in that parking lot. I know what I was thinking when I heard that story. “This school should really cut back on security.” Also, “well, the obvious problem here is the teachers.”
The pain continues. Who would have guessed that a nation of 300 million people would have complicated school funding and bureaucracy? The film drops facts like, “there are more than 14,000 autonomous school boards.” Yeah… that sounds about right. It uses such “grass is green” observations as “evidence” that the system is broken and that failure becomes unaccountable. Do problems exist? Everyone knows they do to some degree. How is that related to the fact that there are 14,000 school districts? I don’t know. I guess bigger things are harder to manage, but I was already pretty sure that the United States was a large country before the film explained it. Would more charter schools and weaker unions change that? I’m really not sure why this information is in the film. I guess it just makes schools look bad.
Look how terrible this gets. Here is a direct quote from the film.
TAKEN TOGETHER, the TWO biggest teachers unions, the NEA and the AFT are the largest campaign contributors in the country. Over the last 20 years, they’ve given over $55 million to federal candidates and their parties. More than the teamsters, the NRA or any other INDIVIDUAL organization.
Even if you are deluded enough to believe that trade unions bend Washington to the nefarious whims of the working man while corporate interests look on in envy, all you really need to look at here are the phrases “taken together, the two..” and “any other individual organization.” I don’t know how to characterize such a brazen manipulation. Is it even propaganda? If I were to sincerely argue to you that Los Angeles is superior to New York because, taken together, two Angelinos have twice the IQ of the average New Yorker, taken individually, I sincerely hope that you would murder me on the spot.
Moreover, if you pay attention to these things even a little bit, $55 million in campaign contributions over 20 years probably doesn’t seem like all that much to you. There’s a good explanation for that: it isn’t all that much. Since 1999, the financial sector, for example, has contributed $1.8 billion to federal campaigns and spent about twice that on lobbying. But we are to believe that the real muscle lies with $55 million contributed over twice that amount of time by teachers unions. The extent of misinformation and manipulation here renders the film useless, regardless of your views. It might as well be set in the world of Starship Troopers. It’s the bugs who are undermining education!
Similarly, the film’s discussion of charter schools just has nothing to do with earth, where there is a reasonable debate to be had on the subject. The film presents the top charter schools as models for success. It completely ignores the top traditional schools. It completely ignores the vast majority of charter schools, which don’t perform better than traditional schools. Amazingly enough, it provides no overview of charter school vs. traditional school performance. Not only that, it conceals the extent to which the top public charters depend on heavy private subsidies. We do learn that one school asks parents to contribute $500 a month and the fact that people like Bill Gates contribute to these schools is established, largely for the purpose of squeezing Gates into the film. But to watch the film, you’d never guess that the justly celebrated Harlem Children’s Zone receives two-thirds of its funding from private sources. So they have triple the money to work with. That’s got to come in handy. Do you think there’s a small sampling bias when the top charters have students and parents who are deeply motivated to do well as evidenced by them bothering to enter these lotteries in the first place? Do the charter schools have a big advantage in being able to simply kick out any problem students, whereas their traditional counterparts just have to deal with them? Go ahead and guess again, because the film won’t address these questions either.
I was prepared to grapple with the film’s anti-union stance, but there is almost no substance to take on. There’s nothing here but a horrible movie that will leave you less informed than before you watched it. Cheap shots, emotional condescension, manipulated statistics, fallacies and other bad reasoning, almost non-stop. A lot of narrative techniques are clumsily lifted from Michael Moore, but we’re not meant to take it as a polemic or a satire. Waiting for Superman is meant to be taken seriously, but it can’t be, any more than a Michael Savage book or a teenage anarchist’s fanzine. At its best, it is completely obvious. Wouldn’t we prefer to spend prison money on education? Yes! That’s one of the oldest sales tricks in the book, by the way. Get them agreeing with you off the bat, then slip in your dubious wares. Don’t you hate child molesters? Yes! Do you like cake? Yes! Do you want to buy a dishwasher? Yes, yes, yes! Er… wait a sec.
Do I hope the profiled kids do well in life? Yes. Are there very badly run schools? I know it all too well. Are there terrible, stupid and lazy teachers. Yes (even in wealthy white suburbs). Wouldn’t it be great if every school was like the most outstanding schools and every teacher was a cross between John Wooden and Richard Feynman? Yes! Aren’t bad students entirely the fault of educators? Yes! Er… wait a sec.
Amidst the “don’t you like cake?” questions, here are some questions that the film completely disregards during its two hours, some of which I’m reiterating. Given that their degrees and work experience don’t translate well to other fields, if teachers lose their high job security, what will happen to the pool of applicants? If top charter schools are so rare and difficult to get into, what does that mean in terms of the quality of students and parents they deal with, in contrast to a traditional public school that must take everyone? What disciplinary options, expulsion in particular, are more readily available in charter schools? What general measures are charters allowed to take with their students that parents in a regular school would never allow? What are educators to do with problem students who have indifferent guardians or parents? How much of the difficulty faced by the bright and eager students, or even merely average students, is due to the fact that they have to share a classroom with so many students who are not there to learn? What effect does it have on the motivations of an average kid when the standards for passing are lowered to accommodate students who will barely learn to read, no matter what anybody does with them? How much of their superior resources do these top charter schools expend on autistic, retarded, physically handicapped, psychologically disturbed and/or non-English speaking children?
The film does find several minutes to draw a tremendously strained comparison between the achievement of succeeding with disadvantaged kids and Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier. They are similar, you see, because in both cases some experts said it couldn’t be done. That just goes to show you what so-called experts know, amiright?! When the graph of test scores was overlaid with a jet, Waiting For Superman crossed a barrier as well. It clearly became one of the five worst films I’ve ever seen. It might be saved from the very bottom slot by the fact that the drama of the drawings to get into the top schools is powerful, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the filmmakers paid someone off to make sure that that the cutest kid was rejected. Even Oprah should be embarrassed.