Monday, October 25, 2010

Education Films Series I: What I Read About About Waiting for Superman

When I heard a year or so ago that Davis Guggenheim was going to make a documentary about charter schools and about the new breed of school reformers, I didn't think much about it. I've never thought much of the work of those particular school reformers, but, then again, I respected Davis's previous work, An Inconvenient Truth, and I figured that Waiting for Superman would be okay. It wasn't until the documentary's release right around the time of the Democratic mayoral primary in D.C., which I had been following very closely, that I started to pay more attention.

Michelle Rhee, the soon-to-be former chancellor of D.C. Public Schools was cast as the heroine in the movie. It turns out that Adrian Fenty, who had hired Rhee to "fix the schools," was defeated by D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray. At the private screening of the movie that Rhee attended at the Newseum she said the election results were "devastating" to the schoolchildren of D.C. Meanwhile many of the families of those very schoolchildren were the ones who voted against Fenty and Rhee. While there are some Rhee supporters among D.C.P.S. families (especially those who are white and privileged), most are white private school people like Guggenheim, or suburbanites who don't live or send their kids to school in D.C. They were glad to have someone like Rhee take care of the problems of urban education with what seemed like simple and straightforward (to them) solutions. Their guilt over their own privilege could be assuaged and they wouldn't have to confront the complexity of the problem and the stark class divisions in the city. New York University education historian Diane Ravitch, who served as assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush, offered this sharp analysis of the election results and their coverage.

I have no desire to see Waiting for Superman--from what I can tell it lacks depth and is too slanted. That being said, I have learned a great deal by reading about it. For example. . .

David Denby of The New Yorker wrote more of a pure film review, but he also discusses the content of the film. He recommends the following alternatives to Waiting for Superman: Guggenheim's first documentaries about teachers, The First Year and Teach; Stand and Deliver, staring Edward James Olmos; and, Frederick Wiseman's documentary, High School II, which is set at the former Central Park East Secondary School in East Harlem. I would also recommend watching Our Town, a documentary about a Compton, L.A., high school production of Our Town, and Season 3 of the HBO series The Wire. All are much more honest and complex looks at the challenges of life and education in the inner city.

Journalist Dana Goldstein's "Grading Waiting for Superman," published in The Nation is a very good critique of the film. In this meticulously researched bit of investigative journalism, "Supersized Dollars Drive Waiting for Superman Agenda," journalist Barbara Miner uncovers the conservative corporate funding behind Waiting for Superman and its agenda.

Otherwise, one of the most comprehensive responses is this blog post (on the Huffington Post--boo!) by New York City-based education activist Leonie Haimson. The best response from an education professor was this one by Rick Ayers. The best teacher responses I read were by Sabrina Stevens Shupe and Alexandra Miletta. Finally, Diane Ravitch has written a great deal about the film and this review in The New York Review of Books is perhaps the most concise.

The most damning thing I read about the film was actually this interview of Davis Guggenheim in the A.V. Club. Perhaps he's been in Hollywood for too long, perhaps he's a John Mayer-type who's talented but who publicly says stupid things, or perhaps he is simply unqualified to have an informed discussion, let alone make a quality documentary, about the state of the American public education system because, frankly, he sounds like an ass here. Like a deluded, self-congratulatory, superficial, moronic ass, straight out of the HBO series Entourage.

"When I was asked to do this movie—well, looming, hovering over the classroom is the sense that there’s a system, this giant—[Newsweek columnist] Jonathan Alter calls it the Blob—which just hovers over everything and crushes good people and devours money. I thought, if I made a film that attacked that—the other movie was sort of simple and pure and vérité. This is a slaying-the-dragon-type movie." 

Apparently, he thinks he's made a "revolutionary" film about the education reformer "insurgents" who are fixing the "broken" public schools that he never attended growing up in D.C. and that he drives past on his way to the kiddies' private school, you know, the public schools that have produced a "huge swath of ignorant people." Viva La Ivy League Educated-Corporate Funded-Opportunistic Celebrity Revolucion, Davis! He says he's "a Democrat" and that he "really believes in unions." Some of his best friends are in unions! They might even be in the Scientology union. I wouldn't be surprised if a few years from now we see a follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth, chronicling BP's epic struggle to protect the ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico. I mean, he's got to pay for that private school tuition somehow.

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