FILM / Rick Ayers : An Inconvenient Superman

An Inconvenient Superman:
Davis Guggenheim’s new film
hijacks school reform

By Rick Ayers / The Rag Blog / September 20, 2010

Davis Guggenheim’s 2010 film Waiting for Superman is a slick marketing piece full of half-truths and distortions. The film suggests the problems in education are the fault of teachers and teacher unions alone, and it asserts that the solution to those problems is a greater focus on top-down instruction driven by test scores.

It rejects the inconvenient truth that our schools are being starved of funds and other necessary resources, and instead opts for an era of privatization and market-driven school change.

Its focus effectively suppresses a more complex and nuanced discussion of what it might actually take to leave no child behind, such as a living wage, a full-employment economy, the demilitarization of our schools, and an education based on the democratic ideal that the fullest development of each is the condition for the full development of all. The film is positioned to become a leading voice in framing the debate on school reform, much like Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth did for the discussion of global warming, and that’s heartbreaking.

I’m not categorically opposed to charter schools; they can and often do allow a group of creative and innovative teachers, parents, and communities to build schools that work for their kids and are free of the deadening bureaucracy of most districts. These schools can be catalysts for even larger changes.

But there are really two main opposing positions in the “charter movement” (it’s not really a movement, by the way, but rather a diverse range of different projects). On one side are those who hope to use the charter option to operate effective small schools that are autonomous from districts. On the other side are the corporate powerhouses and the ideological opponents of all things public who see this as a chance to break the teacher’s unions and to privatize education.

Superman is a shill for the latter. Caring, thoughtful teachers are working hard in both types of schools. But their efforts are being framed and defined, even undermined, by powerful forces who have seized the mantle of “reform.”

The film dismisses with a side comment the inconvenient truth that our schools are criminally underfunded. Money’s not the answer, it glibly declares. Nor does it suggest that students would have better outcomes if their communities had jobs, health care, decent housing, and a living wage.

Particularly dishonest is the fact that Guggenheim never mentions the tens of millions of dollars of private money that has poured into the Harlem Children’s Zone, the model and the superman we are relentlessly instructed to aspire to. Those funds create full family services and a state of the art school.

In a sleight of hand, the film magically shifts focus, turning to “bad teaching” as the problem in the poor schools while ignoring these millions of dollars that make people clamor to get into the Promise Academy. As a friend of mine said, “Well, at least now we know what it costs.”

It is so sad to see hundreds of families lined up at these essentially private schools with a public charter cover, praying to get in. Who wouldn’t want to get in? Families are paraded in front of the cameras as they wait for an admission lottery in an auditorium where the winners’ names are pulled from a hat and read aloud, while the losing families trudge out in tears with cameras looming in their faces. Guggenheim gleefully films it all, indulging in what amounts to family and child abuse.

After dismissing funding as a factor, Superman rolls out the drumbeat of attacks on teachers as the first and really the only problem. Except for a few patronizing pats on the head for educators, the film describes school failure as boiling down to bad teachers.

Relying on old clichés that single out the handful of loser teachers anyone could dig up, Waiting for Superman asserts that the unions are the boogeyman. In his perfect world, there would be no unions — we could drive teacher wages even lower, run schools like little corporations, and race to the bottom just as we have in the manufacturing sector.

Imagining that the profit motive works best, the privatizers propose merit pay for teachers whose students test well. Such a scheme would only lead to adult cheating (which has already started), to well-connected teachers packing their classes with privileged kids, and to an undermining of the very essence of effective schools — collaboration between teachers, generous community building with students.

It is interesting to note that Arne Duncan’s kids, as well as the Obama kids, attended the University of Chicago Lab Schools — where teachers had small classes, good pay, and, yes, a union. Students did not concentrate on rote learning and mindless drill and skill or test prep. They were offered in part an exploratory, questioning curriculum. The school for the Obama kids in D.C., Sidwell Friends, also has a unionized faculty. But apparently the masses need to have sweatshop schools.

Waiting for Superman sets up AFT president Randi Weingarten as its Darth Vader — accompanying her appearance on the screen with dire background music. They tell us that the teachers unions have put $50 million into election campaigns over the last 10 years, essentially buying politicians. Actually, this number is a pittance compared to what corporations and the rich throw in. It is less than Meg Whitman spent of her own money in one run for governor of California.

But the film carefully avoids interviewing Diane Ravitch, the lead organizer of the Education Trust and No Child Left Behind efforts who has been lately writing and speaking about her realization that these reforms have had a disastrous effect on schools and teaching and learning.

When African American and Chicano Latino families in the 1960’s were demanding quality education and access to the resources of the best schools, they were also rejecting the myths about blackness meaning culturally deprived. Today that social revolution has been effectively set back. Schools are more segregated today than before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954; nothing is said about that. Black and Brown students are being suspended and expelled, searched and criminalized; not a word.

In place of a movement for transforming power relationships in our society, privatizers and corporate managers step up to define the problem — proposing a revolution that is anything but revolutionary.

A strong project of education transformation would recognize the funds of knowledge urban students come to school with; it would honor the literacy and language practices of the community. It would support a curriculum of questioning, as students examine their world and imagine ways to make it better.

It would put front and center the need to build learning communities, to motivate students to want to learn and believe there is something worth learning. It would create an engaged learning experience for all students, not just the handful who learn to endure boredom and insult in hopes of high income later.

In the hands of these so-called reformers, though, the only goal is to train urban students to be obedient followers; they never propose a project that transforms and empowers communities, only holding out the promise for a few exceptional students to escape the ghetto. Y

ou can see white middle class audience members sighing, comforted to know that everyone really wants to be like us; that everyone who is not like us is tragic. The film bubbles over with terms like escape and rescue, promoting a liberal charity mentality that is never in solidarity with the local community, only regards it as something dysfunctional that needs to be controlled.

In addition, Waiting for Superman promotes the idea that we are in a dire war for U.S. dominance in the world. The poster advertising the film shows a nightmarish battlefield in stark grey, then a little white girl sitting at a desk is dropped in the midst of it. The text: “The fate of our country won’t be decided on a battlefield. It will be determined in a classroom.”

This is a common theme of the so-called reformers: we are at war with India and China and we have to out-math them and crush them so that we can remain rich and they can stay in the sweatshops. But really, who declared this war? When did I as a teacher sign up as an officer in this war? And when did that fourth grade girl become a soldier in it?

I have nothing against the Chinese, the Indians, or anyone else in the world — I wish them well. Instead of this Global Social Darwinist fantasy, perhaps we should be helping kids imagine a world of global cooperation, sustainable economies, and equity

Waiting for Superman accepts a theory of learning that is embarrassing in its stupidity. In one of its many little cartoon segments, it purports to show how kids learn. The top of a child’s head is cut open and a jumble of factoids is poured in. Ouch! Oh, and then the evil teacher union and regulations stop this productive pouring project.

The filmmakers betray no understanding of how people actually learn, the active and agentive participation of students in the learning process. They ignore the social construction of knowledge, the difference between deep learning and rote memorization. The film unquestioningly bows down to standardized tests as the measure of student knowledge, school success. Such a testing regime bullies aside deeper learning, authentic assessment, portfolio and project based learning.

Yes, deeper learning like this is difficult to measure with simple numbers — but we can’t let the desire for simple numbers simplify the educational project. Extensive research has demonstrated definitively that standardized testing reproduces inequities, marginalizes English Language Learners and those who do not grow up speaking a middle class vernacular, dumbs down the curriculum, and misinforms policy. It is the wisdom of the misinformed, accepted against educational evidence and research. Never mind, they declare: we will define the future of education anyway.

Sadly, the narrow and blinkered reasoning in Waiting for Superman is behind the No Child Left Behind disaster rebranded as Race to the Top. Don’t believe the hype. We can and we must do education, and educational change, much differently. We could develop an economy that supported communities which are well-resourced and democratic. We can right now create pathways in which all kids have a reasonable prospect of an honorable, interesting job in their future. And if democracy and the future society concern us at all, we can and we must create schools which unleash students’ creativity, imagination, and initiative.

[Rick Ayers is a former high school teacher, founder of Communication Arts and Sciences small school at Berkeley High School, and currently Adjunct Professor in Teacher Education at the University of San Francisco. He is author, with his brother William Ayers, of the soon-to-be-released Teaching the Taboo from Teachers College Press. He can be reached at .]

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4 Responses to FILM / Rick Ayers : An Inconvenient Superman

  1. Benito says:

    The Republicans are so funny, when the economy is good you say let’s all celebrate “Cinco de Mayo, my brothers” but when the economy is down “it’s all your fault, you damn immigrant”. When most Americans (with Latin America roots) go to the polls this November we will remember that the GOP has gone on a nationwide rant in proposing and passing several anti-immigration legislation (that our US Courts continue to strike down) and have continue to blame the immigrant for the flat economy or worse. We will remember who stands with us and who stands against us, so trying to stop it now is somewhat funny, but go ahead, you will not change our minds. Plus the more radical of the GOP are now attacking our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, in a misguided attempt to garner some much needed votes, they really are fools, and leading the GOP towards obscurity because they are no longer a party of ideas, just of empty suits. Your hate made you do it, in November; you will reap what you have sown. I wonder what Abraham Lincoln would say about todays GOP, he unlike the current GOP was a man of ideas.

  2. We the third of Americans who are drowning in a combination of debt and wage slavery, where we don’t get paid enough to produce our labor, “Another day older and deeper in debt” isn’t just a song… it’s real.We’re supposed to also up the bread for Private Education, Privatized Medicine, in Colorado Springs they’re using Privatized Street Lights, drastically cut Public Transportation, so we are basically paying for the privilege of working to put the fruits of our labor into the pockets of the wealthy Parasite Class. Somewhere in all that, if we can’t afford Privatized schools we’re supposed to do like the Rich Bitches do and Home School our kids.

    When in the demanding Slave Labor schedule they impose on us are we supposed to have that time? Sure, it works out great for the Idle Rich.
    Just not for anybody else.

    We see the results of Public ignorance at TeaBag rallies and other Hate Gatherings. Minutemen Muster.Support the War rallies, Back the Badge events.

    It makes it easier for them to push the Lies that if we work hard enough for De Massah we’ll be able, in a matter of generations, to rise up enough to actually be equal to de Boss Mans Dogs.

    Dangle the empty promise of Opportunity in front of our noses, and our kids’ noses, and our grandkids’ noses. Keep us docile by keeping us as ignorant as they possibly can.

    Only, some of us HAVE managed to become their educational equals, even fighting against the chains they imposed to try to slow us down. It’s why there ARE Labor Unions, why there still IS a minimum wage and even though they’ve worked steadily to derail and dismantle it for 3 decades, there are still some workplace safety regulations, Just, in that 30 years of constant assault on Public Education they’ve managed to make some inroads into Workers’ Rights.

    Now that their Capital is eating itself, maybe they ought to drop some of the time and money they’ve spent fighting AGAINST raising up all Americans into actually investing in raising up all Americans. It would be a lot less expensive in the long run.
    In the short term too.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Interesting. One wonders what Guggenheim will tackle next, and hopes it’s not abstinence or the Texas State Board of Education.

    I wonder about the claim that schools are now more segregated than they were before Brown v. Board of Ed. It seems exaggerated. Rick, what evidence can you provide to support that claim?

    an occasional reader

  4. I could probably elaborate on that. If you take pure segregation as only being the law in certain parts of the land.When my mother and older sister, who was an infant at the time, came to Texas while dad was in Algeria being shot at in a non-war, she went into the ladies room to change the baby’s diaper. Nothing special about that, but it was Dallas and 1958 and the restroom was Colored Only. Mom’s white. One of dad’s Cleburne Texas relatives was meeting her at the train station and upbraided her for it. They’re not exactly white themselves, you’d think it wouldn’t make a spits worth of difference. Mom was born in Minnesota and raised in an Army family. Means she traveled to exotic places where they don’t hardly talk english good, ya see.
    They looked on dad suspiciously because he joined the Air Force and actually went to places that weren’t even in Texas. Then he married a YANKEE oh muh GAWD!

    So she’s walking into a serpents pit unawares. She didn’t even know legalized segregation.

    She was getting the Hen Committee treatment down Cleburne way, all the woman folk were ready to size up “Leroy’s Yankee-girl”.

    She had a picture of some of her high school class from California. One of the other girls was BLACK oh muh GAWD! once more.
    She actually went to school with THEM!

    But now, with American society going further apart, splitting on imaginary lines having to do with the amount of melanin in your skin, Segregation is as common in California and Minnesota as it is in Texas.

    It’s not the modest gains made in the South that would skew the numbers.
    It’s the massive loss of tolerance in the Liberal states. Texas didn’t get much better, California got a LOT worse.

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