Recently I was recently asked, yet again, to comment on Waiting For Superman for a forthcoming issue of Education Revolution. One of my thoughts is wonderment that we could spend so much time and energy on this fine, although deeply-flawed film. Here’s how it seems to me a couple of months out after commenting the last time.
Waiting For Superman is a polemic–an argument, couched as a movie–aimed at proving the supremacy and irrefutability of its point of view. It is compelling, it is pounding, and unless you have a heart of stone, it will make you reach for tissues. Because the children and families portrayed in the film are so achingly real, it is chest-wrenching and tragic. To those of us in the school improvement business, it says nothing new. The film aims to unveil the game of school, and suggest that enrolling your kid in your local public school–particularly if you are working class, nonwhite, or a recent immigrant–will very possibly doom your child to neglect, under-service, and active preparation for failure. The demons in the tale, teachers unions and protectionist labor practices, are strikingly simplistic, as is the view of “good” learning and “good” teaching, which is kids sit quietly, and if you teach ’em louder and longer, they’ll get it.
I am a fan of polemics, and am often invigorated and tickled by them. The upshot of this one however, has been to polarize viewers into two competing, take-no-prisoners camps: those who think teachers and school systems should be more “accountable,” through public testing and merit pay, and those who see teachers as heroic and underappreciated victims. Teachers themselves have rallied around the second view with passion. In my own work, both points of view are threadbare and insufficient. Our decade-long testing regime has brought a disastrous flattening of an already intellectually bare, fatally boring, classroom environment. And, most of the teachers I work with do not have the training or background to offer truly inspiring and compelling instruction. They do not know how, and the institution constrains mightily against experimentation and growth of their practices.
Polemics should move people to action, through radical oversimplification and paring away to essence. So far this one has proved fodder for offense, grandstanding, and steamy side taking. As long as we fight each other, in bloody internecine warfare, we exhaust ourselves, generate bad feelings, and fail to work the real problem. We fight the future, which is that the institution itself must be radically transformed. We do not yet know what the future looks like, and this makes us afraid. So we fight each other. We’re burning up a lot of energy getting nowhere.
We need each other to do the work that lies ahead.