Teacher bashing sank to new depths this fall with the release of Waiting for “Superman,” a film that claims to analyze the failures of the American public school system.
Directed by Davis Guggenheim of An Inconvenient Truth fame, “Superman” generated considerable media buzz — from Time magazine to the Oprah Winfrey show. (It didn’t hurt that Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates spent $2 million to promote the film through his foundation.)
But for all the hype, the film finished its box office run in December without making much of a splash, according to Education Week. (Rick Hess, “Straight Up,” Dec. 15, 2010). In ticket sales, the film ranked just 143rd among movies this year. “The weak numbers are especially surprising given the substantial push Waiting for “Superman” got from major media,” Hess wrote.
MEA-MFT member Jon Runnalls, for one, was not impressed with the film. Runnalls, a
Helena science teacher and 2003 Montana Teacher of the Year, attended a pre-screening of
the film in Helena November 4 and gave his impressions as part of a panel discussion
“As a classroom teacher, I was really offended by the film,” he said. “Schools reflect their communities.
If we find there’s a rise in cavities, do we blame the dentists? That’s what this film does with teachers.”
Waiting for “Superman” follows five children hoping to get into limited-enrollment charter schools Four of the children live in large inner-city metropolitan areas and one lives in a California suburb — all a far cry from anything like Montana.
Some critics gave the film high marks for tear-jerking emotion. But any journalism teacher would likely give Mr. Guggenheim a low grade for failing to even pretend to present more than one side of any aspect of the story.
The film has been called a documentary, though others have called it a 102-minute infomercial for charter schools. Film critic Brent Northrup (Helena Independent Record) has dubbed it a “propa-doc.”
“Superman” portrays its heroes and villains in true comic-book, one-dimensional style. It shows public schools, teachers, and teachers’ unions as the Lex Luthor of the story — the root of all evil in education.
Private charter schools are touted as the story’s Superman, able to rescue the nation’s children in a single bound, if only Lex Luthor would get out of the way.
The filmmaker only casually mentions that only one charter school in five is more effective than a traditional public school.
The U.S. does have some struggling public schools, mostly in inner cities. But it also has excellent public schools, especially in Montana, where teachers help children from all backgrounds reach academic heights in spite of the challenges these teachers face: children who come to school malnourished or with learning disabilities, overcrowded classrooms, parents who excuse their children’s poor behavior, to name a few.
And yes, struggling teachers do exist. But the film makes no attempt to feature even one of the many thousands of successful public school teachers who use creative, innovative methods every day to give children a rich education that will prepare them to succeed in the global economy and in life.
That doesn’t sit well with Jon Runnalls. “I work with heroes,” he said. “I see miracles happen every day.”
Runnalls is not alone. Critics nationwide have pointed out the film’s flaws (see sidebar).
The film does point out the gross inequities in America’s education system—a story teachers, parents, school trustees, and others across the nation have been telling for decades. But director Guggenheim missed an opportunity to engage in a real dialogue with educators and their unions about how to truly transform public education. “MEA-MFT, our affiliates, and our individual members have fought for over a century for the basic right of all students to attend quality public schools,” said MEA-MFT President Eric Feaver.
Solutions that do work: Characteristic of the film’s simple-mindedness, it concludes, in the credits, “The problem is complex, but the steps are simple.” That brings to mind H. L. Mencken’s quote: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
Montana’s education community — including MEA-MFT, teachers and education support professionals, administrators, trustees, parents, and others — have worked hard to promote research-based, common-sense school improvements, such as the following:
• Smaller class sizes to give students more individual attention.
• Better teacher preparation and professional development opportunities.
• More opportunities for teachers to learn from one another.
• Mentoring programs to help new and struggling teachers.
• Broader support and involvement by parents and the community.
• Extra help for students who need it.
• Adequate tools and resources.
As AFT President Randi Weingarten has pointed out, these proven solutions aren’t the stuff of action flicks. But they work.