All through our lives teachers are an important factor in our education from the very first day we begin to learn how to walk and learn to count. In the film of “Waiting for Superman” directed by Davis Guggenheim, we are taken through the different ways that the public education system has failed students in urban schools. By interviewing reformers different ideas are brought to attention on how the public educational system can be improved. Guggenheim takes us through the lives of five different students, four of whom attend public schools, and one in a catholic school, that all attempt to leave the public school system behind. Experiencing the struggles of these students and their families, we learn how they are placed in a lottery system to be able to gain admission at a charter school. All with the same goal in common and dreams of a better education, students still have to rely solely on luck. The film later shows how four of the five students are turned away by the lottery. This film appeared to stir up controversy in the state that Guggenheim promotes charter schools and blames the teachers for the educational failures.
In the film, Guggenheim puts a huge role on charter schools and how they could be the solution to all the issues in the public school systems. In his eyes the reason why so many students aren’t receiving the adequate education they should be is because of the teachers and the way they are being protected by the union and tenure. According to Guggenheim, he focuses on giving teachers a negative image when students do not appear to show growth in test scores. While watching the film I was reminded of Ravitch’s article of “Reign of Error, Reform Text.” He states, “Blame must fall on the shoulders of the teachers and principals. Where test scores are low, it is their fault. They should be held accountable for this educational catastrophe. They are responsible because they have become comfortable with the status quo of low expectations and low achievement, more interested in their pensions than in the children they teach” “Waiting for Superman” portrays urban schools along with teachers as if they were “villains.”
Guggenheim believes that public education has become unsuccessful because of unions along with “bad” teachers. Throughout the film, Guggenheim does not fail to show us how public schools are holding students back because of their performance and destroying the futures of the students. In Noguera’s text of “Finding Hope Among the Hopelessness,” he states, “Low test scores, low grades, high drop-out rates, poor attendance, and generally unmotivated usually top the lists of failings. Burned-out and ineffective teachers, who care more about protecting their jobs than helping students, typically follow complaints about students” (Noguera 3). According to the film, a student attending a public school with a bad teacher can lead to a great damage to the students and later affect future teachers in the long run. This then leads them to attending the high school near home that is failing or better known as a “drop-out factory.”
In a drop-out factory it is said that over 45% of students do not graduate and do not receive a high school diploma. Francisco is a six-year-old student whom attends a local public school in South Bronx. His mother has a college degree and is seeking for a better education for him by taking Francisco out of the public educational system and into a charter school. In the film, Francisco’s mother asks him to tell his teacher to give her a call because she is concerned about his progress in class. However, the teacher never responded to Francisco’s mothers request because she feels “he doesn’t need it.” By his teacher not being responsive we see how teachers in a public school system gives are given the image of how bad the public education system is. The films shows a small clip of a student who placed a camera in his backpack and shows us of a teacher in a classroom who is just sitting back reading the newspaper.
It is obvious that the teachers are not teaching and the students are not learning and that is what Guggenheim wants the audience to believe is going on in these schools. It is clear who the villains are in the educational system, however Guggenheim believes that charter schools are the hero or better known as “Superman” who can save these students educational lives. Guggenheim’s solution to the educational issues of the five students and their families is the route to a charter school. Guggenheim believes that charter schools can “fix” the problem and are a successful alternative to the failure of urban schools. Throughout the film, different achievements and how effective charter schools are in terms of test scores along with college acceptance in comparison to the failing scores in a public school.
By promoting charter schools the way Guggenheim does throughout the film, he gives the audience the image that there is no competing with public schools. By presenting us with the lottery system, we are shown the struggle these parents go through to place their child in a “better” school—a charter school. Having the desire to attend one of these schools isn’t as simple as to providing the school. Guggenheim’s message tells that if there were more charter schools, there wouldn’t be a need for the lottery. Everyone would then be able to attend a better school.
While teachers who are being protected by the union contract and cannot be fired, solutions to getting rid of them at their school because of their low performance is by doing the “Dance of the Lemons” or also know as the “Turkey Trot.” At the end of the year teachers that are not performing well, are traded from school to school in hopes of receiving a better “lemon” than the ones they had before. Eric Hanushek, a Hoover Institution economist, mentions that firing the lowest performing teachers could possibly raise test scores in mathematics and science. If more bad teachers were to be fired, better teachers could be hired and paid more and we would then begin to see higher test scores.
I completely disagree with Guggenheim’s reasoning as to why the public school is failing. Teachers play an important factor in determining teacher achievement but are also not solely the reason why the public education is failing. Tenure and bad teachers do not seem to be the problem in my opinion. In Goldstein’s article about urban education she tells about how quickly everyone turns to the teachers for the low-test scores of the students. She states, “What makes teaching in urban communities such a challenge has less to do with the students, parents, and communities than it does with the limited resources, bureaucracy, lack of support, and constant change within the school itself. And yet, when students aren’t academically successful, (that is they don’t or cant pass the latest standardized test), we first blame the teachers, then the students, and then all the things urban” (Goldstein 43).
When students show to be underperforming we first turn to the teachers to blame because we believe that the teachers should be providing the students with an adequate education. However, in my opinion the teachers are not to blame. Teaching in an urban school comes with many issues. The lack of recourses and parental support play a big role. When I interviewed Mrs. Giacoman, the teacher I observed at Washington Elementary, she mentioned that because of the lack of resources and very little support she received it was difficult to provide her students with what they needed.
I believe that the film will only give the audience an understanding of what goes on in urban education. Throughout the film Guggenheim fails to point any negatives that come along with some charter schools because he wants people to believe that charter schools are the best option to turn to. However, I believe that if either attending an urban or a charter school there is always going to be a problem. Because Guggenheim is so pro charter schools, he fails to point out the positives in some urban schools and just attacks the teachers. In the film not once do we get to hear neither a public school that is successful nor the opinion from a teacher of a principal of a successful public school. Just as there is charter schools that have successful test scores and great teachers, there are public schools as well.
In EdSourse’s article of “Mixed Results for Charter Schools Statewide in New Study,” we learn how students actually performed worse when attending a charter school. The article states, “Elementary and middle school charters outperformed traditional schools, but charter high schools overall performed worse. At multi-level charter schools, serving elementary and middle grades or middle and high school students, students lost more than 100 learning days in math” (EdSource 1). So not every charter school can make a difference in students test scores. If parents have a desire for a better education for their students it doesn’t necessarily mean they have to turn to a charter school.