Politics At The Movies: “Waiting for Superman”

Waiting for Superman

Directed by David Guggenheim
Review by Tony Sheppard and Malcolm Maclachlan

Malcolm: The big thing people are talking about with this film is that team behind “An Inconvenient Truth” have taken aim at the liberal bastions of public schools and teachers unions. I think there are probably plenty of liberals out there who aren’t too fond of teachers unions, but feel obliged to protect these unions from people who want to destroy public education altogether. The big problem with many unions, as I see it, is they spend too much political capital protecting their lowest-performing members and not enough creating opportunity for those who do well.

Tony: I’m a union educator, but it shouldn’t take a 23-step administrative process to fire a teacher who refuses to teach – and some of the examples are that basic. The New York City school district keeps teachers on full pay for an average of three years, while segregating them from the classroom, before decisions are made. Murder trials are easier than that.

Malcolm: I also like the idea the film raises that it’s not the poor neighborhood that destroys the schools but the bad schools rotting poor neighborhoods. It flips the traditional logic on its head, but makes sense when you see what poor kids can accomplish in better schools.

Tony: And many of the schools aren’t simply bad, but awful: The film refers to over 2,000 schools with dropout rates of 40 percent or higher. One school is cited in an onscreen interview where 1,200 freshman plummet in numbers to 300-400 sophomores.

Malcolm: Not that conservatives get off the hook. No Child Left Behind (also supported by Sen. Ted Kennedy and many other liberals) has been an abject failure. Testing is a distraction. My father, a college professor for three decades, said standardized tests produce no false positives but lots of false negatives – kids who don’t test up to their potential, usually due to family and class circumstances.

Those are largely the kids this film is about. In each case, they’re competing to get into charter schools, but in a lottery, not a meritocracy where the most promising are chosen. I feel sure things would have turned out differently for one girl in the film, Daisy, had that been the case. She seems to work harder, and have a better idea of what she wants as a career, than most kids her age of any social class. This is a pretty heartbreaking film to begin with, and I think her story in particular will speak to a lot of people.

These lotteries themselves seem to be a soul-destroying process. The kids and their families are placing all their hope and dream eggs in one basket. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to go back to the school you’ve been convinced you have to escape from in order to have any chance in life. It might even depress performance for the losers, through this conjecture.

Malcolm: In fact – and this is the point conservatives will glom onto – the one place market principles are being allowed to function is in these charter schools. It has been widely noted that many charter schools succeed by cherry-picking the best students with the most motivated parents. But when you look at, say, the Kipp schools, which push poor kids to amazing heights with lots of hard work to make up for the development they don’t get in their lives outside of school, it’s hard to argue with their success.

Tony: I’m not sure what’s so market-based about a publicly funded roll of the dice. And these are some of the most motivated (and luckiest) kid/parent/teacher combinations – it shouldn’t be a surprise that they significantly outperform the general population (it would be surprising if they didn’t) and there’s no reason to think that the same model will work for everybody else. What’s more worrying and glossed over in the film is that 4/5 charter schools aren’t producing these great results. We don’t see the good public schools (in this country or others) or the bad charter schools for comparison.

Malcolm: It also occurs to me that American college education rates a lot better than primary education. It’s also more of a market-based system, with public, private and for –  profit schools competing. It has done a terrible job on cost control, and still fails many students, but it does better by most measures.

As the film points out, briefly, college professors achieve tenure after a long and grueling process of proving their performance in teaching, publishing, and service.  It isn’t a flawless process but it’s far more discriminating than gaining a couple of years of service and then having job security for an entire career.

Malcolm: Having seen what my dad went through to get tenure at a big university – and what some people we knew went through and never got tenure – it’s kind of offensive that the same term is used in a “two years and you’re in” public school tenure system.

Tony: On balance I think the film is interesting but highly selective in its content, and it leaves more questions unanswered than answered.

The Ultimate Wave Tahiti

Now showing at the Esquire IMAX, 1211 K Street
What athlete has dominated their international sport for over a decade? It’s not Tiger Woods – it’s surfer Kelly Slater. But the technology here—mainly the $1 million waterproof IMAX camera – is kind of the star here. The waves on the north shore of Tahiti are by no means the world’s biggest, but they offer the best classic tube shape you’ll ever find. Slater almost looks like he’s on a skateboard the way he can slalom up and down them. Like most IMAX films I’ve seen, I would have liked to have seen more science, but they had some. Overall, an enjoyable and informative 40 minutes.

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