School documentary merits failing grade
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Director Davis Guggenheim's documentary, "Waiting for Superman," is a very strange morality tale about American public school education.
Hailed by critics as a call for the kind of education reform only the private sector is allegedly capable of delivering, it gives lip service to democratic ideals of public education before selling out completely to Lex Luthor.
In the film's opening minutes, Mr. Guggenheim confesses that as much as he believes in public education in theory, his kids go to private school.
Mr. Guggenheim even films himself driving past the school they would have attended if he weren't an Academy Award-winning filmmaker, as director of "An Inconvenient Truth," the global-warming documentary featuring Al Gore. Copping to hypocrisy so close to the opening credits is an odd way to begin a film about the woeful state of American education.
While ostensibly raising hard truths, "Waiting for Superman" is an unapologetic stalking horse for the market-oriented approach to education reform embodied by the charter school movement. Though only 17 percent of charter schools out-perform public schools, you'd never know it from this film.
As easy as it is to admire the work of the documentary's star, Harlem Children's Zone founder Geoffrey Canada, it is clear that Mr. Guggenheim was more interested in celebrating that program as a model for other charter schools across the nation than evaluating its educational track record, which is mixed.
At a time when calls for the privatization of huge swaths of public education are applause lines for politicians of both parties, the fact that billionaires and hedge fund operators sit on the Harlem school's board of directors should have merited a few minutes of thoughtful exploration.
A self-described "lefty" like Mr. Guggenheim should feel leery that Wall Street is jockeying for greater influence in public education and the shaping of curriculum.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates' testimony before Congress that America's high-tech industries are forced to recruit overseas for educated workers is recorded as evidence of corporate America's push for more rigorous testing and standardized curriculum that meets industry's needs.
When famed education reformer Marva Collins built Westside Preparatory in a Chicago ghetto in the 1970s, she trained a generation of critical thinkers who could discuss Dostoevsky and do engineering. She did it by stressing daily immersion in the Socratic method over endless test prep.
Art, music, the classics and science were as big a part of Ms. Collins' curriculum as math and reading. She made her students prepare for the world beyond their neighborhoods and she did it without corporate money or federal support.
What would today's corporations prefer to get out of the charter school experiment: educationally well-rounded employees capable of skepticism, or obedient, narrowly functioning workers who can operate micro-processors?
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million donation to the Newark, N.J., school system last month may be the beginning of a wave of corporate sponsorship and domination of public education, especially in troubled cities where minority dropout rates approach 70 and 80 percent.
Mr. Canada's Harlem Children's Zone is coming to Homewood next year, with plans to expand to other neighborhoods in the city if the model attracts the support of local corporations and nonprofits. Still, even that program can't begin operating on a national scale without serious corporate largess and input.
The big question "Waiting for Superman" never openly entertains is: Should a democracy allow public education to become a for-profit enterprise for the sake of developing a more efficient and specialized work force?
Meanwhile, the film lays blame for the nation's educational mediocrity on teachers and their "nefarious" union reps. Teachers' unions are indicted for using such thoroughly evil legal maneuvers as "due process" to protect members from being fired at will, as they would have been in the glory days of the 19th century.
Ironically, Finland boasts the best public schools in the world despite a 100 percent unionized teacher work force. Finnish teachers also use an educational method similar to that of Marva Collins. Imagine that!
Generational poverty, the deindustrialization of cities and the subsequent loss of property taxes to fund urban education are hardly mentioned as culprits in this film. Parental indifference to quality education also gets a pass.
Instead, we're treated to a melodrama about a lottery that will determine the educational future of five kids trying desperately to get into charter schools. It's a simplistic portrayal of a very complex reality. Somewhere, Lex Luthor is smiling as he counts his profits.
First Published October 15, 2010 12:00 am