Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Waiting for Superman

Well, I finally saw Waiting for "Superman." There's a lot to dislike about the movie, but the ultimate impact is difficult to parse out. I try to avoid writing about things I don't like, so I'll make the critical part of this post short and to the point.

A number of journalists have already taken the film to task for the many ways in which it misrepresents and overlooks data. The best of these, though I don't agree with everything in it, is probably Diane Ravitch's article for The New York Review of Books. The quickness with which the film has been attacked reflects not only its journalistic shortcomings, but its combative, simplistic approach to the discussion, its vilification of the teacher's union, its disparagement of the public school system. All these individual flaws, however, have distracted critics from the fundamental vagueness of the movie.

What Works?

"We know what works," Guggenheim announces towards the end of the film, but it's not at all clear what he's referring to. Many, including most of the film's detractors, have viewed Waiting for S. as pro-charter-schools agit-prop, presumably because all of the amazing schools glorified by the film are charters. But charters seem to be a red herring in this discussion; Guggenheim admits early in the film that only about one in five charters actually produce "amazing results." (In fact, that assessment sugar-coats the hard data rather goopily. See the Ravitch article for specifics.)

Maybe Guggenheim realized at some point in his editing process that the film never actually defines the formula for great schools that it trumpets so enthusiastically, because he inserted the following text into the closing credits:

We know what works.
Quality teachers.
More classroom time.
World class standards.
High expectations.
Real accountability.

But this is hardly a prescription for school reform. The last three items on the list are concoctions of education buzz-words—pat and hopelessly unspecific. "More classroom time" is a well-tried and unambiguous suggestion; and given the neighborhoods that most inner-city youth go home to, it's hard to argue with it. This brings us to Guggenheim's first and most important suggestion: quality teachers. Now, no one disagrees with him on this—though some put less emphasis on it than he—but the question is, how do you find, hire, and retain quality teachers; and, for that matter, how do you define them? These questions take up a lot of the substantive content of the documentary.

Before I address those questions, though, I want to say something that my loyal readers may recognize as thematic to this blog. Even if Guggenheim's prescription were crystal clear and well informed, there's something wrong with claiming, at this juncture, that we have the solution to American inner-city education. The mission of the best charters schools is not complete simply because they're getting close to 100% of their eighth graders to the "proficient" level on state exams. From what I have seen of these schools, they have no sense of complacency regarding their accomplishments, but struggle constantly to deepen their curriculum. That politicians announce victory when the battle has just begun is no surprise; that documentarians do so is a shame.

A Word on Merit Pay

When it comes to how to generate better teachers, Guggenheim does have some concrete suggestions. I want to talk for a moment about one of these, because it is a much touted proposal that has not received the critical examination it deserves. The idea is to base teacher salaries and bonuses on how well they're doing their job—as determined, at least in part, by their students' test scores. This system, called merit pay, has the support of the Obama administration and is already common practice in many No-Excuses charter schools—not to mention many major corporations. Union leaders have in the past objected to merit pay, because they see it as a potentially divisive force within the union, but bowing to public and political pressure, the unions have lately begun embracing the idea.

To we modern Americans, imbibing as we have in our youths the behaviorist logic of classical economics, the idea of paying people more for doing a better job seems like a no-brainer. In fact, the issue of monetary rewards is the subject of a fierce debate within academia, and many argue that such rewards are not merely ineffective but counter-productive.[1] Of course, others have questioned these findings, but in the light of this ambivalent research, performance-based bonuses and raises look like a questionable way to use our precious resources. The old pay system, still in use in most of the country, determines salary based on seniority. Considering that teachers get much better at their work over their first few years on the job and that approximately half of all new teachers quit within the first five years, determining salary based on seniority appears to be an eminently practical and efficacious system; the problem, it seems, is simply that we don't give teachers big enough raises for sticking with it.

The Legacy of Waiting for "Superman"

After seeing the Waiting for S., you're meant to walk out of the theater and go take action—and the closing credits tell you exactly how: text "possible" to 77177 or go to www.waitingforsuperman.com. I was curious, given the vagueness of the film itself, what exactly such digital action would lead to. The Waiting for S. website, it turns out, has its fingers in a lot of pots. Every page contains dozens of links—learn more, rate your school, find a local movement, take the pledge[2]—as well as video clips, quotations, newsy tidbits, and short statements of purpose and position on a variety of issues.

There are also many of opportunities to take action. These are of two types: political and direct. The direct action links offer ways to donate money and resources for classroom materials and to volunteer to tutor or mentor local students. The political actions include writing to your governor and local school-board, and joining the Waiting for S. action mailing list.

It took me a long time poking my way, a bit haphazardly in the manner of my frenetic generation, through the colorful jungle of interconnected pages before I began to see how this might play out. On the one hand, we have a political action campaign, whose contours begin to emerge out of the fog of simplistic storytelling as we examine the political action links. On the other, we have a campaign to raise awareness of and encourage support for and direct involvement in local public education.

The Waiting for "Superman" political movement is worryingly opaque. An exhortation on the website to "Demand high standards: write your governor," for example, is elaborated by four lines of smaller text: "To better prepare our students for success in college and the workforce, your governor must implement the Common Core Standards[3] in your state, etc." Thus Guggenheim's "world class standards" resolve themselves into something concrete and well defined; but that definition will be unknown to the average website visitor, because the site offers no information on what the Common Core Standards actually are. It seems as though you are meant to see this film, go this website, write to your governor, your school board, etc. and tell them whatever Davis Guggenheim—or the political organization that's funding him—tells you to tell them; you are not required to develop too deep an understanding of the issues. I don't think there's any kind of sinister plan here to obfuscate a political position, but there is an attempt to sell a political position by simplifying issues down to bullet points. Now, maybe that's necessary to get an apathetic, poorly-informed public to take mass action, but it leaves people without the tools necessary for critical analysis, and an old-fashioned rationalist like myself finds that unsettling.

If the direct-action campaign wins out; if the lasting impact of the film is not the political movement that it is trying to build, but rather an increased awareness of the crisis in our inner-city schools and an increased involvement of middleclass people in the struggle to improve those schools, then we will all have to take off our hats—those of us who still wear hats—to Davis Guggenheim. If, however, the political will generated by the movie is insufficient to produce donations and volunteering; if, instead, there is only a passive, thoughtless wave of petition signing, then the legacy of Waiting for S. will be far more ambiguous.

[1] ^ Summarizing the anti-behaviorist position for the Harvard Business Review, education writer and speaker Alfie Kohn writes "people who expect to receive a reward… simply do not perform as well as those who expect no reward at all…. In general, the more cognitive sophistication and open-ended thinking that was required, the worse people performed when working for a reward." If you want to see the actual academic work on this, do a Google scholar search for "Cognitive Evaluation Theory, motivation, rewards."

[2] ^ What pledge, you ask? Why the pledge to go out and see Waiting for "Superman", of course.

[3] ^ When NCLB came into effect in 2003, pretty much every state had its own set of educational standards—that is, list of what kids have to know, in each subject, in each grade—and its own exams. The Common Core Standards initiative is a state-level movement to adopt a single set of standards and exams for large group of states. Since the summer, 38 states, plus DC and the US Virgin Islands have adopted the Common Core Standards. Obvious advantage: more money available to develop really good standards and exams, since you only need one set of each instead 40 different sets. Obvious disadvantage: excessive uniformity. I don't want to get deep into this right now.

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