Education Opinion

Where’s the Instruction: My Beef with Waiting for Superman

By Sara Mead — October 07, 2010 4 min read
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I finally got around to seeing Waiting for Superman--which, I have to confess, I wasn’t particularly eager to do. I’m solidly in the camp of people who think movies should be about escapism, and the only thing I can think of less escapist than a documentary about a pressing social issue is a documentary about a pressing social issue that I spend the majority of my waking hours working on.

So, from that perspective, I was pleased to find Waiting for Superman well-crafted, compelling, and more engaging than I expected. As I imagine most viewers do, I found myself praying during the final lottery segment for at least one of the children’s numbers to be called, and angry and frustrated with the ultimate outcomes.

But I wasn’t just frustrated by our nation’s failure to offer adequate educational opportunities to Anthony, Bianca, Daisy, Emily, and Francisco. I also found myself frustrated with the movie itself, in ways that surprised me.

First, I wish that director David Guggenheim had done more to show, rather than tell, us how the public schools the children in the movie attend are currently failing them. There is very little classroom footage in the movie at all: We see one scene of Anthony’s current elementary school classroom, where a teacher the movie tells us is actually pretty good seems to be delivering decent instruction to his students. We see Francisco sitting and standing forlornly in the classroom and halls of his school, we hear his mother repeatedly asking for and not getting his school folder, and we learn that there’s a metal detector and security desk at the entrance of his school--but we never actually see what his teachers are or aren’t doing. We see Daisy playing on the playground and briefly talking to one of her teachers.

But that doesn’t really show us what these youngsters’ day-to-day experiences in their schools are like. We hear statistics about the abominable performance of the middle schools--LA’s Stevenson and D.C.'s Sousa--that Daisy and Anthony are slated to attend. But we never see inside them. Nor do we get a clear sense of how their schools’ failure manifests itself in things these children can’t do or don’t know.

This is all understandable. Classroom footage, except in the most terrible or exemplary classrooms, doesn’t necessarily make the most compelling video. And Guggenheim would have needed to get permission and sign-off from adults in the schools to include more footage of actual classrooms--something that poor-performing schools and teachers might understandably be unwilling to give. But it still seems like a wasted opportunity to show us even more compellingly what bad schools really mean for kids. And absent that, it makes the poor performance of these students’ schools--as well as the better performance of the schools they want to attend--seem like a kind of mysterious black box, the result of nefarious but ill-defined forces, rather than the predictable result of what kids experience in schools and what adults do or do not do for them.

More generally, for a movie that hangs its argument on the critical importance of excellent teachers, Waiting for Superman seems surprisingly uninterested in instruction itself. An animated segment that suggested that, absent that nasty bureaucracy, good teachers would be able to pour content into children’s brains like soup set my teeth on edge. A later section of the movie, where Guggenheim talks about his previous documentary on first-year teachers, did acknowledge that good teaching is a lot more complicated than pouring content into kids’ brains--but that earlier segment still seemed horribly ill-advised. Another animated segment on teacher effectiveness research, which stated that the most ineffective teachers “cover only half as much content” in a year and the most effective teachers “cover 150%" again seemed tone deaf about what good instruction means. I believe in the importance of content as much as anyone, but the shift towards emphasizing teacher effectiveness is, if anything, a shift in the definition of teachers’ jobs away from covering content to ensuring that students learn it.

These may sound like pedantic quibbles, but they go to a broader point: By failing to engage more deeply with the realities of what good or bad schools, or good and bad teaching, actually look like in practice, Waiting for Superman makes good schools or teaching seem like a kind of magical black box, as incomprehensible to us as Superman’s powers. And I think that notion of good schools and teaching as a kind of magical black box can fuel a kind of futility in our thinking about our ability to make good instruction a reality for more children--ironic in a film that above all else wants to convince us that something better is possible.

I recognize the challenges here--Aside from the fact that instruction is kind of boring for a movie, it’s also the case that efforts to prescribe the details of good instruction have played a major role in creating the bureaucracy and stupid rules that hobble many of our schools and even good teachers today. But unless we’re willing to look past the black box of “effective teacher/ineffective teacher” and “good school/bad school” to grapple with the specifics of what a good education means for children’s experiences and adult actions, it’s going to be very hard to change the outlook for all the kids out there like Anthony, Bianca, Daisy, Emily, and Francisco.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.