Waiting for Superman: Systemic problems

As an analysis of the problem of failing schools, there are a number of problems with the video, especially since it tends to focus only on the local schools and immediately rejects the idea that a failing neighborhood and the complex factors that make it fail (i.e. joblessness, poor physical health due to lack of access to health care, low general education in the community, valuation of schools by the majority of parents/kids). The narrow follow of a few students and their parents who appear to really care without also following some that do not makes it very difficult to get to the reasons why. The videographers have largely made up their mind before they hit the second scene in the film. The oversimplification of underlying, incredibly complex causes of failing schools tells viewers: there is a single, or a few reasons your schools fail and here is a target for viewer anger.

It was interesting that the filmmakers talked to reformers, reporters, administrators, parents and kids throughout the first half of the documentary, but made only oblique references to teachers and past films they had done with great teachers. The problem with this is that the folks they interview tend to attribute the problem to the causes they see at the surface, which are easy to attack. From a journalistic perspective, they make a lot of claims to truth that are not really in evidence and rarely give the teachers and union members who are the object of many attacks in the film the chance to respond. They largely take large speeches made by union leaders and claim they are representative of all union members and their beliefs. There are one or two instances in which they interview the AFT president. However, there is no discussion with teachers. There is not understanding of the complexity of the problem through their personal experiences.

The focus on Michelle Rhee was interesting. Her results were mainly contentious as noted in public media as well as in the video. It is now 2011 and she is gone from DC, consulting. As a former public school teacher and current professor of learning technologies, I am appalled that the school system thought a woman with no real qualifications, no doctorate, and three years of teacher under her belt could overhaul a complex, failing school system. Her lack of experience and knowledge should have been apparent not only to the school board, but also to her. The incredible arrogance that someone who basically “washed out” as a public school teacher could fix the ills of the system made me cringe as I watched. Rhee blames bureaucracy and the central office. This may well be, but where is her evidence beyond a surface-level observation? Where is here quantitative and qualitative evidence to support her claims to truth?

It left me wondering: “Why are reformers always taking a narrow view of what is wrong in schools which leads to narrow views about how it can be fixed.” From a systems theory perspective, there is no cause and effect relationship. These are complex systems where there are micro, meso, and macroeconomic, cultural, psychological, affective, educational, and many other issues that need to be identified before they can be addressed. The unions are an easy  target because they slow an administrators desire to implement solutions quickly without real analysis to determine whether it can really work. It also means they have to work with others to reach a consensus on an approach that respects teacher knowledge. It slows things down, which is death for many administrators because they are rarely given sufficient time to make meaningful changes. In addition, any changes they do make could take 5, 10, 15, or 20 years to really have an impact on the system. There is no real systems thinking happening in this video, though they do start to get to the idea of conflicting standards; however, there is no real discussion or understanding of WHY there are conflicts.

The perspective in the film seems to always come from non-teachers. It makes it easy to view teachers and administrators as the enemy. Further, it allows politicians to demonize teachers and unions as the root cause of the problem. They do not follow the teachers and show their side; instead, they show the horrible system and its impact on the kids and parents who have kids that do not get into charter schools. This allow sets the charter schools as “Superman,” a panacea that can save us all from horrible public education systems. It further sets up a dismantling of the existing system and setting up of private sector schools by those who would financially benefit  from such a new system. Where is the discussion of community, business, cultural, and other impacts that influence teachers, teaching, learning, and the systems in which this film takes place?

They note a definition of a good teacher vs. a bad teacher in the film. Good teacher covers 150% of content; bad teacher covers 50%. This begins with some assumptions about the model of learning that is best; namely, the acquisition model in which students have information dumped into their brains for later regurgitation. Where is the discussion of whether surface level acquisition is what we want or need for our kids? Where is the critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, and other higher order skills such as analysis and synthesis that our kids need to be able to do in a 21st Century university and later in the workforce?

It also fails to note difference among learners as they come into a classroom. If Johnny comes into my 8th grade English classroom at 7th grade reading level and Bill comes in at 4th grade and I raise both a grade level, that is pretty good. However, I have failed bill because he did not rise to 8th grade level. What about the other factors? What if it takes a whole year to cover 50% because a teacher has a very heterogeneous population with mainstreamed special education, ESL, and gifted students that require different forms of attention, reteaching, and possibly deeper levels of work that are more time consuming?


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