The Sunday Review: Waiting for “Superman”: an inspiring companion to the acclaimed film edited by Karl Weber

by Anthony Painter

Tobacco manufacturer, banker, arms dealer, big pharma, big oil, sweat shop multinational, teacher. Waiting for “Superman” finally confronts the latter evil (yes, I’m being ironic.) It’s the latest documentary from Davis Guggenheim, the filmmaker behind An Inconvenient Truth. As he modestly explains in the introduction to this series of essays that accompanies the film:

“The only way we’re going to address this [education] crisis is if these uncomfortable truths are spoken out loud. And the only person who can say is someone independent of the system, like maybe a documentary film-maker”.

So perhaps Davis Guggenheim is Superman? He probably sees himself in that stratum if the above quote is anything to go by. Nonetheless, the Superman in the film’s title doesn’t seem to be Guggenheim. Perhaps it’s Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem children’s zone? This inspirational educational initiative centred around charter schools has transformed the life chances of some of the most deprived kids in New York. The film’s title is taken from Canada:

“One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me that Superman didn’t exist….I was crying because no-one was coming with enough power to save us”.

Unusually for an educationalist, he can be seen on Oprah, in Congress, in the press, on bookshelves, and now in the cinema also. The Harlem children’s zone is incredible: it is a full spectrum intervention to raise educational standards in the ghetto. It includes support for families as well as students, a demanding and rigorous programme, and entry is ruthlessly egalitarian – via a lottery. Canada does merit superhero status. And every superhero needs a villainous adversary.

In Waiting for Superman, that part is played by (weak) teachers and their unions. The narrative is thus: money is pouring into the system, but it’s failing, the gap between the poorest teachers and the best is enormous, but the poor teachers can’t be eliminated from the system, which is because of restrictive practices of the teaching unions, and their political power accumulated through campaign contributions (like big oil, pharma etc…), and it’s the poorest who suffer most. Bad teachers and their unions (and politicians and administrators naturally) are the villains of the piece. Lex Luther-like, you are a threat to America and a threat to the world.

Most people who read superhero comics or watch the movies can distinguish fact from fiction though they may enjoy the odd bit of escapism. And this comic book narrative very quickly collapses once you look behind the sensationalism of the film.

Eric Hanushek of Stanford University tells us in the book that if just six to ten percent of the worst teachers of US public schools schools could be replaced with the average level then US educational performance would match the much vaunted Finnish educational system. Great. But this tells us two things. First, the gap between the US and Finland isn’t actually as enormous as their place in the international league tables suggests – the US is dragged down by a long tail, which is what tends to happen in such unequal and under-taxed societies. But, second, it’s a pretty nonsensical argument: there isn’t a pool of (by my calculation) 400,000 average teachers who are out of work and ready to be deployed. And it’s not the teaching unions who train the teachers.

When we finally meet Lex(a) Luther, in the form of Randi Weingarten, president of the American federation of teachers, she turns out to not be an evil, power crazed enemy of progress at all. In fact, her union has been working extremely constructively to improve teaching performance, bring in more flexible contracts, and agree a sane process of teacher removal. She makes the entirely fair point that while initiatives such as the Harlem children’s zone are remarkable, there are 50 million kids in America’s public schools and scalability matters as much as innovation. She notes that $1 in $3 comes from public funds for the Harlem children’s zone; the rest is from private donations. And Weingarten has a point. In fact, she’s remarkably enlightened. And she’s practical and realistic in a way that Waiting for “Superman” isn’t.

Why does any of this matter from the the UK perspective? It matters because we are having a very similar debate. The government’s “reform” package including free schools is too often sold by people who want to denigrate our existing school system for their own ends. Waiting for “Superman” is already entering the right-wing space here and will become part of our dialogue of educational reform with teachers and the teaching unions in sight.

There will be some successful free schools and some failures (and note that, according to McKinsey, the performance of charter schools is no better and, in fact, slightly worse than the US public school average). The same was true of the academy programme and is true of traditional local authority schools. Innovation and reform are important elements of achieving better educational outcomes and new types of schools – as long as they are based on sound educational and egalitarian principles – are part of the mix. We didn’t discover the perfect education form in the local authority-run neighbourhood school, but nor should that ideal be trashed. Educational reform should be pragmatic, not ideological. And that goes for the left as much as the right: free schools done right may be part of the mix.

Waiting for “Superman” crosses the line from pragmatism to ideology. Much of the British right’s approach to reform does the same thing and in many cases could be even worse: a toxic mix of denigration, self-interest, ideology, exclusivity, faddism, and chaotic change. Ultimately, educational success comes down to leadership, teaching, and the type of full spectrum intervention in which the Harlem children’s zone specialises. That’s costly. Maybe it’s not Superman that we should be waiting for, but Batman – the alter-ego of the mega-wealthy Bruce Wayne. In the meantime, like so many of the reformers who feature in this book, let’s get on with doing the best we can with what we’ve got and not get side-tracked by an ideological attack on public education.

If Davis Guggenheim wanted to confront a silent crisis in education, he has actually succeeded in doing the opposite. The missing 400,000 “average” teachers will be recruited by drawing new people of quality into the profession. This type of denigration of the teaching profession will ultimately act as a barrier to recruiting talent. He will achieve the opposite of what’s he’s set out to achieve. Perhaps the last thing we need is celebrity documentary-makers setting themselves up as superheroes. We just need to get by without Superman – dull but true.

Anthony Painter is co-author with Nick Lowles of the searchlight educational trust report, Fear and Hope: the new politics of identity.

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