Waiting for “Superman”

[Screenshot]“Superman” claims to be out to explore what’s wrong with our educational system. I can’t help but think that it came to the table with some fairly strong preconceptions on this point. Some of those preconceptions are right, but others seem a bit like oversimplifications. Among the attitudes laid out fairly transparently: charter schools, especially KIPP schools, are good because they provide opportunities transcending economic class, teachers’ unions are bad because they protect incompetents and promote stasis, lotteries are extra-bad because they put children’s futures up to dumb luck, and funding isn’t actually the problem. Oh, and Michelle Rhee is sent down from heaven to save the Washington, DC public school system (that one clearly didn’t work out quite as well as the filmmakers had hoped, but I think we were all optimistic about Michelle Rhee).

I have my own take on these ideas, of course, mostly sympathetic to the views of this film, but not entirely in accord with them. It’s worth noting that purely from a craftsmanship point of view, this is an effective documentary; it’s a convincing advocate making good use of emotional connections, presenting the focus children and their parents sympathetically and wringing every last bit of tension possible out of the various lotteries (and cementing the notion that the lotteries are a particularly cruel way to choose students for the sought-after advanced programs). While watching the film, it’s pretty easy to believe that the solutions it suggests are the best, and it presents its information in a very convincing form (although the little cartoons seem a bit distracting and patronizing).

For my own part, I have the luxury of seeing our pre-college education system from the outside, and being dubious about its fixability and the nature of solutions. I had some contact with a quite good charter school in San Diego, so the idea that a charter school will generally outperform a public school isn’t wholly alien to me. I know little about the specifics of teachers’ unions, but I can well believe they promote stasis. With those premises I can more or less get on board, but I’m not sure where we go from there. The filmmakers seem to believe that the systems that work need to be expanded, which wouldn’t be a bad idea, but where do the resources to do so come from? Ultimately the problems with public schools come down to manpower, finding people who are passionate about teaching and competent to share their knowledge. The problem isn’t so much (as the “lemon” cartoon and voiceover claims) that bad teachers are perpetuated within the system, but that there aren’t enough good teachers to replace them, which seems the obvious problem with expanding charter schools and suchlike programs: eventually you’re going to end up filling teaching positions with the same kind of people as those who make our current system mediocre. “Superman” never addresses this concern, but there’s a lot wrong with education, and anyone who expects to get it all worked out in less than 2 hours of film is fooling themselves.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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