Waiting for the Superman Who Will Never Arrive

Movies about education, especially documentaries lacking any star power, are unlikely blockbuster hits. Waiting for "Superman," directed by Davis Guggenheim of An Inconvenient Truth fame (and Obama's 2008 Democratic presidential convention bio-flick), has changed everything. The film, a top award-winner at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, premiered on October 1, 2010 and is now in theaters everywhere. It has generated enormous chatter, mainly positive, across the ideological spectrum (see here). Conceivably, Superman will do for education reform what Inconvenient Truth did for global warming: whip up public discussion of a complicated topic into an orgy of half-truths, outright falsifications, clichés, and misdirected "solutions."  

Like any effective, emotion-driven film, Superman artfully reduces murky reality to a good-versus-bad morality play. Guggenheim tracks five families with "unforgettable" children of varying ages, most with disadvantaged backgrounds (one is white) but with education-minded parents, searching for the institution permitting them to escape their dysfunctional public school. The film ends with the children entering charter school lotteries, where it is implied that winners will excel. The political message is unambiguous: why permit only a few lucky kids to escape horrific schools? Every American kid deserves better, so abolish barrier-like lotteries and make good schools universal. One can recall similar heartbreaking tales of life-saving miracle drugs given to the rich while the equally deserving hoi polloi die. With close-up shots of the quiet desperation on the faces of kids and parents awaiting lottery results, one National Education Writers Association commentator even admitted tearing up at the end.

Superficially Waiting for "Superman" seemingly embraces a moderate conservative view of education reform. Quibbles about the uncertain value of charter schools aside, charters here are clearly the heroes, and public schools the villains (for charter school successes, see here). And while Guggenheim insists that the film is not anti-union, a viewer cannot help but sense that teachers' unions and heavy-handed school bureaucracies are the kid-crushing evildoers. But Superman also cheers up liberals -- problems that have for decades bedeviled the underclass, from poverty to race-related gaps in academic achievement, are curable if we wisely spend a few billion more. A few tears aside, this is a feel-good movie whose message will, it is hoped, inspire all Americans to help millions of "unforgettable" knowledge-hungry kids be all they can be.

This dangerous fantasy will exacerbate an already troubled situation. Underlying Superman is the unarticulated (perhaps unspeakable) proposition that students themselves have nothing to do with "bad schools." One can only wonder how many candidates Guggenheim interviewed before uncovering these five cinematic educationally goal-oriented kids with dedicated mothers. Even then, how many of them will endure the necessary tedium and hard work over twelve or sixteen years? My guess is that charter schools are largely a silver-bullet hope among today's public school strugglers, not the golden opportunity to spend years mastering hard lessons. Such selectivity is classic Hollywood manipulation, today's version of the rags-to-riches saga.

Moreover, it is as if the evil, bad public schools were initially constructed with graffiti, had architecture inadvertently conducive to mayhem, and were staffed by teachers disdaining innocent, knowledge-craving students. But inoperable equipment, tattered or missing textbooks, overflowing toilets, and similar "bad school" conditions do not mysteriously appear: students, bad students, are responsible. Truth be told, talented teachers rationally flee perilous settings, and to insist that schools underperform because they have "bad teachers" is but a duplicitous way of admitting that rambunctious students can drive out frustrated skilled teachers enjoying flight options. Allegedly dedicated students are not "victimized" by lifeless objects. It is no wonder that teachers reasonably object to Superman -- they are being convicted sans a trial (see here). 

To be blunt, student insufficiency creates "bad schools." Repeatedly, "bad schools" have "mysteriously" become "good" when disruptive, anti-intellectual students are replaced by educationally determined immigrants, many dirt-poor, from China, Vietnam, India, and Russia, while everything else, including "rotten teachers" and their supposedly self-serving unions, remains unchanged. Indeed, the opposite is far more common -- schools suddenly going "bad" as lower-class, anti-intellectual kids, predominantly (but not exclusively) African Americans and Hispanics, dominate the school. This is the Great Inconvenient Truth of American education: students, their abilities, and their motivations define a quality school, not the school legal authority or source of funding. Perhaps Mr. Guggenheim will film a sequel -- Students Gone Wild.

So what would happen if, thanks to Superman, armies of kids fleeing bad schools now flood orderly, achievement-oriented schools, just as Guggenheim hopes? The answer is disaster, since they will bring their bad habits with them regardless of stellar environments. The appropriate parallel is public housing: extricate residents from wretched slums, relocate them to pristine buildings, and, guaranteed, they will reproduce slum conditions. Now, tear down these housing disasters since, the experts tell us, they, not the residents, instigate the pathologies, and again relocate the residents to nice neighborhoods, and what happens?  Surprise of surprises -- the pathologies quickly reappear.   

Guggenheim and the sundry movie critic "experts" praising Superman are undoubtedly well-intentioned. Yet without altering the underlying bad academic habits, without encouraging traits like tenacity in the face of repeated failure and an ability to sit quietly, Superman ensures an educational catastrophe. This pattern has been ubiquitous in countless American cities, where court-ordered busing quickly transformed "good schools" into "bad schools" as student demography shifted. Many troubled schools systems -- e.g., Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and Detroit -- resulted from a social engineering philosophy convinced that African-American youngsters would thrive academically if only allowed to enroll in decent "white" schools. The well-known upshot, of course, was that nearly the entire system became "bad."

Not only will a bad student remain academically troubled when relocating to a "good school," but this fantasy imposes huge opportunity costs by obscuring the underlying tribulations. Now, rather than exhort lagging students to study harder, listen to their teachers, and complete homework assignments, advocates of Superman will instead misinform students by suggesting that a first-class education will mysteriously materialize if students can somehow manage to attend a "good school." This mentality was illustrated in 2008, when Chicago civil rights leader James Meeks brought thousands of inner-city black students to Winnetka, IL and tried to enroll them in New Trier HS, one of the state's premier academic (and largely white) institutions. Meeks seemed oblivious to the awkward reality that nearly all these unprepared students would derive little from New Trier's tough academics.   

Lastly, and most critically, Superman helps reinforce a jumbled blend of Marxist environmental determinism with a healthy dollop of airhead Rousseau that currently subverts American education. The film portrays youngsters as naturally inclined toward schooling and, per Marxism, as malleable clay in enlightened state hands. That millions steadfastly refuse to learn and jump ship as early as possible is thus society's fault, to be remediated by government intervention. In fact, the "Superman" reference comes from one charter school operator's quip about Superman rescuing troubled students.

This is a toxic vision, celebrating personal irresponsibility, and it profoundly misreads human nature. Its current pervasiveness undoubtedly explains more of our educational travails than teacher unions, "bad schools," and all else that Guggenheim finds deplorable. Perhaps the film should have been called Who will please, please put knowledge in my head?  

Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science-Emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana. His latest book is Bad Students Not Bad Schoolsbadstudentsnotbadschools.com
Movies about education, especially documentaries lacking any star power, are unlikely blockbuster hits. Waiting for "Superman," directed by Davis Guggenheim of An Inconvenient Truth fame (and Obama's 2008 Democratic presidential convention bio-flick), has changed everything. The film, a top award-winner at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, premiered on October 1, 2010 and is now in theaters everywhere. It has generated enormous chatter, mainly positive, across the ideological spectrum (see here). Conceivably, Superman will do for education reform what Inconvenient Truth did for global warming: whip up public discussion of a complicated topic into an orgy of half-truths, outright falsifications, clichés, and misdirected "solutions."  

Like any effective, emotion-driven film, Superman artfully reduces murky reality to a good-versus-bad morality play. Guggenheim tracks five families with "unforgettable" children of varying ages, most with disadvantaged backgrounds (one is white) but with education-minded parents, searching for the institution permitting them to escape their dysfunctional public school. The film ends with the children entering charter school lotteries, where it is implied that winners will excel. The political message is unambiguous: why permit only a few lucky kids to escape horrific schools? Every American kid deserves better, so abolish barrier-like lotteries and make good schools universal. One can recall similar heartbreaking tales of life-saving miracle drugs given to the rich while the equally deserving hoi polloi die. With close-up shots of the quiet desperation on the faces of kids and parents awaiting lottery results, one National Education Writers Association commentator even admitted tearing up at the end.

Superficially Waiting for "Superman" seemingly embraces a moderate conservative view of education reform. Quibbles about the uncertain value of charter schools aside, charters here are clearly the heroes, and public schools the villains (for charter school successes, see here). And while Guggenheim insists that the film is not anti-union, a viewer cannot help but sense that teachers' unions and heavy-handed school bureaucracies are the kid-crushing evildoers. But Superman also cheers up liberals -- problems that have for decades bedeviled the underclass, from poverty to race-related gaps in academic achievement, are curable if we wisely spend a few billion more. A few tears aside, this is a feel-good movie whose message will, it is hoped, inspire all Americans to help millions of "unforgettable" knowledge-hungry kids be all they can be.

This dangerous fantasy will exacerbate an already troubled situation. Underlying Superman is the unarticulated (perhaps unspeakable) proposition that students themselves have nothing to do with "bad schools." One can only wonder how many candidates Guggenheim interviewed before uncovering these five cinematic educationally goal-oriented kids with dedicated mothers. Even then, how many of them will endure the necessary tedium and hard work over twelve or sixteen years? My guess is that charter schools are largely a silver-bullet hope among today's public school strugglers, not the golden opportunity to spend years mastering hard lessons. Such selectivity is classic Hollywood manipulation, today's version of the rags-to-riches saga.

Moreover, it is as if the evil, bad public schools were initially constructed with graffiti, had architecture inadvertently conducive to mayhem, and were staffed by teachers disdaining innocent, knowledge-craving students. But inoperable equipment, tattered or missing textbooks, overflowing toilets, and similar "bad school" conditions do not mysteriously appear: students, bad students, are responsible. Truth be told, talented teachers rationally flee perilous settings, and to insist that schools underperform because they have "bad teachers" is but a duplicitous way of admitting that rambunctious students can drive out frustrated skilled teachers enjoying flight options. Allegedly dedicated students are not "victimized" by lifeless objects. It is no wonder that teachers reasonably object to Superman -- they are being convicted sans a trial (see here). 

To be blunt, student insufficiency creates "bad schools." Repeatedly, "bad schools" have "mysteriously" become "good" when disruptive, anti-intellectual students are replaced by educationally determined immigrants, many dirt-poor, from China, Vietnam, India, and Russia, while everything else, including "rotten teachers" and their supposedly self-serving unions, remains unchanged. Indeed, the opposite is far more common -- schools suddenly going "bad" as lower-class, anti-intellectual kids, predominantly (but not exclusively) African Americans and Hispanics, dominate the school. This is the Great Inconvenient Truth of American education: students, their abilities, and their motivations define a quality school, not the school legal authority or source of funding. Perhaps Mr. Guggenheim will film a sequel -- Students Gone Wild.

So what would happen if, thanks to Superman, armies of kids fleeing bad schools now flood orderly, achievement-oriented schools, just as Guggenheim hopes? The answer is disaster, since they will bring their bad habits with them regardless of stellar environments. The appropriate parallel is public housing: extricate residents from wretched slums, relocate them to pristine buildings, and, guaranteed, they will reproduce slum conditions. Now, tear down these housing disasters since, the experts tell us, they, not the residents, instigate the pathologies, and again relocate the residents to nice neighborhoods, and what happens?  Surprise of surprises -- the pathologies quickly reappear.   

Guggenheim and the sundry movie critic "experts" praising Superman are undoubtedly well-intentioned. Yet without altering the underlying bad academic habits, without encouraging traits like tenacity in the face of repeated failure and an ability to sit quietly, Superman ensures an educational catastrophe. This pattern has been ubiquitous in countless American cities, where court-ordered busing quickly transformed "good schools" into "bad schools" as student demography shifted. Many troubled schools systems -- e.g., Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and Detroit -- resulted from a social engineering philosophy convinced that African-American youngsters would thrive academically if only allowed to enroll in decent "white" schools. The well-known upshot, of course, was that nearly the entire system became "bad."

Not only will a bad student remain academically troubled when relocating to a "good school," but this fantasy imposes huge opportunity costs by obscuring the underlying tribulations. Now, rather than exhort lagging students to study harder, listen to their teachers, and complete homework assignments, advocates of Superman will instead misinform students by suggesting that a first-class education will mysteriously materialize if students can somehow manage to attend a "good school." This mentality was illustrated in 2008, when Chicago civil rights leader James Meeks brought thousands of inner-city black students to Winnetka, IL and tried to enroll them in New Trier HS, one of the state's premier academic (and largely white) institutions. Meeks seemed oblivious to the awkward reality that nearly all these unprepared students would derive little from New Trier's tough academics.   

Lastly, and most critically, Superman helps reinforce a jumbled blend of Marxist environmental determinism with a healthy dollop of airhead Rousseau that currently subverts American education. The film portrays youngsters as naturally inclined toward schooling and, per Marxism, as malleable clay in enlightened state hands. That millions steadfastly refuse to learn and jump ship as early as possible is thus society's fault, to be remediated by government intervention. In fact, the "Superman" reference comes from one charter school operator's quip about Superman rescuing troubled students.

This is a toxic vision, celebrating personal irresponsibility, and it profoundly misreads human nature. Its current pervasiveness undoubtedly explains more of our educational travails than teacher unions, "bad schools," and all else that Guggenheim finds deplorable. Perhaps the film should have been called Who will please, please put knowledge in my head?  

Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science-Emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana. His latest book is Bad Students Not Bad Schoolsbadstudentsnotbadschools.com

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