Friday, October 1, 2010

Backlash: Critics see problems with Superman

Waiting for Superman, the current darling of the talk show circuit, passionately advocates for children but unfairly trashes public school teachers as it paints a simplistic, black-and-white picture of the state of public education in America today.

The film rehashes some predictable right-wing talking points, blaming teacher unions for protecting "bad teachers" and making overinflated claims for charter schools as the way to salvage public education. If the documentary has a villain, it is American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.

But if Superman is guilty of promoting erroneous dogma, it also opens the debate and provides an opportunity for public education to defend itself against detractors, as the AFT has done in its Not Waiting for Superman Web site. Here one can find examples of the many public schools and teachers who have great success stories to share.

Fortunately, reviewers are noticing some of the documentary's shortcomings. National Public Radio's Claudio Sanchez notes in this article that the film's "blistering attack on teachers' unions is unfair and counterproductive."

Sanchez gives Weingarten a forum to say, "the fact that the movie does not portray one great public school, does not portray one great public school teacher," calls the film's credibility into question.

Even more critical of Superman is this article in The Nation by Dana Goldstein, who calls it "a "moving but vastly oversimplified brief on American educational inequality."

Goldstein points out that, while the film portrays charter schools as the best solution for poorly performing schools, it ignores "the four out of five charters that are no better, on average, than traditional neighborhood public schools (and are sometimes much worse)..."

Neither does Superman acknowledge "the millions of children who never have a chance to enter a charter school lottery (or get help with their homework or a nice breakfast) because adults simply aren't engaged in their education. These children, of course, are often the ones who are most difficult to educate, and the ones neighborhood public schools can't turn away."

Goldstein doesn't let the movie get away with blaming unionism for the ills of public education:

(I)n the Finnish education system, much cited in the film as the best in the
world, teachers are—gasp!—unionized and granted tenure, and families benefit
from a cradle-to-grave social welfare system that includes universal daycare,
preschool and healthcare, all of which are proven to help children
achieve better results at school.

The Nation article also recognizes that, under Weingarten's leadership, AFT is engaged in teacher-driven school reform that includes forging relationships with formerly anti-union advocates such as Bill Gates, who has "embraced (teacher unions) as essential players in the fight for school improvement."

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