“The best teacher is the one who suggests rather than dogmatizes, and inspires his listener with the wish to teach himself.”
—Edward Bulwer-Lytton

The David Guggenheim film Waiting for Superman is about the at-least-somewhat-failing school system in the United States. Indeed, the stats aren’t pretty. Generalizing, the film basically says that more so-called Charter schools are the key—with a longer school year, longer school days and better teachers—and that the teachers union is one of the main problems, and gets in the way of, even blocks, reform—and there is some validity to this. But one could also ask: how much positive reform has the union manifested?

I also had a thought during the film. The union actually is not the problem. Why? Because, for better or worse, the union fights for the teachers, and in many ways do a pretty good job—again, for the teachers. I’m sure the union states some obligation to the students, but aren’t the teachers the crux of their mandate? So what can one expect? The union fight mostly for teachers. Privatization fights mostly for the bottom line.

Maybe the kids need a union. If, say, X doesn’t happen, the kids don’t show up. It would at least push greater democracy in the school system.

Okay, I’m half joking (or am I?). But it’s important to differentiate between the teachers and the kids.

The film made a lot of important points, to be sure, but was for me, nonetheless, a polemic—assuming polemic means one-sided. What do I know with my education? Also, it’s made so smoothly, some may not notice how profoundly one-sided it is. And with such a complex institution—’the education system’—other arguments and ideas are vital. To not have opposing ideas results, ironically, more in propaganda than education.

One thing is sure, the ‘lottery’ at the end, where the kids in a huge auditorium wait to see if they are picked, via this lottery of numbers being called out, to go to some Charter school, is curiously appalling. Not necessarily because of the lottery (though that brings up serious issues, too), but because the kids are there at all, to see it go down, with their tears and longing, and mostly witnessing their own non-acceptance (yet again) like some sort of B-movie drama. It’s cruel. And the fact that that isn’t commented on in the film, negatively, and that the Charter system obviously has insufficient issue with it, says a lot.

Indeed, the ‘lottery’ is the narrative push that drives the film.

This is the trailer:

This article by Diane Ravitch in the New York Review of Books is a really important response to the film, no matter how one feels about the system, or the film.

Ravitch writes:

The propagandistic nature of Waiting for “Superman” is revealed by Guggenheim’s complete indifference to the wide variation among charter schools. There are excellent charter schools, just as there are excellent public schools.

Why did he not also inquire into the charter chains that are mired in unsavory real estate deals, or take his camera to the charters where most students are getting lower scores than those in the neighborhood public schools?

Why did he not report on the charter principals who have been indicted for embezzlement, or the charters that blur the line between church and state? Why did he not look into the charter schools whose leaders are paid $300,000–$400,000 a year to oversee small numbers of schools and students?

Guggenheim seems to believe that teachers alone can overcome the effects of student poverty, even though there are countless studies that demonstrate the link between income and test scores [yet] we should be prepared to believe that able teachers are all it takes to overcome the disadvantages of poverty, homelessness, joblessness, poor nutrition, absent parents, etc.

And this is a super important point to test the logic of the film’s premise:

Guggenheim ignored other clues that might have gotten in the way of a good story. While blasting the teachers’ unions, he points to Finland as a nation whose educational system the US should emulate, not bothering to explain that it has a completely unionized teaching force.

His documentary showers praise on testing and accountability, yet he does not acknowledge that Finland seldom tests its students.

Any Finnish educator will say that Finland improved its public education system not by privatizing its schools or constantly testing its students, but by investing in the preparation, support, and retention of excellent teachers.

It achieved its present eminence not by systematically firing 5–10 percent of its teachers, but by patiently building for the future. Finland has a national curriculum, which is not restricted to the basic skills of reading and math, but includes the arts, sciences, history, foreign languages, and other subjects that are essential to a good, rounded education.

Finland also strengthened its social welfare programs for children and families.

Guggenheim simply ignores the realities of the Finnish system.

And after all of that, I, for what it’s worth, wrote this awhile back about the public school system. I don’t know if it’s true, but I think it’s vital—not only for school, but for the parent-child relationship. It’s also vital, in my opinion, we realize neither corporate privatization nor Big Government are the answers to a problem.

Being engaged, in relationship, with our kids, positively, more than we were yesterday, by personal choice, trying to expand the way they perceive the world, is almost certainly the key:

There are often serious complaints about the current public school system in the States and Canada. Many of these concerns are likely valid—but one should remind themselves—in a remarkably difficult situation. I say difficult, because the functions of schools are wide and disparate: educating, baby-sitting and many philosophical theories—according to some, from socializing to indoctrination to deference to authority in a non-democractic system (just throwing them out there).

I have friends, however, who have kids who have had, if not perfect experiences in the public school system, positively maximized experiences in the public school system.

What was the key, in my opinion? Indeed, in their opinion?

Smart and engaged parents who were (and are) deeply involved in their kids’ public school journey and, more importantly, their learning and curiosity—helping with homework, encouraging them to take advantage of all the extras (and there are many surprising extras), which include the obvious, like sports and drama, but also opportunities to travel, language exchanges etc. Of course, some schools offer more than others, and some parents can offer and/or afford a lot more than others.

But my point is, the key is and was, parental involvement, engagement, and a nurturing of the desire to learn, the desire to be curious—both of which are inherent in the human experience, like the ‘organ’ of universal grammar. Given the chance, generally speaking, these skills/desires will flourish.

This should also mean encouraging the questioning of dogma, media, cultural norms and authority, among other things.

Here’s to continuing education for one’s entire life, with love, joy, and curiosity,

Pete xo


6 Responses to “WAITING FOR SUPERMAN: Scoring Schooling”

  1. Karen says:

    Hi Pete,

    I’ve yet to see the film, but have heard wildly opposing reviews. Being so closely involved with education for so long, I do feel that the educational system here in the United States is badly failing our children, even in schools considered “good.”

    I believe we need to teach our children less how to pass standardized tests (a rather poor indicator of an individual teacher’s ability), and more how to move from being taught as children to teaching themselves for the rest of their lives. Teaching to the test will not get our students to this point.

    You are very correct in that parental involvement is key to children’s success, but in doing so shouldn’t we keep in mind our children learn best from what they see, not what they are told? Perhaps reading to them isn’t enough, but we also need to read in front of them. Nothing goes further to instill a passion for a lifelong love of learning as watching adults having a lifelong love affair with learning. Parents who ask “why” and “how can we affect it” raise children who will do the same.

    Perhaps we shouldn’t so much try to teach our children how to learn, but show them how we learn. Help their teachers to have the freedom and resources to teach them the basics. Then together we should help our children see the ability to succeed at learning is within them, and not quite so reliant on educational systems.

    Love to you and those you love,

  2. Love it! You expanded my sentiments with a crucial point:

    Perhaps we shouldn’t so much try to teach our children how to learn, but show them how we learn.

    Indeed, if the parents aren’t curious about learning, hopefully relentlessly curious, what chance the children?

    Pete xo

  3. Starting salary for a primary teacher in Finland is $18k.

    US is among the top spenders per student in the world on education:


    When a charter school screws up, it costs parents nothing to change to another one, and it gets closed.

    The big difference between Finland and the US may be the students more than the teachers.

  4. Hey Ry,

    $18K. Wow. I couldn’t find Finland on the link you added (no doubt insufficient education). I couldn’t help but wonder what $18k means in Finland. Hardly incentive. It’s brutal here to live on that little, I would imagine. It’s a difficult world all round. We’ll see what happens.


  5. Katie says:

    I am a teacher and a passionate teacher. Watching that trailer reduced my hard core to tears. I actually do not know if I could watch that movie. Seeing kids that want to learn and not having the opportunity to have a shot at a decent education is heartbreaking but more than that morally wrong. You are so right that the concept of not fitting in or getting what other kids get would just get reinforced. The idea that “good luck” is for other people is a terrible way to think. Kids like that lose the concept that their actions control a big part of their future. Parent support and involvement is more critical that people realize. A lot of parents want to be involved but their own chaotic lives and personal lack of education really prevents them from making a difference. We now that so we need to stop harping on that and find ways to overcome that pitfall. In school tutoring is a good way to help that problem. I know there are merits for unions but in my experience they do not help students or schools run a good program. I do not have enough time to explain the craziness of hiring solely on seniority—it is insulting to everyone. One example recently, a teacher goes on sick leave followed by a variety of subs then someone takes the job, now the teacher decides to take the rest of the year off, now the job has to be posted differently, so the teacher that was in doing a great job gets out and a very pregnant teacher gets the job (I am sure she is a good teacher too). She will be leaving in April to have the baby, of course, and then the job gets re-posted for another new teacher! This happens ALL the time. Those kids have wasted 1 year of learning—mind boggling. This would not happen in the other industries. Yes the sick teacher and the pregnant teacher are protected but at what cost to 200 students? Lots of things to think about.

  6. Great comments. Thanks. Unions certainly have to find ways to do and be what they originally were—a highly engaged movement of the rank and file, the workers. When this is lost, we have more bureaucracy, with its inherent self-interest. At some point, to engage a rank and file will decrease a bureaucracies’ self-interest, and union bureaucracy, like corporative bureaucracy and government bureaucracy, is its own enlargening, constipated animal. E.F. Schumacher may have ben onto something when he said Small Is Beautiful. However, a small union could barely get a hearing, let alone rights and dignity, against most massive multinational corporations, so what to do? We see the extreme and true nature of corporations by how they ‘behave’ in countries with limited legislation, let alone unions. So often, the answer is: appallingly.

    The fight will continue. May we all be bigger inside, in a smaller sort of way,


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