Waiting for "Superman"? - Don't hold your breath

05/20/2011  |  Samuel J. Spitalli

While the documentary “Waiting for Superman” does make some valid observations on the issues challenging American education today, it fails largely under the weight of its own kryptonite:  that there is a crisis in public education.  Believing in the myth of a crisis in education is kind of like believing in the man of steel himself, only in reverse—Superman can do nothing wrong, just as public schools and teachers can’t do anything right.  If you suspend your disbelief, then every fallacy in the film (and there are many) can seem plausible, but Davis Guggenheim’s documentary bombs on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to start.  Let’s put it this way: if the film were entered into evidence in a court of law as proof of the collapse of American public education, the court would either dismiss it outright, or a jury would render a not-guilty verdict on all counts.
"Don't wait for Superman to come to the rescue; look in the mirror. We need to understand that it is not just the schools and teachers that are accountable for student performance."

National Feeding Frenzy

“Superman” is not fully to blame for this myth, that there is a crisis in public education, but it does a good job to sustain it at the peak of a national feeding frenzy on schooling in which everyone seems to have an opinion, whether they have any informed or enlightened bases for their views or not.  Politicos, talking heads, economists, corporate managers, and others are all coming from the same apparent place; since they went to school, they are as qualified as anyone else to say what they want about how to “fix education,” to quote a “Superman” term.  That makes about as much sense as saying that if you have flown in an airplane a few times, you should at least be able to advise the pilot on your next flight on how to land the plane safely, because he probably doesn’t already know that.

To be sure, teaching is the hardest job there is, yet there is sentiment in the air that teaching is easy, a part-time job as some call it.  “Superman” only perpetuates the criticism of public schools and public school teachers and underscores the notion that America does not hold teachers in very high esteem as they are in other countries. Teachers are understandably fed up with constant attacks on them and their profession.  If teaching is the most important profession in our country, as I believe it is, in terms of the profound impact that it has on our future, then we as a nation are not doing much to encourage the best and brightest to enter and/or stay in the field. 

The Magic Bullet

The national discussion now is tying teacher pay and evaluations to test scores, legislating merit pay, and eliminating tenure.  Merit pay has yet to be proven to have any effect on student achievement at all. In a study completed by the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University, offering teacher bonuses failed to raise students’ test scores.  If only it were that simple!  And, merit pay in education is far from new.  In my own personal experience with it as a former English teacher, I found that it had no effect on me whatsoever because I was already committed to being the best that I could be.  Teachers do not work for those kinds of incentives. What I did discover, though, was that it caused bad morale among the teaching ranks pitting teachers against teachers—“the have’s and have not’s.” 

New Law  in Town

There is a trend toward hiring high-level administrators with little or no background in education or experience in running a complex school system. Michelle Rhee, the controversial former chancellor of the D.C. public schools featured in the film, proclaims that the school system lacks accountability and results for students. Rhee states that she taught for three years and was never a principal before becoming chancellor of a school district beset by challenges. She proclaims, “I am not a career superintendent.” Based upon her own previous experience, she is convinced that getting strong teachers in classrooms, and getting rid of bad ones, will level the playing field for disadvantaged students. While excoriating schools and teachers, and especially teachers’ unions, Rhee closed 20 plus underperforming schools and fired scores of teachers and principals.  Her feelings are clear in the film that school bureaucracies are top heavy and teachers’ unions and teacher tenure protect bad teachers to the detriment of kids.  She is presented as calm, cool, and fast on the draw—sort of like an Eliot Ness hired gun coming to town to crush graft and corruption in the name of incompetent teachers and complacent principals.  Rhee might have been right about the schools lacking in accountability and not being results-driven, but it is not clear what she actually did to improve schools in D.C. or improve student performance during her three-year stint.  I guess someday we’ll find out.  In the meantime, if I were a sports writer, I’d have to score her performance as three and out. 

Teachers’ Unions to Blame

The erroneous prevailing message in “Superman” is that the public school system has failed to provide children with quality education and that its failure constitutes a crisis.  The film builds its sharpest criticism against teachers’ unions and teacher tenure as the causes of our alleged mediocrity and the biggest obstacles to educational reform.   The film bemoans the virtual impossibility of firing tenured teachers and relates in cartoon fashion a phenomenon in Milwaukee called “dance of the lemons” where principals trade their lemon teachers for other lemons because they claim they can’t be terminated. 
Tenure varies from state to state, but it is granted to teachers following a defined probationary period. Tenure laws, which were originally intended to protect teachers from arbitrary dismissals, follow strict termination and due process requirements.  Tenure laws are not intended to prevent dismissal of incompetent teachers, as “Superman” wants us to believe.  Once teachers are granted tenure, they can be dismissed for specific reasons only, as provided by statute, such as incompetence, insubordination, or moral misconduct

Tenure Not a Life-Time Job Guarantee

I will concede that it is not easy to dismiss a tenured teacher, having been involved in two major proceedings while serving as a former administrator; however, contrary to what “Superman” wants you to think, it is not impossible. It takes a lot of often thankless work, courage, and commitment on the part of many people, including the Board of Education.  To say that it is stressful is an understatement.  It can also be very costly in legal fees; yet retaining a bad teacher can also be costly and destructive to students, to staff, to morale, and to the administrative functioning of the school itself.  Among other things, the process requires administrators and supervisors to provide detailed and comprehensive documentation of the teacher’s shortcomings, along with evidence that a plan was provided for the teacher to improve with ample assistance and an appropriate amount of time to demonstrate improvement and correction of deficiencies.  Proponents of the elimination of tenure argue that the process to dismiss a bad teacher should not be so arduous or daunting, and there is a certain amount of validity in that belief.  Just ask anyone who has ever participated in teacher dismissals. Ironically, in one of the teacher dismissal proceedings in which I was involved, the teachers’ union was only minimally involved. 

I have never been a fan of teachers’ unions, even when I was in one as a former teacher, because they absolutely do protect weak teachers and defend them—wrong, right, or indifferent.  Unionism can also be hostile and combative by creating an “us versus them” climate, which can be divisive and counterproductive to educating children.  However, “Superman” takes a simplistic view in scapegoating teachers’ unions for the failings of the American school system. The film also contends that the teaching profession expels a disproportionately low number of its own compared to other professions, such as in law and medicine. It could be because so many teachers quit on their own before their fifth year for various reasons, not the least of which are pitiful salaries, a lack of support, and public disrespect for their profession, rather than the unions’ coddling of teachers. 

Good Schools/Bad Schools

“Waiting for Superman” is one-dimensional in another important way.  It presents two options for parents to consider when sending their kids to school.  One is a failing public school; the other is a highly successful private or charter school.  What is glaringly omitted, though, is the reality that outstanding public schools and their exemplary teachers and principals actually do exist in abundance, yet none are featured.  The film follows five highly motivated children across the country in their quest for quality schooling in charter schools that hold lotteries to determine who is admitted.  Their parents (and one grandparent) are involved in their children’s lives and schooling and work hard for the benefit of their children’s future.  What is also conspicuously absent from this scenario, obviously, is the truth that not all charter schools are as successful as the exclusive ones presented in the film. Not all kids are highly motivated, nor are all parents supportive of them or proactive in their parenting skills.  Whereas the exclusive charter schools depicted in the film select students by luck of the draw from among already motivated students with caring parents, public schools accept all students equally whatever their strengths or weaknesses.  So, the viewer, then, is led to believe that there are basically only two educational options: failing public schools or successful charter schools. 

American vs. International Student Performance

As further evidence of the failure of American public schools, “Superman” shows how poorly American students compare in mathematics and reading scores with their global counterparts.  It’s hard to challenge those scores, yet the comparisons do not take into consideration that other variables may account for the disparity in test scores, such as differing societal values and mores, the extent of poverty, crime, troubled homes, drugs, dysfunctional parenting, teachers’ salaries and the reverence, or lack thereof, for teachers and the profession.  American society is what it is, and it is fundamentally different in many respects than Japan, Korea, Finland, or other countries that support education, rather than demonize it. 

What is disturbing about the constant slamming of teachers and the public schools is that it is infectious. In his State of the Union address on January 25, 2011, President Obama reflected those sentiments: “Let’s also remember that after parents, the biggest impact on a child’s success comes from the man or woman in front of the classroom. In South Korea, teachers are known as ‘nation builders.’  Here in America, it’s time we treated people who educate our children with the same level of respect.”

Yes, there are bad schools and pathetic teachers, and I have no interest in defending them.  Even one inept teacher in a school is too many because of the negative impact on students’ growth and development. However, to say that our educational system is broken and in a state of crisis is a gross oversimplification of the facts.  “Superman” contends that what works is what we have already known: high expectations, good teachers, real accountability, community support, etc.  The educational community will debate the notion that a good teacher can off-set the impact of foster care, unemployment, poverty, crime, and poor parenting.  There is no doubt that a strong teacher in front of the room makes a difference, yet the jury is still out on the whether or not an exceptional teacher can reverse the harsh truth that poverty does matter when students go home.  No one ever said that disadvantaged kids can’t learn, yet history has shown they will be handicapped to some extent before they even come to school. 

The Role of Parenting

Again, in his State of Union address, President Obama stressed a fundamental and essential role for parents in educating children, which could have been a centerpiece in “Waiting for Superman”:  “And so the question is whether all of us—as citizens, and as parents—are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.
“That responsibility begins not in our classrooms, but in our homes and communities.  It’s family that first instills the love of learning in a child.  Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done.  We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.  We need to teach them that success is not function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline.”

The President could not have been more cogent in his remarks on the responsibility of the family in giving every child a chance to succeed, and that is the most disappointing concept omitted in “Waiting for Superman.”  Learning does not begin and end  at the classroom door. The solution to educating children more effectively will never be more tests, merit pay, removal of tenure and teachers’ unions, or any other quick fix.  What we need to acknowledge is that the family plays a substantial role in their children’s learning. Parents can do much to encourage their children to value their education and respect their teachers; teach them the value of hard work and effort; ensure that they attend school every day; monitor their dress, their behavior, and their friends; teach them civility; follow up on their progress; limit electronics such as TV, cell phones, and Internet social networking; encourage reading and provide stimulating reading materials in the home; take family outings to public libraries, museums, and art shows; model responsible adult behavior; and support their teachers and schools in their efforts to make every day count. 

We all share accountability

In other words, don’t wait for Superman to come to the rescue; look in the mirror. We need to understand that it is not just the schools and teachers that are accountable for student performance.  American education is a reflection of our society.  There may be many factors in our society that are simultaneously contributing to low-performing schools and poor student performance, and the shortcomings of those schools could be one reason—not the only reason.  High crime rates in some areas, the availability of weapons, drug use, gang activity, and bullying all contribute to an atmosphere of fear.  Fear is counterproductive to learning and a cause of poor attendance.  We are also dealing with a loss of civility in our society, and that certainly makes its way into the classroom and exacerbates teachers’ ability to teach effectively. The disintegration of the nuclear family places additional strain on a single parent household, especially in the context of an intractable economy, and complicates family-school relationships. If we place a premium on the value of American education, then we all share a piece of the accountability pie because, ultimately, we all benefit from it. 

It is too easy to blame teachers for factors over which they have no control.  When they are at the front of the classroom, we have every right to expect them to be at the top of their game—no excuses.  Yet, we have a responsibility to ensure that they have all the resources they need to help our children learn and are paid to reflect our respect for their profession and our trust in them for caring for children. It is appalling in this day and age that teachers routinely run out classroom supplies early in the school year and, out of necessity and concern for their children, purchase additional materials out of their own already meager salaries. 

When I say that we all share accountability for student performance, I am including not only parents, but also state legislatures, state boards of education, and other elected officials.  It is unconscionable, for example, to cut per pupil expenditures or legislate unfunded mandates on one hand and demand more results on the other. Sharing accountability involves sharing affirmative support, yet we continue to place unreasonable demands on public schools and teachers with little or no public support.

Although “Waiting for Superman” had no suggestions for improving education, I offer these:

1. Pay teachers what they deserve in order to attract and retain exemplary teachers.
2. Support public schools and teachers.
3. Shift the emphasis of closing schools and firing teachers to helping them. 
4. Reduce the over-emphasis on high-stakes testing; instead, evaluate the quality and content of the curriculum and prepare students to think, to reason, and to become responsible citizens.  Higher test scores alone do not equate to a better education or better teaching.
5. Improve working conditions, and provide teachers with ample materials and supplies.
6. Emphasize mentoring and induction programs for new teachers.
7. Assess and/or improve supervision and evaluation of teachers, particularly during the 1st three to five years along with close administrative support.
8. Increase emphasis on school-parent partnership with focus on how parents can help their children succeed in school.
9. Expand accountability for student success beyond the schoolhouse, including state legislatures, state boards of education, and other elected officials.
10. Recognize, expand upon, and share what we are already doing well, particularly from schools recognized by the United States Department of Education as Blue Ribbon Schools.

In closing, I’d like to leave the reader with the kind of sentiment that I believe America needs to cultivate, rather than the attitudes presented in “Waiting for Superman”:

“In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something less, because passing civilization along from one generation to the next ought to be the highest honor and the highest responsibility anyone could have.”
        -Lee Iacocca
Samuel Spitalli is an adjunct professor at the Institute of Teacher Education, Teacher Certification Program, Palm Beach State College where he teaches courses in Classroom Management. He was previously a director, assistant principal, and English teacher at Township High School District 211 in Palatine, Illinois. He can be reached at [email protected].
Comments & Ratings

  12/17/2012 8:02:50 AM

New Comment 
I disagree with some of your arguments here; Waiting For Superman did mention the importance of good parenting, but also showed how helpless some parents are with regards to teaching their children as they did not get a good education themselves.

While values are different from most of the International community, they're similar to those with normal, mediocre schooling such as Canada and Great Britain. The fact that america doesn't come anywhere near them is very indicative of essential teaching practises, not values.