As Bushes to politics and Barrymores to theater, the adults in my family were drawn to the public schools. Both of my parents, as well as several aunts, uncles and older cousins, were public school teachers.
I even trained to be an English teacher myself, until I realized the job involved spending a good part of one’s day with teenagers. Still, my experience as a student teacher taught me that incompetent teachers are about as hard to fire as an old rifle. One of the teachers in the English department did literally nothing but assign pages for his students to read while he did crossword puzzles or napped at his desk, but when the other teachers in the department tried to have him removed, they met with fierce opposition from the local teachers union.
That teachers unions protect incompetent teachers is perhaps the most credible message in the movie “Waiting for Superman,” a movie that unabashedly advocates for school choice and the charter school model. The film pulls at the heartstrings of viewers, manipulating them into rooting for five precociously adorable children to be rescued from their evil neighborhood public schools by one of the heroic charter schools to which these students and their parents have pinned their entire future.
If that premise sounds hyperbolic, well… you’re right. In the movie “Waiting for Superman,” the public schools are the McDonald’s to the charter schools’ fancy steak house – a cheap hamburger compared to the latter’s filet mignon. The problem with this premise is that it gives short shrift to most public school teachers, the majority of whom make incredible personal and financial sacrifices to help disadvantaged students – only to become the target of public scorn.
To be fair, “Waiting for Superman” points out that if only the small percentage of incompetent teachers were fired, our country’s public schools would be as good as those of the highest performing countries in the world, such as Finland. Yet in this era of education reform, all public school teachers are tossed into the same barrel of rotten apples. In its 102 minutes, “Waiting for Superman” did not show even one scene involving a dedicated and talented public school teacher or highly functioning public school classroom, in stark contrast to such films as “To Sir With Love” or “Stand and Deliver.”
Instead, “Waiting for Superman” implies through selective vignettes that public school teachers are indifferent and incompetent – inherently lazy people whose three main reasons for being teachers are June, July and August. The movie emphasizes one mother’s frustration with her son’s teacher who refuses to meet with her to discuss her son’s progress despite her frequent requests. As most public school teachers can tell you, this situation is usually reversed; for every parent trying to meet with his or her child’s teacher, there are 99 teachers trying to meet with a student’s parent.
Movies such as “Waiting for Superman” create a self-fulfilling prophecy. My neighbor, who graduated from Yale, eschewed the marble and granite worlds of law and finance to teach at a dilapidated elementary school; many of her students were born to mothers who were on drugs or spoke languages other than English. While she is passionate about her chosen career, she is the rare exception among Ivy League graduates. The “those who can’t, teach” sentiment discourages many high achieving men and women from entering the teaching field for the dubious privilege of being disrespected and relatively low paid.
The irony of “Waiting for Superman” is that it dumbs down the education reform debate. Had it focused only on firing incompetent teachers, its point would be valid. Teachers unions have been teachers’ worst enemies in this regard, going too far out on too many limbs to protect the rights of lazy and incompetent teachers over the needs of their students. But casting public schools as villains and charter schools as heroes is far too simplistic. A more nuanced film that accurately shows the challenges faced by both traditional public schools and public charter schools – as well as the successes and failures of each – would have been a more credible and honest way to apply Miracle-Gro to the burgeoning school choice movement.
H.L. Mencken once wrote, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public,” and he was right. “Waiting for Superman” is sure to do very well at the box office with its melodramatic hissing at the villains and cheering for the heroes, but its lopsided portrayal may cause collateral damage by discouraging impressionable young people from viewing public school teaching as a rewarding and desirable career.