Friday, June 10, 2011

Super Simplistic

Waiting for Superman is a documentary that does document a serious and complex problem. It focuses on families whose best hope for a quality education is a district-wide lottery for magnet or charter schools. The film shows that these hopes are all-too-often dashed. If it stopped at that, it would be a bit more useful than it is. But it goes on to pontificate, and the solutions offered are both vague and simplistic.

It is shameful that the accident of birth undermines the potential of so many students and that the lottery systems are just as arbitrary and unfair. The film ignores a fundamental truth about charter schools: their selectivity is itself a significant explanatory variable with respect to their success.

The lottery scenes are powerful, dramatizing the difference between "in" and "out." But the film does not explore one very strong possibility: If every one of the "loosing" students were to be placed into the same school -- any school -- it would be a better school, because of the motivation of the students and families involved.

The opening scenes portray some truly bad classrooms, a la the opening scenes of Blackboard Jungle or Goodbye, Mr. Chips. The implication is that these are simply bad teachers. Could the filmmaker really picture himself walking into such a classroom and making it better?

Rather than focus on weeding out "bad" teachers -- and admittedly this process should be simplified in some districts -- he should have spent at least a few minutes trying to figure out HOW they became so ineffective. I spend a lot of time in schools, and I've seen some pretty bad teachers -- perhaps 5 percent, as the film suggests. But I am confident that none of them started out with that intention. It would be worthwhile to explore what goes wrong, why it is concentrated geographically, and what to do about it.

Geography is the other flaw in this film, which notes a spatial correlation between failing schools and depressed neighborhoods, but it arbitrarily chooses to blame the latter on the former. No evidence is presented, aside from the implication that because good education is possible in such settings, the settings have nothing to do with failing schools.

This central fallacy of the film leads inevitably to the assertion in the closing credits: "The problem is complex; the solution is simple." Such a canard shuts down the debate that other parts of the film demonstrate is so necessary.

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