Notwithstanding any current controversies about Waiting for Superman, the newest in a line of films about school reform and school choice, I’m not thrilled about the basic premise of the film.
The movie, an outgrowth of director David Guggenheim’s guilt about the public education system, champions school reformers such as Michelle Rhee, and everybody’s favorite reform talking points: more charter schools, merit pay, easier hiring and firing of teachers.
Yet, the premise of a “Superman” who comes to rescue children from “failing schools” is an inherently dangerous one. Whenever someone promises that all your problems can be solved with a simple solution, it’s worth some wariness, particularly in the field of education.
Every magic bullet has failed. Equal distribution of funding hasn’t helped Newark. Vouchers didn’t help Milwaukee. The “Texas Miracle” of testing success and low dropout rate was simply fraudulent (the leader of the Houston school district then became Bush’s Education Secretary!). Mass testing hasn’t increased scores.
By searching for scapegoats and Superman, education reformers bypass broader structural changes that are more incremental — stronger curriculum development, better teacher education, longer school days/years, breaking down the suburban/urban divide.
The kind of magical thinking encouraged by Waiting for Superman (and such programs as Race to the Top) creates an unrealistic vision of how well a given method will work.
Now that Republicans have taken the House, the best hope for Obama to pass substantial legislation will be the kind of teachers’-union-crushing, charter-school-friendly education reform bill that both Republicans and school-reform-minded Democrats can love. The Rhees and Kleins will get their wish.
And yet, I bet I’ll be writing a blog post very much like this one 7 years after its passage. Waiting for Superman is waiting for nothing.