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'Waiting for Superman' Schools Documentary Is a Slick Marketing Piece Full of Half-Truths and Distortions

David Guggenheim's documentary is positioned to become a leading voice in framing the debate on school reform, and that is heartbreaking.

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When African American and Chicano Latino families in the 1960's were demanding quality education and access to the resources of the best schools, they were also rejecting the myths about blackness meaning culturally deprived. Today that social revolution has been effectively set back. Schools are more segregated today than before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954; nothing is said about that. Black and Brown students are being suspended and expelled, searched and criminalized; not a word. In place of a movement for transforming power relationships in our society, privatizers and corporate managers step up to define the problem -- proposing a revolution that is anything but revolutionary.

A strong project of education transformation would recognize the funds of knowledge urban students come to school with; it would honor the literacy and language practices of the community. It would support a curriculum of questioning, as students examine their world and imagine ways to make it better. It would put front and center the need to build learning communities, to motivate students to want to learn and believe there was something worth learning. It would create an engaged learning experience for all students, not just the handful who learn to endure boredom and insult in hopes of high income later. In the hands of these so-called reformers, though, the only goal is to train urban students to be obedient followers; they never propose a project that transforms and empowers communities, only holding out the promise for a few exceptional students to escape the ghetto. You can see white middle class audience members sighing, comforted to know that everyone really wants to be like us; that everyone who is not like us is tragic. The film bubbles over with terms like escape and rescue, promoting a liberal charity mentality that is never in solidarity the local community, only regards it as something dysfunctional that needs to be controlled.

In addition, Waiting for Superman promotes the idea that we are in a dire war for US dominance in the world. The poster advertising the film shows a nightmarish battlefield in stark grey, then a little white girl sitting at a desk is dropped in the midst of it. The text: "The fate of our country won't be decided on a battlefield. It will be determined in a classroom." This is a common theme of the so-called reformers: we are at war with India and China and we have to out-math them and crush them so that we can remain rich and they can stay in the sweatshops. But really, who declared this war? When did I as a teacher sign up as an officer in this war? And when did that 4th grade girl become a soldier in it? I have nothing against the Chinese, the Indians, or anyone else in the world -- I wish them well. Instead of this Global Social Darwinist fantasy, perhaps we should be helping kids imagine a world of global cooperation, sustainable economies, and equity

Waiting for Superman accepts a theory of learning that is embarrassing in its stupidity. In one of its many little cartoon segments, it purports to show how kids learn. The top of a child's head is cut open and a jumble of factoids is poured in. Ouch! Oh, and then the evil teacher union and regulations stop this productive pouring project. The film-makers betray no understanding of how people actually learn, the active and agentive participation of students in the learning process. They ignore the social construction of knowledge, the difference between deep learning and rote memorization. The film unquestioningly bows down to standardized tests as the measure of student knowledge, school success. Such a testing regime bullies aside deeper learning, authentic assessment, portfolio and project based learning. Yes, deeper learning like this is difficult to measure with simple numbers -- but we can't let the desire for simple numbers simplify the educational project. Extensive research has demonstrated definitively that standardized testing reproduces inequities, marginalizes English Language Learners and those who do not grow up speaking a middle class vernacular, dumbs down the curriculum, and misinform policy. It is the wisdom of the misinformed, accepted against educational evidence and research. Never mind, they declare: we will define the future of education anyway.

Sadly, the narrow and blinkered reasoning in Waiting for Superman is behind the No Child Left Behind disaster rebranded as Race to the Top. Don't believe the hype. We can and we must do education, and educational change, much differently. We could develop an economy that supported communities which were well-resourced and democratic. We can right now create pathways in which all kids have a reasonable prospect of an honorable, interesting job in their future. And if democracy and the future society concern us at all, we can and we must create schools which unleash students' creativity, imagination, and initiative.