Waiting for truth

(Originally published in The California Aggie)

Go see Waiting for ‘Superman,’ the new documentary film by director Davis Guggenheim, and I guarantee you’ll walk out of the theater convinced of the reasons why the American public education system is in ruins.

But is it the truth?

Waiting for ‘Superman’ portrays inner-city public schools as the breeding grounds of the nation’s dropouts and criminals, ineffective teachers as the main cause of students’ failures and independent charter schools as shining beacons of hope in an otherwise broken system.

It’s a powerful message, the kind designed to shock everyone into action much the same way Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth inspired the fight against global climate change in 2006. The man is a master storyteller, to be sure: If the sight of a 10-year-old girl crying because she can’t go to a good middle school and fulfill her dreams of being a doctor doesn’t put a lump in your throat, you clearly don’t care enough about American children. At least, that’s what the film implies.

The problem with this message is that it seems to have been crafted before Guggenheim even began making the film. He himself attended Sidwell Friends, an elite private school in Washington, D.C. that now boasts Sasha and Malia Obama as students, and now sends his own kids to exclusive schools. This is a guy who has no firsthand experience, either as a student or a parent, with public education. So why does he consider himself an expert on America’s public schools?

Well, he isn’t an expert. The movie hits us with disturbing and questionable claims about nearly every facet of public education. The majority of students are not performing at grade level, he says (according to Diane Ravitch, professor of education at New York University, this isn’t true). The government pays more money per student than ever and yet we rank embarrassingly low next to other developed countries in reading and math (not a fair comparison considering the low poverty rates of some European and Asian countries).

Then there are the messages of hope in the form of independent, zero-tuition charter schools. Charter schools have highly qualified teachers, nearly 100 percent graduation rates, and even poor kids have the chance to succeed, Guggenheim says breathlessly. Their only problem is that too many kids want to attend them, so they are forced to hold public lotteries to fill openings.

Guggenheim has clearly gotten his hands on impressive facts and figures, but his argument is so one-sided it’s laughable. He glosses over one interesting statistic – that only one in five charter schools actually achieves higher test scores than public schools – and fails to mention that the schools with the most amazing results have million-dollar funding to provide all the resources necessary to get low-income kids to succeed. He also insinuates that a student’s ability to learn is a direct result of the quality of his teacher, but doesn’t acknowledge that parents, home situations and poverty might also influence a child’s chance of success.

And where are the schools I, and most everyone I know, grew up with – the neighborhood public schools that, while not perfect, taught us well enough to get into UC Davis? Apparently there are two kinds of schools: “dropout factories” or highly successful charters, and nothing in between.

Waiting for ‘Superman’ has achieved what it set out to do: deliver a doomsday message that gets everyone talking about how we’re failing our kids. But it’s fast-food documentation – quick, easy-to-understand, sensationalist stuff for the masses not smart enough to consider the greater complexities of the issues. Guggenheim knew the film he was setting out to make, and he found the evidence necessary to back up his lopsided view. Sadly, in trying to give a voice to all the American kids struggling in today’s schools, he only made his own voice that much louder.

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