Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Waiting for Superman to Educate Us on School Kryptonite

Waiting for Superman

Recently I watched the documentary Waiting for Superman with a teacher friend of mine. I was really interested to see how a person who actually works in the school system, a Canadian one at that, viewed director David Guggenheim’s assessment of the American school system. So instead of writing a regular review for the film, I opted to document the discussion I had afterwards with my friend, who will I call Teachy McTeach, about the film.

CS: As a teacher, what are your initial thoughts on the film?

Teachy McTeach: It’s sad…those numbers [the literacy proficiencies and dropout rates] are staggering and shocking. I wonder how much of that translates to the Canadian system.

CS: Well, let us look at it from a Canadian stand point for a moment; did you see a lot of similarities? Or do you see it as vastly different?

Teachy McTeach: I definitely see a lot of similarities. I totally identified with what the film calls “The Dance of the Lemons”, where they swapped out the bad teachers from one school to another school. That happens here unfortunately. I also saw similarities with issues regarding the dropout rate as well, although nowadays kids have to be in school until they are eighteen. If there are issues with the student at sixteen [in regards to wanting to dropout] there are several avenues for them to explore. The most popular being a work placement program. The whole concept of the “charter” school system was new to me. Besides private schools, there are very few options to go to school outside your district.

CS: Waiting for Superman implies that the schools started to decline in the Bush era of “no child will be left behind.” I noticed you got really riled up when you saw that part of the film. Would you care to elaborate on that?

Teachy McTeach: My problem with the “no child left behind” policy, and we have a similar thing in here in Canada, is that now we have standardize test. In theory that sounds great, unfortunately this often results in teachers teaching to the test. Other content may get left out because they have to teach material that will be on the test. In Canada the standardize testing happens in grades 3, 6, 9 (for math), and 10 (for literacy). It is unbelievable how much pressure is put on the students to do well on this test. It is also tough on the teachers who have to make sure all 25-30 students are up to par. While you want every child to do well on the test, the fact is that every child is different [in regards to how they learn] and the test scores do not reflect this.

CS: To explore this a bit further, the film makes a point to show the tracking system. In which students are divided into different tracks. Now I was not the best student in high school but I eventually buckled down, went to university, and got my degree. If they had that tracking system back then I would have probably been placed in a different stream and not be given the chance to get a degree. How did you find the portrayal of “tracking” in the film?

Teachy McTeach: I have to agree with the way tracking was shown in the film, despite the fact that it was not done in a positive light. However, I have seen the system at work and if the student displays that they can apply themselves and be successful then they are moved to the other stream. Unlike years ago, students are not stuck in the stream they are initially placed in. There is room for movement. Part of the tracking system rationale is that they want to see success. It is designed to curb students from dropping out as they are geared towards programs that will meet their needs. This is why, despite having its flaws, I think the tracking system does have a useful place in education.

CS: Another heated issue in the film I wanted to get your thoughts on was the debate between tenure (i.e. teachers having jobs for life) and merit pay (teachers can make more money, but loose the job security). Now the tenure system is more commonly associated with university in Canada. Yet teachers at the lower levels still have a slightly higher job security rate than most in the corporate world. What are your thoughts on film’s perspective on tenure?

Teachy McTeach: I do not agree with teachers who are not performing up to standard receiving tenure. However, I also have issues with the idea of merit pay because it is tough to measure when you have some many teachers teaching different subjects and levels. How are you going to measure the success of the gym teacher’s students in comparison to the science teacher? This will result in teachers only teaching to the standardize test as their merit pay would be based on the test scores. Also, what about the teachers who coach sport teams or help out with extracurricular clubs? Do they get paid more for doing extra work? Teachers in Canada are already subjected to regular performance evaluations; which eliminates the need for merit pay.

CS: Lastly, as a teacher, pretend this film is one of your students. What grade would you give it overall?

Teachy McTeach: I’m going to give it an A- because it did bring a lot of issues to light. It was well done and had a enough people in the film who were actually qualified to discuss the issues. It was not just some random celebrity making an offhanded comment. There were people in the education system, people in the workforce, and people trying to make a change regardless of whether they were successful or not.

CS: I think I would give it a solid B. Beside the stuff about the lottery system and the charter schools there was not too much that shocked me. I expected that there would be a lot of red tape in regards to changing the system. Still, it does a decent job of bringing the issues to light and evoking discussion.


  1. Very insightful interview CS. Great idea to interview your friend about the documentary. It's definitely a concern to see schools "train" instead of "teaching". Having exposure to the education system in both France and the US, I can tell you that French kids have better math and science skills at the end of high school than most Americans do after they are done with college.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this, I liked the interview format!

    I really have to see this doc, I've heard much about it and even though I have nothing to do with the US education system I'm still interested in it!

  3. I liked this movie, but by the same token, it is just one side of the story. My fiancee teaches special ed. in the Bronx, and while she agrees about the ridiculous tenure issues, there's more to it than what this movie is telling us. All the same, what a heartbreaking movie and what a mess of a system.

  4. @Castor – I noticed that the same thing occurs in parts of the Caribbean (e.g. Barbados, etc). Students there are functioning at a vastly higher level than their North American counterparts of the same age.

    @Jack – Thank you. I just felt liking doing something a little different. The interview was actually much longer but I opted to cut it down. I will save the extra material for when I release the special edition DVD. LOL

    @Aiden – I would be interested to hear your financee’s take on the film. I figured, like all documentaries, the film was being selective with what it showed. Still, it is an issue that needs to be dealt with. The system clearly cannot maintain its current structure as no one seems to be benefitting from it.


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