Did Scorching Critic Just Derail the Waiting For 'Superman' Oscar Campaign?
I haven't seen Waiting For "Superman", director Davis Guggenheim's documentary about America's failing public school system -- and the possible solutions that may be found in more exclusive, smaller charter schools, particularly in urban areas. But Lord knows I've heard about it, from rhapsodies at the Toronto Film Festival to stratospheric praise at Rotten Tomatoes to Oprah Winfrey's two -- two! -- WFS showcases. Even the President is on the bandwagon, which has careened toward next February's Oscar finish line at the front of the documentary pack. At least until this week, anyway.
Education historian Diane Ravitch takes Guggenheim and Co. to school (oof, sorry) at the New York Review of Books, where a meticulous reading of "Superman" yields a devastating takedown of the film roundly picked by many observers to sweep the year's most coveted doc prizes -- up to and including the Academy Award. Some of the film's blind spots are alluded to in Michelle Orange's cautious endorsement here at Movieline, but Ravitch goes deep -- way deep -- on what "Superman" not only elides but simply gets wrong [and I quote at length for maximum context]:
The proportion of charters that get amazing results is far smaller than 17 percent.Why did Davis Guggenheim pay no attention to the charter schools that are run by incompetent leaders or corporations mainly concerned to make money? Why propound to an unknowing public the myth that charter schools are the answer to our educational woes, when the filmmaker knows that there are twice as many failing charters as there are successful ones? Why not give an honest accounting?
The propagandistic nature of Waiting for "Superman" is revealed by Guggenheim's complete indifference to the wide variation among charter schools. There are excellent charter schools, just as there are excellent public schools. Why did he not also inquire into the charter chains that are mired in unsavory real estate deals, or take his camera to the charters where most students are getting lower scores than those in the neighborhood public schools? Why did he not report on the charter principals who have been indicted for embezzlement, or the charters that blur the line between church and state? Why did he not look into the charter schools whose leaders are paid $300,000-$400,000 a year to oversee small numbers of schools and students?
Guggenheim seems to believe that teachers alone can overcome the effects of student poverty, even though there are countless studies that demonstrate the link between income and test scores. He shows us footage of the pilot Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier, to the amazement of people who said it couldn't be done. Since Yeager broke the sound barrier, we should be prepared to believe that able teachers are all it takes to overcome the disadvantages of poverty, homelessness, joblessness, poor nutrition, absent parents, etc. [...]
Perhaps the greatest distortion in this film is its misrepresentation of data about student academic performance. The film claims that 70 percent of eighth-grade students cannot read at grade level. This is flatly wrong. Guggenheim here relies on numbers drawn from the federally sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). I served as a member of the governing board for the national tests for seven years, and I know how misleading Guggenheim's figures are. NAEP doesn't measure performance in terms of grade-level achievement. The highest level of performance, "advanced," is equivalent to an A+, representing the highest possible academic performance. The next level, "proficient," is equivalent to an A or a very strong B. The next level is "basic," which probably translates into a C grade. The film assumes that any student below proficient is "below grade level." But it would be far more fitting to worry about students who are "below basic," who are 25 percent of the national sample, not 70 percent.
Guggenheim didn't bother to take a close look at the heroes of his documentary. Geoffrey Canada is justly celebrated for the creation of the Harlem Children's Zone, which not only runs two charter schools but surrounds children and their families with a broad array of social and medical services. Canada has a board of wealthy philanthropists and a very successful fund-raising apparatus. With assets of more than $200 million, his organization has no shortage of funds. Canada himself is currently paid $400,000 annually. For Guggenheim to praise Canada while also claiming that public schools don't need any more money is bizarre. Canada's charter schools get better results than nearby public schools serving impoverished students. If all inner-city schools had the same resources as his, they might get the same good results.
And on... and on... and on. "Waiting for 'Superman' is the most important public-relations coup that the critics of public education have made so far," Ravitch writes. "Their power is not to be underestimated." Ouch. More importantly for our admittedly frivolous purposes, though, can I just say Diane Ravitch's essay is the most important public-relations coup that Sony Pictures Classics, director Charles Ferguson and the rest of the Inside Job team will have at their disposal all year? Ravitch even points out the connection between the pro-charter camp and Wall Street, citing three New York Times stories "about how charter schools have become the favorite cause of hedge fund executives." in language virtually borrowed from Ferguson's excellent financial-meltdown exposé, she goes on to conclude:
Waiting for "Superman" is a powerful weapon on behalf of those championing the "free market" and privatization. It raises important questions, but all of the answers it offers require a transfer of public funds to the private sector. The stock market crash of 2008 should suffice to remind us that the managers of the private sector do not have a monopoly on success.
And just like that, we have an Oscar knife fight on our hands. Fun! I'll bring the nachos.