Did Scorching Critic Just Derail the Waiting For 'Superman' Oscar Campaign?

waitingforsuperman_rev.jpgI 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.

· The Myth of Charter Schools [NY Review of Books via The Awl]


  • Edward Wilson says:

    Screw Superman. Vote Cropsey!

  • ThatGuy says:

    Faulty data, lies, and distortions didn't stop Guggenheim from getting an Oscar for his other documentary. Why should this be any different? Oh thats right, because it comes as a defense to one of the left's institutions. Sorry Guggenheim, you were useful for a while, but not any more. The establishment Left is done with you.

  • Belinda Gomez says:

    Coupled with the faked scene ( or "recreation"), I'd say Oscar will pass Davis by.

  • Sharon says:

    KUDOS TO YOU Mr. VanAirsdale! Rarely do outsiders mention the connection between the free-market/CEO & hedge fund manager crowd and the pro-charter/anti-union agenda. Now if we could only get a movie made about all those connections --it's ugly, ugly, ugly! What is going on is NOT philanthropy; it's the pushing through of a privatization agenda. Through and through, it's just as Naomi Klein describes, complete with a manufactured "crisis" and plenty of propaganda. Read about the Christian billionaire, Philip Anshutz @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Anschutz. His Walden Media was one of the film's backers.
    Charles Ferguson are you free?

  • Paul says:

    Wow, I haven't seen so much intellectual bankruptcy and twisted logic since, well since I blocked MSNBC and CNN from by cable TV.
    Charter schools aren't perfect and may not be the solutions, therefore there is no problem with public education, our children aren't falling behind the rest of the world in science, math and reading so we should all go back to sleep.
    I can smell a pile of AFT and NEA horse crap propaganda through this computer screen.

  • Andy says:

    Perhaps it should be mentioned that Ms. Ravitch is a board member of the Albert Shankar Institute - named after the late President of the AFT - and according to Wikipedia is "is a nonprofit foundation dedicated to advancing democratic ideals, improving the quality of public education, and conducting research into the labor movement and the sociology of work."
    She has also received the John Dewey Award from the UFT in 2005, so methinks she is not exactly without a horse in this race.

  • mattmel says:

    Ravitch was also the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education for educational research, serving President George H.W. Bush -- so her credentials are both very good and very bipartisan.

  • TallDave says:

    Ravitch has a long and illustrious career as a hack apologist for the teacher's unions, so of course she doesn't like the movie. She opposes all accountability and choice.
    "If all inner-city schools had the same resources as his, they might get the same good results. "
    Uh huh, right, we just need to throw more money at the problem. That bullplop might have flown in 1970 but we've tripled per pupil spending in real dollars since then and test scores haven't moved an inch.
    Amazingly enough, paying unaccountable alcoholic teachers $100K to sit in rubber rooms doesn't create better education. Nor does requiring states to spend $500K on lawyers to fire a single grossly incompetent teacher (and ending up paying the teacher millions just to go away). Nor does giving teachers grossly inflated retirement packages help kids learn.
    Maybe she can explain why DC public schools spend 3 times as much per pupil as the area's Catholic schools and have FAR worse test scores.
    Shills like Ravitch and their tired, discredited propaganda are part of the problem. Let's hope this movie helps us move forward to an education model that emphasizes choice and accountability rather than Soviet methods.

  • Efavorite says:

    It doesn't matter what a person likes or what their affiliations are, as long as their facts are correct, and Ravitch's are. Guggenheim's are not.
    Also, she is not suggesting "throwing money" at any school, simply pointing out that the Harlem Promise schools are so successful because of their huge financial resources. Certainly this is an easy concept to understand.
    As for Catholic schools vs public schools - please keep in mind that as with any other private school, the catholic schools select their students and can ask disruptive students to leave. Even so, I doubt the scores are 3 times higher. I've never seen catholic/public schools compared in that way. Can you provide a link to official information?

  • efavorite says:

    Sorry misread the comment about catholic schools - still have not seen data that public schools are 3 times more costly than catholic schools

  • TA says:

    Really? You know teachers that are making 100k??? Where?? Tell us please!! I want to move there IMMEDIATELY AND GET A JOB! Because last time I checked a 15 yr. veteran teacher was not even breaking 50k in Texas.

  • Efavorite says:

    I'm from stodgy old Washington DC and don't know much about how the oscars work out there in glitzy hollywood, but I want to nominate "Superman" for an Academy Award in the Propaganda category.

  • KT says:

    TA you are talking about Texas teachers. As elsewhere in the South, teachers are not paid well there. TallDave was referring to NYC teachers, where, yes, it is possible to be paid 100K. But before you pack your bags, check the difference in the cost of living.

  • Wes Strong says:

    So Guggenheim and Al Gore used Inconvienient truth to establish a carbon credit comany - to sell carbon credits to companies looking to go green.
    Guggenheim is apparenly at it again producing media to help spark a bourgeoning economic sector - private education.
    Certainly the data in this film was straight up untrue (cause thats what it takes to convince people that charters work) and the picture of Gore as an alturistic humanatarian in Inconvienient truth is also garbage, but the real discussion is how guggenheim is a whore for the private sector. He's using his media to promote the goals of the private sector and establish street cred for burgeoning companies. Sounds like the same wall street bullshit again.

  • TallDave says:

    That myth was brought up years ago, when the relativ e spending numbers were published, and the Catholic schools' response was "No, we don't preselect students. In fact, send us your worst kids!" Naturally no reply was forthcoming, but we did get vouchers until Obama killed them.
    I'm not sure why you think "we can't succeed like them because they have more money!" is appreciably different than "we can succeed if you just give us more money!"
    It's time to abandon the policies that have failed for three decades and start empowering parents to demand better performance from schools and teachers.

  • Kirk says:

    I am a teacher for a Charter School. I am not a union member. First, I want to start trying to raise awareness of the fact the not all Charter Schools are the same. Some are classroom based that look very similar to any traditional public school. Some are run based on a completely homeschool based model. Many, such as the one I work for, fall somewhere in between. Some are solely publicly funded, such as the one I work for, while others receive a lot of private money. That's the whole idea behind charters, allowing local groups to experiment and find a model that suits their needs better. Not all of them work, but many of them do.
    Second, what scares me most in the current reform debate is the notion that venture capitalists are salivating over the untapped market represented by schools. As soon as big private money enters the equation, I fear for our democracy. Sure, there are many broken schools that need to be fixed, but the growing public sentiment that they are all broken and we need to start from scratch is scary. Quality public education for all is the key to the survival of our democracy. As soon as we let venture capitalists into the mix and view our students as cash cows then there will be a social stratification in America like none other seen before.

  • josh says:

    The biggest failure of the film is that it doesn't pay much attention to social and economic factors. A child can only be expected to do so much if they don't have a somewhat stable life outside of the classroom. Check out Maslow's hierarchy of needs for proof.
    And a personal story as I am a teacher: At my first school I had 8 students who got their only meals through the Free/Reduced breakfast and lunch programs at my school. 5 of these students did not have a permanent residence, and 3 were living with a different relative every other day of the week. These kids had no money, an unstable home life, had to worry about eating when they weren't at school, and sometimes took care of younger syblings. Earning a passing grade on a standardized test was important to each of these students, but with all that they had to deal with outside of school, do believe that it was one of their top priorities?
    Hard to focus on math when you don't know where you are gonna live when you leave school...

  • Critical Thinking says:

    When you pull apart the data everyone quotes, patterns emerge. A higher percentage of charters in poor, minority neighborhoods do better than ordinary neighborhood schools than charters in well-off white neighborhoods. This seems to be a result of the "expectation gap" in poor areas. Charters in states and school districts with strong oversight do better than charters left on their own. This is because charters trade freedom from rules for increased accountability, and if no one is holding them accountable the incentive to perform decreases. Finally, charters do better with time. The longer a school has been in existence, the greater the gap between its students' scores and those of neighboring traditional schools. Most charters are new -- a substantial number are less than three years old.
    Mark Twain said there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics. Summary statistics don't tell any kind of story. But when you analyze the numbers, there is a lot to be said for well-monitored charters in inner cities. Ask the parents whose children are now in college because they went to a charter school.

  • janee says:

    Smoke and mirrors... The last comment sums up much of the falsehood of the arguments.
    "The term was popularised in the United States by Mark Twain (among others), who attributed it to the 19th-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881)".
    Overall there is no evidence that charter schools improve results. Unfortunately, it seems that we British and not learning the lessons of Disraeli either.

Post a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s