Monday, May 23, 2011

A Fairy Tale called "Waiting for Superman"

Corrected 4-7-15

ONE OF MY FAVORITE FORMER STUDENTS asked me recently what I thought of the documentary, Waiting for Superman. It was some time before I had a chance to watch it. When I did, it made me mad. Parts of the film are good. Geoffrey Canada, creator of the Harlem Children’s Zone, features prominently and Canada seems like a dedicated educator.

Unfortunately, the rest of the movie creates a flat and one-dimensional impression.

Producer Davis Guggenheim starts with five youngsters whose parents or guardians want them to get a better education than the nearest public schools can apparently provide. We follow five wonderful children and their families through the lottery process to get into “better” charter schools.

If they don’t, of course, their dreams are crushed.

A lot of people who saw the film came away with this impression: the people doing the crushing were sack-of-crap unionized teachers.

Brent Staples, writing for The New York Times, warned readers who planned to see the film to take along a handkerchief. Who exactly plays the role of villain? Staples makes that crystal clear: Public schools generally do a horrendous job of screening and evaluating teachers, which means that they typically end up hiring and granting tenure to any warm body that comes along.”

My reaction to that statement? Apparently the Times does a poor job of screening writers and lets idiots pen editorials.

Guggenheim focuses on the famous “rubber rooms” in the New York City Public Schools, where 700 teachers are pigeonholed. These 700 face termination for various reasons, but the union makes it hard to fire them. So they wait out the time till their hearings, often months, in some cases years, collecting their pay—and oh-those-damn-unions!

SEVEN HUNDRED TERRIBLE TEACHERS sucking up tax dollars. God, if only we could get rid of teachers’ unions!

Here’s what real teachers know (or at least this real retired teacher who had time to check it out):

First: The New York City Public Schools employ 80,000 teachers. To focus on 700 is an insult to the other 99.125%.

(Just because Guggenheim made a terrible movie, for example, that doesn’t mean we need to criticize John Ford or Orson Welles.)

Second:  A recent article in the Times noted that in one year 140,000 students in the system missed more than a month of classes. If you’re a teacher, you think: that’s a lot of parents shirking their responsibility.

In fact, if I do the math that’s 200 bad parents for every single bad teacher tucked away in the rubber room.

Third: Not all children have good parents. If you want to form a clear understanding of education you have to look at dysfunctional families, too. That’s where most of the intractable problems begin. At my wife’s old school, for example, a mother stopped by the main office one afternoon and told the secretary she wanted to see the principal.

Exactly the kind of parent Guggenheim had in mind when he made his film. The concerned mother! Only this mother was more than concerned. She informed the office secretary she was “tired of being followed.” The secretary did a double take when she noticed the woman was carrying a butcher knife. When the principal overheard their conversation she stepped out of her office and mom lunged at her with the knife, missed, but chased her down the hall and out across the parking lot.

Fear made the principal fleet and she got away. But the question none of the “experts” ever ask—or even know they should ask—is how do we help the child in a case such as thhis? With a lottery system to get him into a better school?

Really? Does anyone believe this mom was going to have her wits about her to enter her child in a lottery to begin with?

For two years, I’ve been working on a book about what it’s like to be a teacher. I assure you: I loved teaching. I’m just sick of all the criticism being laid at the feet of America’s teachers. At a New Years’ Eve party a few months ago I asked a probation officer for Hamilton County, which includes the city of Cincinnati, Ohio, how many cases of child abuse and neglect Children’s Services handled every year.

He said about 8,500.

So, yes, there are bad teachers. (I even knew a few.) You should try being a teacher, though, and see how many bad parents you run into.

Maybe some of my former students will read this and comment: I think they’ll say I gave every kid a lot of chances to pass. Unfortunately, even a good teacher can only do so much if problems at home are severe. One year, I had a boy named Mike in my history class.

Mike stayed home “sick” 106 days.

Two weeks after the school year ended, mom called me at home (I gave my number to parents and students). She wanted to know if Mike could still pass seventh grade. I told her, sorry, he had failed my history class and every other class, including gym, and it was too late.

That’s the kind of parent, a minority in every community, maybe 10%, that makes problems for every public school and every public school teacher in America.

THAT’S JUST PART of what you don’t see in Waiting for Superman.

If I had to grade the film, I’d give it an F.

Guggenheim, pictured with Courtney Love.
You figure he spends most of his time with celebrities
and not much time rubbing elbows with the regular folk.


  1. You didn't merely give us a lot of chances to pass. You gave us a lot of chances to excel.

  2. Mark--well said...
    John I can remember days where you would stay with any student who wanted and second, third, fourth and so on chance. I know you were one of the best teachers I have ever had the chance to work with. I remember eating lunch in our itty bitty lunch room and discussing this book. I can't wait to read it! In my 12 years the students who break my heart the most are the ones who try to excel in spite of their parents. I joke with Chris (also a teacher) that I would take most of my students home if I had to space and the cash. I think that if I could give them breakfast in the morning and tuck them in at night oh what a difference that would make... Maybe someday but for now I will continue to be "MOM" from 7:30- 3:30

  3. I saw the movie "Waiting for Superman" and I've also read articles criticizing it. My feeling is that it undoubtedly errs on the side of assuming supportive parents and assigning too much blame to the unions. On the other hand, I think it's only fair to admit that, while not being THE problem, unions are often PART of the problem. Like most unions, I think teacher's unions exist mainly to look out for their mediocre members and resist properly rewarding the most effective members. They should look out more for the BEST teachers--and, not incidentally, the KIDS. I didn't agree with all of issue 2 in Ohio but merit pay is one part of it I agreed with.

  4. Ummmm am I the only teacher unbelievably offended by this? For one, no matter how bad a child's home life may be, you NEVER give up on them. And you don't make excuses. Yes, there are plenty of children who come from "dysfunctional", as you say, homes and that seemed to make your job difficult. But what about all the schools making a positive impact in our impoverished communities? All the students that come from difficult home situations but still succeed in school and go on to college? Geoffrey Canada does it every single day at HCZ and as you say, he is a fine educator. Unions are organizations started many years ago for reasons that don't necessarily exist today. And in far too many cases, unions do have too much power, do protect unqualified and harmful teachers, and do impede on learning. If you don't think the movie should focus on the 700 "bad teachers" out of thousands in NYC, then how can you blame the minute percentage of "bad parents"? There are COUNTLESS ineffective teachers that get and/or hold jobs when they shouldn't. One of the single most important factors in student success is effective teaching. So maybe 700 is a small number in comparison to 80,000 but what if that 700 multiplies? What if it is happening across districts, towns/cities, states? How many ineffective teachers does that leave working across our entire country?

  5. Charlie, like your post!

  6. Reading that comment above--about being offended. No one said we shouldn't get rid of bad teachers; but let's not insult them all by focusing on a small percentage. If 140,000 kids in one city system miss a month or more of school--that's not a small percentage of parents shirking responsiblity.

  7. I think you need to re-read that post. This is not a defense of 700 bad teachers. And I, for one, never gave up on any child in 33 years of teaching. That doesn't mean I could save them all--no matter how hard I tried--and it certainly doesn't mean that if they had switched to different schools their problems would have gone away.

    If you have 140,000 kids missing a month of school in New York City every year; you have to ask some serious questions about parents and society, too. Arne Duncan is for charter schools. So is Michelle Rhee. In 2010, the average kid in Chicago schools, where Duncan once worked his reform "magic," missed 26 days; and 300 school-age kids were killed or wounded in gang violence.

    In Rhee's old district, in 2009, the average was 21.6 missed days.

    Excellent effort by Mr. Canada, true, but Davis Guggenheim discounts excellent and good effort by hundreds of thousand of ordinary teachers every day.

    Waiting for 'Superman' is insulting to teachers, in general, and incredibly simplistic.

    John J. Viall

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  9. The whole point, regardless of how broad the stroke, is that our methods and manner of running education in this country are not producing results. When the data shows us to be at the bottom of every academic category, we must accept our failure at the most complex levels and not presume that it's solely the result of the quality of the teachers, the capability of the students, or the power of the unions. The blame for our educational systems' countless faults is no more about one aspect of our education system than the problem with health care is solely to blame on the greed of insurance companies, the laziness of individuals or the indifference of doctor. To argue as you have here, regardless of however great a teacher you've been is to so commonly miss the point that you begin to perpetuate the problem. Let's put "peacock-ing" aside and recognize that the failure can not be found in one thing alone but in the society which fails to recognize it. -TMB31881

  10. I do think my feathers are lovely; but are we at the bottom of every category? We trail Japan, yes. But Japanese students go to school 240 days every year. I wonder if U.S. parents are ready for that? South Korean students put in 14 hour days. So yes, we trail them, too. The last international comparion showed us 14th in reading, among 65 nations, 17th in science, and 25th in math.

    And I am sorry: Waiting for Superman is a very stupid movie.

  11. The key to a child getting a good education is good parenting If parents never show up for conferences, don't help their kids with their schoolwork, and don't value education, they're going to fail.

    Teachers are HIGHLY respected in other countries. Why aren't they respected here in this country?

    My principal loves Michelle Rhee and this Republican propaganda anti-union film. She's a general shooting at her own soldiers and she'll never win the war on education.

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  13. Amen to your comment about Rhee. She's not only shooting her own soldiers, she's shooting them in the back and then trying to pretend she's a hero.