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Thompson: The Legacy of "Waiting for Superman"

WaitAlexander Russo's How Waiting for Superman (almost) Changed the World explains how Davis Guggenheim's film created a zeitgeist.

But, did it produce "measurable impact?"

Participant, the film's production company, sought to "ignite social changes." Participant was founded by eBay billionaire Jeff Skoll, and it specializes in "star-laden, carefully crafted, politically colored fims."

Whether Participant knew it or not, in its attempt to claim success, it borrowed from a common school reform meme. Test-driven reformers often claim that increases in student performances in the 1990s were the result of the NCLB Act of 2001. Similarly, Participant claims credit for closing New York City's so-called "Rubber Room," and the Washington D.C. teachers' contract. Both took place before the movie came out.

Michelle Rhee also credits Waiting for Superman for persuading top donors to contribute to StudentsFirst. But, she also claims that her organization is good, not destructive, for public schools.

An objective study, funded by the Ford Foundation, determined that the general public gave good reviews to the film, awarding four out of five stars. Education professionals gave it two stars, concluding that its "depiction of teachers and unions was simplistic."

Russo's account of the making of  Guggenheim's film and of its effects is balanced. If he has a bias, it is towards skepticism, even cynicism. Russo indicates that do-gooders must anticipate that their efforts will be "misunderstood or mischaracterized." When that happened, the filmmaker's team responded with "genuine or feigned" surprise.

Not being objective, I would stress another theme. Sincerely or not, elite reformers pose as catalysts of social action. In reality, the actual results of the accountability-driven reform come from top- down policies, often the result of federal mandates that liberals would ordinarily condemn.

For instance, Washington D.C. teachers ratified their contract that mandated the IMPACT value-added evaluations because Congress had stripped them of the power to negotiate evaluation systems. Waiting for Superman was produced at a time when the federal government, through Race to the Top and, later, through NCLB waivers, was undermining traditional school governance.

Corporate reformers have succeed in giving teachers and unions a series of offers that we couldn't refuse. Many or most educators believe that those untested policies have done more harm than good, and now we are free to monkey wrench them.

Russo reports that Participant is moving into higher education reform. If the production company really wants to improve the world, let's hope that its new efforts are better grounded in reality. And, that is the lesson that I would draw. Filmmakers have often changed the world. It is hard to improve lives, however, without grounding their emotional stories in facts. -JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.   


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I agree with John. To me the crucial question is whether the film was good or not, not whether it had "measurable impact". "Waiting For Superman" is simplistic, and never deserved to create some massive social change because its creators had only a vague sense of the issues they were getting involved with. Urban education reform in the United States is hard, and while many kind-hearted social reformers genuinely want to associate themselves with making the world a better place by joining "the movement", their mere arrival and good intentions don't usually help the people stuck in those communities; instead, they provide a mere palliative to the reformers' own consciences. Real urban education reform in the United States will require many things, but an important beginning might include respect for the experiences and opinions of the people living in blighted areas, rather than a riding to the rescue on the part of would-be saviours.

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