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A Tale of Two Films

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The media fascination with Waiting for Superman is an excellent commentary on how we are failing, again, our public schools, not a proclamation that our public schools are failing us.

In fact, we should all set aside either praising or bashing Waiting for Superman, and instead, we should step back and look at the assumptions and distortions exposed by the debate surrounding the documentary. As well, we should ask that during this flurry of inspection of schools that everyone takes the time to look at another documentary that offers a much better basis upon which to have a debate, Hard Times at Douglass High.

First, while most educators have presented a passionate and evidence-based refuting of Waiting for Superman, the media, from Oprah to NBC, have lined up to praise uncritically not only the film but also the inherent implications of the film--that high accountability is needed and works, that charter schools are superior to our public schools, that teacher quality is paramount to school reform, that teachers' union are central to the failure of schools.

Some supporting the film argue that the documentary is not making some of the claims listed above, but I contend that what a text intends doesn't matter in the face of what a text does place into the discourse.

Next, we must acknowledge that Waiting for Superman is coming into the cultural awareness of Americans at the exact same time that President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are repeatedly stating to the country that we must weed out bad teachers. Obama's and Duncan's speeches offer this refrain about teacher quality while never once acknowledging the power of poverty over children's lives and learning.

In short, the film reinforces a misleading cultural narrative being perpetuated by the two most powerful voices in national public education. For example, from Duncan:

"The big game-changer for us, however, in terms of both formula and competitive programs, revolves around the issue of teacher quality. Nothing is more important and nothing has a greater impact on the quality of education than the quality and skill of the person standing in the front of the class--and there is so much that needs to change in the way that America recruits, trains, supports and manages our teachers."

The intent and forces behind Waiting for Superman and the media's embracing of the film and the narratives coming from the film and about the film need to be exposed and examined carefully. But intent is a difficult animal to corral.

Here, I want to offer an alternative, then, to the somewhat naà ve and clearly uncritical embracing of Waiting for Superman: View and consider the HBO documentary Hard Times at Douglass High.

And after you view Hard Times, I would like some answers: What else could this school do? What else could these teachers do? What can these children do in the face of the lives they have been dealt through no choice of their own?

Frankly, I don't care what the purpose or intent of Waiting for Superman is. I have no patience for the film, or the failed responses to the film that perpetuate distortions and misdirections.

We have ample evidence that the primary causes of student achievement lie in the homes and communities of children, not in their schools.

As long as we continue to argue about more rigorous accountability, higher standards, and better tests, as long as we continue to weave tales of "miracle" where none exist, as long as we allow anyone in power (politicians, corporate CEOs, education superintendents and chancellors, union leaders, anyone) to speak in monologues instead of dialogues (the authoritarian versus the authoritative), while continuing to ignore the facts of poverty in the lives and learning of children, we persist in failing our schools and those children.

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An Associate Professor of Education at Furman University since 2002, Dr. P. L. Thomas taught high school English for 18 years at Woodruff High along with teaching as an adjunct at a number of Upstate colleges. He holds an undergraduate degree in (more...)
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A Tale of Two Films

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