Ask anyone, film aficionados and casual education reform watchers alike, and “Waiting for Superman” was a shoo-in for the Academy Awards’ Documentary Feature category. Many predicted it would win; its nomination was never in doubt. Well, shock of all shocks greeted folks this morning when the education film by “An Inconvenient Truth’s” Oscar-winning director David Guggenheim was nowhere to be found in the category.
The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss says it’s because the Academy was savvy enough to see that the film was neither “good” nor “accurate enough” to be nominated. Strauss details many of the political issues the film sidestepped, and even some very un-documentary film-like staging of scenes.
Guggenheim edited the film to make it seem as if charter schools are a systemic answer to the ills afflicting many traditional public schools, even though they can’t be, by their very design. He unfairly demonized Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and gave undeserved hero status to reformer and former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. Guggenheim compared schools in Finland and the United States without mentioning that Finland has a 3 percent child poverty rate and the United States has a 22 percent rate.
One scene showed a mother touring a charter school — and saying things such as, “I don’t care if we have to wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning in order to get there at 7:45, then that’s what we will do” — that turned out to be staged; she already knew her son didn’t get in, according to The New York Times.
Alarming scene-staging aside, I’d hesitate to similarly vouch for the Academy’s mastery of the education reform debate and the various politics that circled “Waiting for Superman.” But one thing’s for certain: The film certainly wasn’t nominated for the film’s backers’ lack of trying. Strauss says the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a heavy hitter in the education reform movement, sank $2 million into marketing the film before the Academy.
The film was ushered into theaters with the help of Oprah Winfrey, who dedicated two entire days to the movie and the pro-charter school movement. It follows a handful of American families, most of them poor, who are doing what they can to get the best education they can for their kids. Guggenheim pits crusading, noble charter schools against teachers and their unions, who are depicted as holding up reform and being the primary party responsible for their students’ poor standardized test scores. There are the heroes: Harlem Children Zone’s Geoffrey Canada and the polarizing former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who Winfrey called a “warrior woman.”And then there are the villains: the teacher unions.
Much of the actual political debate around school reform follows this exact narrative. Teacher unions have been vilified because they oppose policies like merit pay schemes and rollbacks of teacher tenure which seek to tie a teacher’s job security to their students’ test scores. They argue that teachers are being blamed for structural factors—poverty, a severe and ongoing lack of resources in the classroom, rising homelessness, missing health care—that play a significant role in a student’s ability to learn and excel.
Back when the film premiered, Rick Ayers, a University of San Francisco professor and former high school teacher, popped over to the Washington Post education blog, The Answer Sheet, to dissect point by point what he called the “sometimes misleading and other times dishonest” portrayal of public schools and education reform in the film. The post is a worthy read as a forceful rebuttal to the film, and to the extent that the film parrots the slick narrative the pro-charter school reform effort has been pushing for years, the rest of the movement as well.