Waiting for “Superman” Oversimplifies a Complex Issue

In Waiting for "Superman", Daisy wants to be a nurse, doctor or veterinarian. That's why she enters the lottery to attend KIPP LA PREP.

Fitting complex issues like global warming or educational reform into a two-hour documentary is a monumental task, but an impressive one nonetheless. In Waiting for “Superman”, director Davis Guggenheim pits high-performing teachers and charter schools against the crumbling public school system, which he claims lacks accountability and consequence for union-protected teachers who don’t pull their weight.

If only explaining the crisis in public education was so simple. It’s much more advanced. Guggenheim makes plenty of strong points about potential — what any kid can do if learning from great teachers at great schools — but the movie skirts around several factors, including shrinking state budgets, a brutal job market and educational alternatives outside of charter schools.

1. Public schools are poor. Schools across the country are cutting teachers and administrators for budgetary purposes, which in turn leads to larger class sizes and less classroom space. Gym and music classes are seeing the guillotine, along with safety patrol, nurses and counselors. This isn’t to argue public schools should be given a free pass. (They’re not being given anything.) However, they’re being asked to do more with less — an impossible expectation.

2. The unemployment factor. According to the Wall Street Journal, in a study examining the graduating class of 2009, about 7.6 percent of students who earned a Bachelor’s degree would wind up unemployed. Compare that to students who would graduate with an Associate’s degree. Their unemployment rate? 6.1 percent. The face of higher education is changing. If the purpose of college is to earn the skills necessary to find a job after graduation, we need to start thinking about what’s best for youth, not our mantel. As many of my friends can relate, a four-year degree means nothing without a job.

Guggenheim’s documentary makes constant reference to the importance of earning a Bachelor’s degree. Why? Not all students can/will be doctors, lawyers or engineers. That doesn’t mean they can’t find quality employment. I believe over the next decade, factoring in the overwhelming costs of college and burdens of student debt, students should be encouraged to pursue community college or trade school if that’s where their interests lie. It plenty cases, it makes more sense.

3. Public, charter and private. That’s it, right? Wrong. Perhaps some of the most exciting changes in secondary education are being found online. Public and for-profit schools alike are allowing students to earn their diploma through online education. In his annual letter on behalf of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bill Gates wrote, “A lot of people, including me, think [online education] is the next place where the Internet will surprise people in how it can improve things—especially in combination with face-to-face learning. With the escalating costs of education, an advance here would be very timely.”

Gates, who advocates for reform in “Superman”, believes online learning can provide opportunity among budgetary constraints and access issues. Online education means students wouldn’t have to be shackled to the “dropout factory” in their district. It could also mean longer study hours, individualized education and more resources for research and tutoring.

Waiting for “Superman” wasn’t necessarily intended to provide a prescription so much as offer a diagnosis. Guggenheim’s documentary, as was the case with An Inconvenient Truth, is meant to create a dialogue and throw our attention at public education, the most important service in our country. Pledging money to help fund classroom projects is a good start, but we need to think bigger and broader.

This movie is only the start of the conversation.