“Waiting for Superman” and Its Simplistic Message Countered by New Documentary Films

In light of the success of Davis Guggenheim’s documentary, Waiting for Superman, many education experts have come out with vehement criticism against the film’s assertion that teachers, and the unions that protect them, are the primary cause of the public education crisis. Now, Guggenheim’s fellow filmmakers are beginning to do the same.

Vicky Abeles rejects Superman’s allegation in her new film, Race to Nowhere. Instead of placing blame on educators, Abeles suggests that the current failures of the education system are largely due to the excessive pressures students and teachers alike endure on a daily basis, primarily as a result of Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” policy.

Inspired to make Race to Nowhere after observing the detrimental effects that extreme academic burdens were having on her own children, Abeles’ picture portrays a number of students who exhibits signs of emotional distress under the confines of NCLB. Abeles highlights the consequences of a test score-driven system – one that Superman emphasizes as a solution – featuring students who feel overwhelmed by the intense academic expectations imposed upon them and begin to manifest their stress both emotionally and physically. One teacher interviewed in the film remarks, “You have a system that is trying to further roboticize students, mechanize them if you will, to be these academic competitors, these producers. The very nature of it in itself is very dehumanizing,” while a frustrated student exclaims, “Everyone expects us to be superheroes.”

While Abeles’ depiction of the consequences NCLB has on American youth is certainly compelling, it is her portrayal of exhausted teachers that proves to be her strongest case against Superman’s claims.

Race to Nowhere, currently screening in schools and theaters across the country, examines the effects NCLB has had on educators and public schools since its inception in 2001. The education policy, which measures success and determines funding almost entirely based on standardized test results, leaves little room for teachers to develop alternative instruction methods that may better appeal to individual students. Rather, educators are left “literally just drowning in content” they are obligated to teach in order to ensure that adequate scores are achieved and necessary financial support is provided. Numerous teachers throughout Abeles’ film express frustration with the pressures they endure to follow the rigid curriculum. “Do it or you don’t have a job,” says one teacher. “It’s gotten harder and harder to feel like I can teach the things I believe in, versus be a yes-man.”

Vanessa Roth reiterates the prevalence of undervalued educators in her upcoming documentary that exists as part of The Teacher Salary Project, a campaign spearheaded by Dave Eggers and Nínive Calegari to advocate for higher wages for teachers across the country. The Project, set to premier May 3, 2011, is comprised of Roth’s film, as well as an interactive online resource and a national outreach campaign, all of which collectively seek to educate and empower citizens on both the local and national level on the fight for sustainable wages for educators.

Eggers and Calegari, who co-authored the 2005 book, Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers, joined with Roth to produce and create a film that emphasizes the struggles educators face in a system that fails to recognize their significant role in shaping American youth. Contrary to Guggenheim’s contention against today’s teachers, Calegari stresses that, “The main reason that American public schools are failing is because we, as a country, haven’t taken the teaching profession seriously.” The Project, like Race to Nowhere, asserts that current U.S. education policy has resulted in schools that are gravely underfunded and educators who are too often forced to survive on unsustainable salaries or abandon their professions altogether. As noted on The Teacher Salary Project’s Web site, 50 percent of the nation’s best teachers are forced to take on second jobs in order to be able to actually afford teaching.

Calegari continues on the subject, contending, “Research has proven that the quality of a students’ teacher has the greatest impact on a students’ future success.” These findings, however, suggest a grim future, when 46 percent of public school teachers leave the profession within the first five years of being in the classroom.

So what methods of reform are needed?

Contrary to Superman’s not-so-subtle urging for the dismantling of teacher unions, The Teacher Salary Project team advocates for the increase of teacher wages. “Raising effective teachers’ salaries, and keeping them in the classroom, is the most important thing we can do to preserve our democracy,” Calegari argues, “We need to create an overwhelming movement that says to everyone that teachers need to have a new day. A day with a seriously prestigious profession, that is wildly competitive, with strong and inspiring leadership, meaningful development, and legitimate financial rewards and incentives.”

Abeles urges for similar changes in Race to Nowhere, where she emphasizes the need for a more personalized curriculum that permits teachers flexibility in the classroom and encourages more creative approaches, such as project-based learning. Moreover, Race to Nowhere suggests that a reevaluation of our capitalistic focus on creating an academically competitive youth is essential. Abeles’ film suggests that America’s incessant dependence on test results to measure knowledge and achievement is rapidly destroying students’ overall health and eagerness to learn. Thus, the call for a greater emphasis on more uniquely tailored methods of teaching will serve to benefit both educators and the students they instruct.

In other words, the two projects suggest, Guggenheim gets it utterly wrong – it is about the funding, it is about sustainable-living wages, and it is about providing students with a customized, challenging curriculum that does not equate them or their teachers to a group of homogenous androids.

Collectively, the films serve to illustrate the true complexity of today’s education crisis. Both show that placing blame on educators and their unions is not only a gross oversimplification of the current circumstances, but in fact is a disservice to those teachers who make substantial financial sacrifices with very little return.

With 2010 being deemed the year of education films and Superman at the forefront, make sure to watch these alternatives that offer a different perspective on the call for education reform.

Megan Driscoll is the editorial and communications assistant at AlterNet. © 2010 Independent Media Institute.