Education International
Education International

USA: Educators are not waiting for Superman

published 8 October 2010 updated 8 October 2010

American public education is facing attack on a scale without precedent. A new film favouring the privatisation campaign, which serves the interests of markets over children’s fundamental right to a quality education, has been released.

National broadcast media, including the NBC channel and even the Oprah Winfrey show, are devoting countless hours to the opinions of experts’ panels which call for privatisation, the break-up of teachers' unions, and widespread dismissals of "bad" educators.

A recent example of the troubling attacks is a new documentary film about public education in the United States. ‘Waiting for Superman’, by the filmmaker Davis Guggenheim who also made Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, purports to tell the moving stories of five children and their families as they seek better schools. Their emotional stories attempt to construct an entirely reasonable narrative that the opportunity for a great public education in America should come not by chance or by choice, but as a right.

Unfortunately, while the film taps into a very live debate that is taking place across America, in an emotional and moving way, it is also presents a very misleading case. The underlying message that emanates from the narrative is that public schools in America are failing because of bad teachers and their unions. The film’s “solution” appears to be that the government should replace the American public school system with “great” charter schools, which are staffed by teachers who have drastically reduced control over their classrooms and schools.

As a part of its narrative, the documentary demonises public education, teachers’ unions, and teachers. The central themes which the film appears to return to are that all charter schools are good; all public schools are bad; while teachers and their unions are to blame for failing schools.

For the hundreds of thousands of hard working educators in the US, as well as their unions, the evidence base of the film is incomplete and inaccurate. Too often it offers simplistic soundbites as answers to complex questions that merit full and proper debate which includes all stakeholders. The film’s director, Guggenheim, has not focused on how educators—the real superheroes—are working, on a daily basis, to turn hope into action in the nation’s schools.

Education unions in US have mobilised their members to show the public that this film is constructed to discredit their work and serves private interests that do not guarantee the welfare of children across the country.

National Education Association (NEA) President, Dennis Van Roekel, said: “Nowhere in the film or in its discussion have teachers’ voices been heard. If you want to know how to make a public school great, ask a teacher, not Hollywood.”

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has gone one step further and proposed an alternative view on this issue from the perspective of educators and not the film industry. The AFT’s Not Waiting for Superman webpage shows how the public, parents, politicians and educators can help all children, not just some, to get a quality public education.