Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

The Real Problem with Waiting for “Superman”

[crossposted at HuffPo]

Waiting for “Superman”, in case you haven’t heard, is the hot new film from Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim. While his last film capitalized on liberal guilt over destroying our planet (and maybe voting for Ralph Nader?), “Superman” (yes, the film is weirdly insistent on those unnecessary quotation marks) is for people who feel bad about sending their kids to private school while poor kids wallow in the slums.

“Teaching should be easy,” Guggenheim declares as we watch a cartoon teacher rip open his students’ skulls and pour what looks like blue Spaghetti-O’s inside. (When he closes the skulls the kids sprout wings and fly out the open classroom window.) This is about as close as the film gets to depicting actual teaching. (I checked with the friend who paid for my ticket and he confirmed this scene was meant seriously, though thankfully not literally.)

Despite repeatedly insisting poor kids just need better teachers, the film never says what it is that better teachers actually do. Instead it highlights the voices of American Express pitchman Geoffrey Canada and Bill Gates, whose obsessions with higher standardized test scores have led their schools to cancel recess and art in favor of more hours of scripted memorization. Why bother with art if teaching is just about filling kids’ heads with pre-determined facts?

The real crisis in American education isn’t teachers’ unions preventing incompetent teachers from getting fired (as awful as that may be), it’s the single-minded focus on standardized test scores that underlies everything from Bush’s No Child Left Behind to Obama’s Race to the Top to the charter schools lionized in the film. Real education is about genuine understanding and the ability to figure things out on your own; not about making sure every 7th grader has memorized all the facts some bureaucrats have put in the 7th grade curriculum.

This would be obvious if the film dared to show real teaching in the schools it lauds. Instead of the rich engagement you imagine from progressive private schools, you find teachers who read from assigned scripts while enforcing a regime of zero-tolerance discipline. They’re nightmarish gulags where children’s innate creativity is beaten out of them and replaced with martial order. Because standardized behavior is what makes you do well on standardized tests.

Film is the perfect medium for showing what this life is like. Seeing terrified kids up on the big screen, you can’t help but empathize with them. So we never see it. Instead, the film hides behind charts and graphs and interviews. “When you see a great teacher, you are seeing a work of art,” Geoffrey Canada tells us, but this is something Guggenheim would rather tell than show.

The film has other flaws. It insists all of America’s problems would be solved if only poor kids would memorize more: Pittsburgh is falling apart not because of deindustrialization, but because its schools are filled with bad teachers. American inequality isn’t caused by decades of Reaganite tax cuts and deregulation, but because of too many failing schools. Our trade deficit isn’t a result of structural economic factors but simply because Chinese kids get a better education. Make no mistake, I desperately want every kid to go to a school they love, but it seems far-fetched to claim this would solve all our country’s other problems. At the end of the day, we have an economy that works for the rich by cheating the poor and unequal schools are the result of that, not the cause.

I’m glad a talented filmmaker has decided to draw attention to the horrible inequities in our nation’s schools. But I’m terrified that the solutions put forth by its proponents will only make things worse. We know what happens when we fire teachers who don’t do enough to raise their students’ test scores, or when we adopt more stringent requirements for classroom curriculum: we squeeze out what little genuine education these schools have left. And that’s something we should really feel guilty about.

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October 8, 2010


Aaron, this is a serious topic that your essay fails to address seriously, as demonstrated by its straw-man dismissal of assessment as based on simply “memorizing facts”. We need some metric to verify that children can read and calculate, because if they can’t, then they are doomed. If standardized tests fail to diagnose this, then please specify a superior alternative, with evidence. The stakes are high. I went to public schools in Los Angeles. Some of my teachers were shockingly incompetent, like my 5th grade teacher who was unable to spell simple words. Not everyone should be a teacher.

posted by John F. on October 8, 2010 #

The problem with highlighting charter schools, is that they aren’t a scalable model by definition. Ask the public school teachers in LAUSD how many of their kids are KIPP rejects. Charters work, b/c they can kick out kids that don’t do what they have to do (that includes if the parents won’t take the necessary steps to help the child’s education).

At the end of the day, charter schools are supposed to be test beds for the districts that fund them. In reality, they sift through to find the best students with parental support, among all students, in mostly under-served areas, and educate them. It’s hardly a scalable solution.

Charter schools in urban areas have the ability to kick kids out. Give the same ability to public schools and you’ll have the same results. The lack of honesty in the documentary leads people to herald a system that gets results, but isn’t a model for public education in the US.

posted by Matt H on October 9, 2010 #

A teacher from a wealthy high school district told me that at the end of 9th grade, they give the kids the 12th grade exit exam. 70% pass, but still have to spend 3 more years in high school.

So we have tests that we trust (for better or worse), but we consistently do the wrong thing with the results.

The problem seems to come from teaching kids based on their age instead of by their ability to build on what they know.

posted by Kurt on October 9, 2010 #


I read your blog because you often have insightful things to say about things I care about (software, community organizing & life). I really strongly agree with your perspective on this issue, but I guess that is okay — and in fact is why it is interesting to read your thoughts.

Schools in America today are failing our children and the reformers profiled in Superman are making valiant efforts to change that reality. What is most interesting about the reform movement to me is that it provides an opportunity to try new approaches — there are some charter schools that are taking a rigorous core academics based approach, while others (like the small but wonderful Ark Charter School in Troy, NY where I have spent some time as a volunteer) make the arts a focus and core part of the school day. Reasonable assessments on the students performance allows us as a society to decide which of these approaches works best - so more children can benefit from the education ideas that have the biggest impact.

PCCC wouldn’t send out an email to your list without testing subject lines to see what works; why would you encourage people to give up on constant improvement and a facts based approach to teaching methodologies?

Geoffery Canada is a much more thoughtful and interesting character than the AmEx pitch man you dismiss him as. You should really read Paul Tough’s profile of him or visit the HCZ if you ever have the opportunity.

The goal should not be for every kid to be going to “a school they love” as you put it, but a school that helps them learn what they need to be successful in an ever more complex world. That is not incompatible with joy or creativity but the failing schools and unions you are defending are less likely to offer either of those.

posted by Nathan W. on October 9, 2010 #

I saw WFS today, and it broke my heart. I thought it was well made, and the 5 kids they followed really wanted to learn. What I really wish is that they showed the other side of the story… 5 kids with parents who don’t give a sh*t about what their kids are doing in school. I think this is the bigger problem. Not the kids with parents who care— the problem in the lower income schools is often parents who don’t care. My sister sits in back to school night or parent/teacher conference day & maybe sees two parents if she’s lucky. Many of the teachers who aren’t jaded yet really care about the students. It’s the parents who need to start caring more in many instances.

posted by Darlene on October 9, 2010 #

I disagree. Creativity still has to have some foundation in basic knowledge. Bad teachers fail at giving kids this foundation. Tenure for unmerited teachers is a horrible idea. I’ve had friends in LA tell me that they never learned in class and just played poker all day long.

posted by Catherine on October 9, 2010 #

The best part about ‘Waiting for Superman’ is that it’s making everyone who was already pro-education reform think again about the stance they took, myself included.

I think many of them will agree with much of your position, especially about the weakness of testing and the danger in demonizing teachers. See Finland for a great example of the right approach - we face a slightly different challenge but the lessons learned there aren’t being brought here.

What concerns me most is the number of people having the conversation without getting involved. At least global warming is something we can all do our small part to fix - education seems to be something that everyone loves to talk about but few are willing to do anything about.

posted by Nihal on October 9, 2010 #

I haven’t seen the film and I guess it’s nice that some of the kids really want to learn but, more widely, the problem is that blacks and hispanics are dumber than Asians and whites. C’est tout. It’ll be indisputable in a few years if our genetic understanding keeps increasing.

posted by Bad Man on October 9, 2010 #

I would suggest you to read “Weapons of Mass Instruction” by John Taylor Gatto. He argues that teacher hands are tied and they can’t change anything. It’s a very interesting read if you’re into this topic. It also provides very interesting perspective on schooling history and reasons why it’s the way it is now.

Imagine if you were a teacher and you wanted to fix the obvious problems, teach more and better, but you couldn’t because of how schooling system is made. Wouldn’t that crush you as a person and make you feel hopeless?

We need a global schooling revolution, not reforms. You can’t fix what was broken from the start.

The way we’re advancing as civilization, we will require a lot of smart people and a lot less of average and below. Every one has their own unique path, but most us fail to find it. Schools at the moment just mislead us from this path with their “fits all” approach and crush those with unique perspectives.

Well, just my view on this matter.

posted by MM on October 9, 2010 #

This is an interesting article, but I believe there are multiple reasons that the education system lets so many kids fall through the cracks.

  1. It’s not that standardized tests as a whole are bad, but that the tests don’t test the critical thinking and problem solving processes that we want. We need better, shorter, and more frequent (1 at the end of every year) standardized test that properly assesses their progress.

  2. Teachers need to get raises based on improvements in the children’s grades. Currently teachers aren’t paid based on performance, which is how most thriving industries make sure the best are compensated properly for their efforts.

  3. School needs to have more days with more frequent and shorter breaks (more 3 day weekends, less 3 week breaks). The first month of the school year is usually spent re-hashing the last few months of the last school year because you lose a lot over the summer break.

  4. Option for a technical school instead of high school. A lot of kids are going to be electricians or another technical job that doesn’t require a high school education to be good at and this option will get them the education they’ll use at an earlier stage (I have a cousin who would have made great use of this if it was available).

  5. Nationalized and centralized funding for school resources. The current systems allow for schools in wealthy areas to get plenty of funding and schools in poor areas to get little funding because they’re paid directly by the surrounding district. Schools in poorer areas will never be at the same level unless people in the rich areas are helping to pay for them too.

I apologize for the long rant, but I’ve had a long time to put together my thoughts on this.

posted by Jeff Edwards on October 9, 2010 #


You get what you measure. There are some subject lines that lead to high open rates but low click-thru rates. Some that do the reverse. Others cause people to click but not to take action. Just saying we should measure things isn’t enough.

That’s why it’s so crucial to talk about our real goals and establish decent ways to measure them. And my critique of the film was that this was a subject it studiously avoided. Presenting schools as a black box whose purpose is just to churn out higher test scores is exactly the wrong approach. The only way we can stop things like teaching to the test and the other horrors the obsession with “accountability” have caused is by looking more closely.

My review of Tough’s book is here: http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/whateverittakes

posted by Aaron Swartz on October 10, 2010 #

I don’t know any of you. I am just a rural Mississippi teacher. I started the year with 30 first graders, no assistant, and no 6breaks at all. Finally they gave us a 50 minute planning time. I work hard. But the district would not buy our Math books, so we decided to copy black masters. Then we had no ink or master rolls to copy. When we finally got the materials in the risograph went out. When I had my first practice spelling test of the year, one of my students broke down and sobbed because he could not do it. I knew I had failed him and I cried all day. The fourth grade teachers deal with 3 fights in the classroom daily. Do you really want to know what’s wrong with education? Come walk, sleep, and eat in my shoes!

posted by Sa on October 10, 2010 #

I’m waiting for the DVD myself, but out of an interest in what “competition is trotted out” as and for, I will be looking into ways “big business” or everything that isn’t considered a special interest shapes education in the U.S.

What advantages could a totalitarian (China) state run system of meritocracy have over a pseudo democratic (the U.S.) system of meritocracy? China’s or any other totalitarian state’s ironic propensity to apply egalitarian principles in order to take advantage of a broader portion of the population, leaves as an only the hope for competing systems (non-totalitarian) being for the scholastically erudite, who have the opportunity, to apply themselves to the necessary disciplines.

I would point to the unburdening of the business class (Reaganism) and the general lack of any sense of systemic responsibility on the part of business to anything other than making money as a pivot point to turn around (the U.S.) on. Rather than requiring those institutions and persons that have taken every advantage of the education system of the U.S. be moderated in wealth according to the benefit received from the education system, much the opposite is true. The list of how corporations have left their footprints on the education system is long, most apparent and repugnant to me personally, would be Microsoft’s monopoly.

The formation of curriculum around available opportunities is already inherent in the choices of students and is likely to reinforce the status quo all on its own. Aside from undermining the credibility of the wisdom of the masses, such a paradigm is likely to undermine the attraction to the more esoteric pursuits of the particular interests of individual students which leads to the much vaunted innovation.

posted by James on October 11, 2010 #

Aaron -

Have you seen the trailer for Race to Nowhere? Looks like they are going to tackle the issue with the current education system focusing solely on increasing standardized scores.


posted by Tim Kadlec on October 11, 2010 #

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