Waiting for "Superman"
by Participant Media
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Waiting for "Superman" / 978-1-586-48928-1
I haven't yet seen the documentary that this book is a companion text to; although it was recommended highly to me, I missed it in theaters and it hasn't come available to rent yet. Still, I was curious enough about the documentary and knew just enough to be dangerous about the subject material, so I bought this companion text and plowed right in.
Results are...mixed. This book is basically a compilation of essays from different people on the subject of American public school reform. Some of the authors have more expertise than others; wishing no disrespect, some of the essay authors seem to have experience limited only to specific charities or boutique schools, with very little scientific data to back up some of their opinions. In between the essays, each section contains a little "introduction" page for each of the children that were featured in the documentary, but these 2-page sections are largely unfulfilling since they just outline the bare bones of the child's tale and don't tell whether they got into their desired school or not (you have to rent the movie for that, apparently).
So we're left with the essays themselves, which are a mixed bag. In terms of factoids about the failing school system (particularly in comparison to other countries), this book is a rich resource - there's a lot of numbers on these pages that will shock you. However, when it comes to actually analyzing the source of these numbers, and how to fix them, the book falls a little flat. It's probably telling that the essay included here that I thought was the most powerful and best researched was the one that criticizes the documentary (and by extension the book) for (a) relying too much on largely out-of-date anecdotes about "bad" teachers and union problems and (b) (possibly inadvertently) pushing the notion that a few boutique schools will solve the problem.
It's this essay that points out for all the many pages spent here criticizing unions, there's not any actual strong data presented against unions - a pretty frustrating omission in a documentary! And focusing on the "bad" teachers ignores the more important (and less "sexy") issue that "bad" teachers often can become "good" teachers with the appropriate training and feedback; when the *only* feedback teachers get every year is whether or not they dress professionally and arrive on-time, they're not likely to self-identify their needed areas for improvement. Focusing on a cooperative method of evaluation and training seems, to me, to be more important than "fire all bad teachers!" which seems to ignore the problem of where their replacements are going to come from.
Moving on, other oddities in the various essays on display here include... An author who thinks it's admirable for a charter school principle to randomly threaten parents with "immigration authorities" if their kids miss a day of class. An author who argues against smaller classroom sizes because ze really doesn't seem to understand how scientific data is collected (to wit, halving a class size and handing off half to a new teacher, and then measuring the combined literary/math scores of both classes at the end of the year doesn't control for the quality of the new teacher; a meaningfully controlled study would measure 1 teacher with X students and compare that against the SAME teacher with X/2 students). An author who argues that principals need to be replaced with "CEO" figures because in a corporation, when something goes wrong, everyone knows the CEO is responsible - an assertion that makes me doubt the author has ever WORKED at a large corporation. An author who wants to reform the school system to resemble the American HEALTH CARE system because - and I swear this is true - it's just so gosh-darn *efficient*. I don't really know what to say to that.
Moving on, there's also a very nice article that says, basically, that it doesn't *matter* if most charter schools do worse than the public schools they are meant to replace because that's the POINT of charter schools - to experiment with new things, keep what works, and close down the charter schools that don't. From a scientific standpoint, this isn't a terribly bad plan, but I can't help but feel sorry for the children that got lost in the system as part of the scientific experiment - at the very least, surely these numbers (and the implied risk!) should be made transparently clear to the parents as part of the enrollment process for new charter schools?
I feel like I've been very harsh in my review thus far, and I want to stress that this is a VERY interesting book, with lots of fascinating viewpoints. I started the book with a healthy understanding of the school system problem, and I feel like I came away with broadened horizons as the various authors here discussed different possibilities and solutions for a hugely difficult problem. And, as I say, there were a couple of articles that I thought were incredibly spot-on, and I respect that these articles were included even as they made solid criticisms of the documentary. I do recommend this book if you're a fan of the documentary or if you're interested in the subject matter, but I *do* think that people should read these opinion essays for what they predominantly are: opinions.
~ Ana Mardoll
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