Friday, October 1, 2010

Should we trust Superman?

As a young boy I recall the film "Superman" and an indestructible plastic figure of the character I threw around the room. My specific memories are lost to time but I remember how great a film it really was and how it helped to transfer this comic book character into a cultural icon. This guy could fix anything and embodied all that made America great. As an adult, I have a greater appreciation of what really made this film great, the talents of Reeve, Hackman, Brando, Ford, Beatty, about talent. There is another film coming out that draws on the collective memory of Americans, "Waiting for Superman" and it has caused a lot of buzz, even before it opened. In the 1978 film, our hero saved Lois by spinning the Earth backwards. Not seen in the film are all the people who suffer unintended consequences as a result of Superman's actions. The focus stays fixed on that trench that appeared on that road and the fate of Lois Lane.

The steady drumbeat of education reform has grown increasingly loud in the past decade. Much of it fueled by experts that seem to appear from every corner of society, it now is more like a deafening roar. Guggenheim's "Waiting for Superman" plays to this and at the least is expected to provide more momentum for dramatic action. As we watch it is perhaps worth reflecting on how much trouble the educational "system" is actually in and take stock of where we are. The battle cries of educational reformers have echoed throughout the land since the time of Sputnik calling on more and more changes to be enacted. Some say the debate has reached a tipping point. The questions before us is which way are we headed? Like Lois into the abyss of a trench, swallowed and covered over by developing nations; or, steadied back to the plane of measured and incremental "improvement" upon the system up and avoiding the trench.

We have a unique perspective on all of this change as it affects what we do everyday, teach. We are kind of on that road with Lois(with those kids). That lens no doubt affects our views but perhaps also gives us insight as to what goes on beyond the bright light of the camera in that scene where Superman saved his love by spinning the Earth in reverse. Superman didn't debate too long on whether what he was doing was right, or even consider everyone else affected. He just did it. As you watch that movie you weren't supposed to even think about that. The people of Earth didn't get to choose whether they wanted this to happen. They were just along for the ride. A feeling many of today's Students, parents and teachers can relate to.

But if asked wouldn't the humans in the movie want to save Lois too? Maybe Superman could have asked for help from someone? Even solicited ideas. I mean we trusted him, didn't we? But he made a choice, an expedient one and it seemed to have turned out OK. But that process doesn't seem too least to a kid like me raised on 70's movies. While the public debate about education is polemical and centers on children left behind, unions, merit pay, standardized tests, "failing schools" and the like, maybe we ought to just pause for a second, ask for some input and figure out what to do. Perhaps we could find the educational equivalent to Reeve, Hackman, Beatty and the like to help us out and make things great. Whatever course we choose, rest assured that our decisions will affect more than Superman's did and that won't be hidden from view. For better or worse we will all deal with the consequences.


  1. I think this is why I hope the recent media attention doesn't totally polarize the education discussion in America. Like you said, Superman did a lot of good, but with some serious collateral damage. We can't sacrifice the world to save our one true love.

    It is easy to identify the problems and target them with a simple solution, but not so easy to do this without causing harm in other areas. Can we find a way to "save Lois" without sacrificing the world.

    Not without being creative. No cookie cutters or Silver Bullets here.

  2. Steve, while we can identify the problem, I am not so sure that we do a good job in recognizing the solution. From 1995 to 2008 the Washington Redskins were the only NFL team that did not win more than 10 games or lose more than 11. The perception from ownership seemed to be of the mindset "we are just a couple players away from being a Super Bowl contender". They were never so bad that a complete wholesale change was necessary. And so new coaches and new quarterbacks were brought in every few year and changes were made simply to be made. I think we can recognize a parallel in our educational system. We do a pretty good job, but changes are seemingly made without a well-defined goal in place - and I emphasize well-defined.

    What exactly is our primary goal, student success on some standardized tests, 21st century skills (what are they exactly anyway), better graduation rates, higher GPA's, a higher percent of our students taking AP courses, more of our students going to college, all of the above and more. And so we look at each of these and see a problem, but how do we implement a solution? Especially when you consider, we continue to operate in an archaic system in which we teach, test and reward much in the same way we train a dog to sit. We constantly discuss change within the context of a broken teaching model and without properly defining success. Any idea what our SMART goal is for implementing the 4x4? How is success defined and in what time frame; when do we go back to the drawing board? Do we improve an outlook for a percent of our student body while at the same time handicapping some of our higher achieving students. I don't have an answer, but I think the Superman analogy shows that in an attempt to solve one problem other issues or problems can be created or exacerbated. My thinking is if the right goal is defined -- maybe it is time for some "wholesale changes".

  3. An interesting perspective:

  4. Thought you guys might appreciate this...

  5. I read "How to fix our schools: A manifesto by Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and other education leaders" and had a few thoughts, in particular based on this excerpt.

    "For the wealthiest among us, the crisis in public education may still seem like someone else's problem, because those families can afford to choose something better for their kids. But it's a problem for all of us -- until we fix our schools, we will never fix the nation's broader economic problems. Until we fix our schools, the gap between the haves and the have-nots will only grow wider and the United States will fall further behind the rest of the industrialized world in education, rendering the American dream a distant, elusive memory."

    Could Michelle Rhee more confusingly conflate two more unrelated social issues? Do these authors honestly believe that it's solely the crisis in education that has led to the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in this country? This gap has grown over the past 30 years (and will potentially swallow the middle class) because we live in a society where it is allowed to exist for a variety of reasons(I digress). Is a "better" system of public education going to somehow magically banish the ill side effects of free-market capitalism, corrupt politics and cronyism? Michele Rhee's assertion is simplistic to say the least. To blame all the nation's woes on the educational system is nothing more than scapegoating, quite popular in difficult economic times.

    The article linked above, by Anonymous, was quite good, too, and brought up another, much larger issue - two sentences here illustrate it: "The aggressive movement to lionize charters and to demonize public schools is scary because there is so much money and power pushing this agenda" and "How socially useful is it to destroy public confidence in an essential public institution?"

    That last question is interesting, "socially useful to whom?" The movement, of which the Waiting For Superman film is just the most recent and visible example is nothing new(any 80's traffic controllers out there?) Many agree it is a powerful conservative movement that seeks to have all the goods and services we have come to think of as "public" be privatized. The Tea Party could be viewed as another example of this trend, get the government out of mostly everything.

    In economic downturns, any taxpayer-funded service is going to come under attack, like the folks who show up at the Board of Supervisors meetings asking them to charge people for using the free library as a way to save money. It's part of this large ideological phenomenon that transcends public education and in extreme equates anything public with socialism and communism. See Grieder's "Rolling Back the 20th Century:" for more on this.

    Taken to its logical conclusion, this movement leads us all back to feudalism, that strictly hierarchical system where only the children of the ultra-rich would receive an education while the rest of us are serfs. Scarier still, it takes us back to the days right before the French Revolution, where the top 3% of the nation owned 90% of the nation's wealth, while the bottom 97% of the population paid all the taxes to support them. And we know how that ended.


  7. Always great to see such a fresh perspective on the education system. Let me begin by commending all those who have commented on this, and congratulating you for your ability to see the oversights in the massive Easter Egg Hunt which is the public schooling system.

    Let me explain by what I mean by Easter egg hunt. From my childhood, I remember those special Easter Sunday mornings, where dressing up in stuffy clothes was quickly forgotten in the excitement of hunting for eggs. 15 minutes and lots of chocolate later however, I hunted selectively for certain eggs, eggs which I knew contained whatever candy I at that moment desired. The other children could find the rest of the eggs, or they could have just sat there for all I cared. The public school system is the same way.

    When starting kindergarten, every child is given an equal chance to succeed, for all about 15 days. The smart are then weeded out from the less intelligent, the motivated from the lazy, and the creative from the dull. The end-of-the-year reports filled out by teachers for each student only affirms the student's negative or positive qualities for teacher who will instruct the child come next fall. In this way, the prettiest and best eggs are picked into the basket of higher education, leaving the less fortunate ones behind in the weedy grass.

    Superman does this too, whether he knows it or not. He has picked his egg in Lois, and will go to any means to find it and ensure its safety. No matter what the cost.

  8. Dean J,

    Thanks for the comment. I do think this is where wealth and parental involvement become crucial; we certainly have a responsibility as teachers to provide the best education possible for all children.