Waiting for Superman? … I’m Still Waiting for Balance

23rd November 2010

It is an enjoyable film. The stories of the children and their families are touching. It takes you on a thought provoking journey and for those from outside the field of education, it presents an introduction to the scale of the challenges faced.

Educationally, it stresses the importance of teacher quality. I applaud that. It also stresses that great schools can achieve great results in challenging circumstances, (to borrow a much used line). However, these points are now made so widely that we need something more. We need ideas about how to raise teacher quality. It only has one: sack more teachers.

Looking at this from the UK perspective, I’m not against making competency proceedings easier but I do see good heads successfully going through the process all the time. The likes of Toby Young exaggerate the problem by constantly (he did so again tonight) referring to the low numbers of teachers struck off by the GTC. In the film, the difficulty of removing bad teachers is used as a reason to attack teaching unions (who have a lot to answer for in the US and to a lesser extent in the UK) and the state school infrastructure. Yet it doesn’t make sense for the film to focus so exclusively on removing bad teachers as the solution. The argument seems to go like this: Bad teachers cause failure, the reason some schools don’t fail is that they don’t have bad teachers, the reason they don’t have bad teachers is because they are Charter Schools and therefore free. If this argument were true, how come some non-Charter schools don’t fail and so many Charter schools do?

Getting rid of some bad teachers isn’t going to solve the problems of education. You’d have to get rid of a lot of teachers and find a lot of really good teachers to replace them with to have an impact on a significant scale. Rather than chopping off the bottom, we therefore need to raise the whole pile. Sadly, apart from one or two references to performance related pay (which comes with a whole other set of challenges) there’s no talk of how to do this. For the film to add anything to the education debate it needed to do so. There’s plenty of things it could have explored: Improving teacher recruitment, training and CPD or changing the school culture to encourage continuous improvement.

And the film’s love affair with Charter Schools? It’s been dwelt on enough in other reviews and critiques so I won’t focus on it here. Suffice to say that whilst the film is not the advertorial I initially feared, it only features these schools. It admits that four-fifths of Charter schools are average or poor but doesn’t show any high performing state schools. Without doing so I fail to see how it can hope to make a meaningful contribution to the debate on school improvement