Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Is the Superman metaphor appropriate for school reform?

This fall the Heritage Foundation funded film Waiting for Superman will hit theaters. The film explores the school reform movement currently underway in this country. It is already getting some Oscar buzz. I have not seen the film yet so it would be unfair of me to prejudge it but I suspect it will not present a very comprehensive or necessarily accurate picture of the problems our school system faces. I worry that through the highly effective rhetorical devices film provides that this documentary will only serve as highly effective propaganda for the Heritage Foundation to push blindly their agenda of corporatizing our nation's schools, narrowing the curriculum, and devaluing comprehensive education in the name of equity. The September 24th release date suggests to me that the film will be used to sway voters in the fall mid-term election. This year's election season is especially important nation-wide for education policy issues since education is primarily a state issue and this year 37 states are holding gubernatorial elections.

The metaphor of "Superman" as the model for school reform strikes me as inappropriate and particularly dangerous to the future of our schools. Yes, I do believe that the education system needs some serious fixing but I think the idea of a school reform "Superman" is not the way to go about it. School change and school reform takes time, it must come from the people, it must address the needs of all students, and it must be equitable. The "Waiting for Superman" metaphor suggests that these are problems not fixable or addressable by us the common people, the common teachers, parents, and community members but requires someone powerful from the outside to come in and fix it for us. In the context of education this is a dangerous notion, it goes against what we know about learning, it removes agency from the learner, and reinforces a concept of external imposition of curriculum, pedagogy, standards, and control as what is needed to improve schools.

Last night when this notion occurred to me I set out on Twitter to flush this thought out. What follows is an archive of those Tweets:

Thinking about how awfully poor a choice Superman is as the metaphor for school reform. Shall we deconstruct? We shall...less than a minute ago via Twitterrific

Superman was born from ruling class parents on a dying planet therefore this metaphor suggests that our Ed Superman must have silver spoons.less than a minute ago via Twitterrific

Superman views the world in terms of good and evil, little room for grey areas. Our Ed Superman then will view things on these simple terms.less than a minute ago via Twitterrific

@anderscj You going to make a good and evil list?less than a minute ago via web

Superman is a champion for the ruling class, doesn't stick up 4 the little guy or those oppressed in the world. In fact, he finds them evil.less than a minute ago via Twitterrific

check out @anderscj tweets about the symbolism of superman re: waiting for superman the movie about the crisis in educationless than a minute ago via web

Superman, being from another planet, is an outsider. Use of this metaphor suggests poor are incapable of helping themselves & need outsider.less than a minute ago via Twitterrific

Superman was raised on a farm with "good Midwestern values" suggests we need to impose those values on urban communities.less than a minute ago via Twitterrific

@anderscj Alright, you might be stretching it now... I was with you for a while!less than a minute ago via web

@coryroush really? I thought that was one of the more spot-on comparisons.less than a minute ago via Twitterrific

@anderscj @coryroush Your conversations are very strange... but interesting to read none-the-less! ;-)less than a minute ago via TweetDeck

Superman lives among us in disguise, presenting a false facade as Clark Kent Superman is a liar and deceives people about who he really is.less than a minute ago via Twitterrific

What flaws in the Superman metaphor am I missing?less than a minute ago via Twitterrific

@anderscj He lives in the Fortress of Solitude.less than a minute ago via Tweetie for Mac

@anderscj flaws in the Superman metaphor - there aren't any phone booths anymore to change into suit and cape.less than a minute ago via web

@sabier Ha! I do know of one though. It is actually around the corner from the Ed Dept. offices at Hamline University.less than a minute ago via Twitterrific

Here is a picture of it:

The booth is there but there is no phone in it.

@anderscj It's too late for me to take that one where I might g'nite!less than a minute ago via web

@anderscj Got to be something about kryptonite in your deconstructionless than a minute ago via Snaptu.com

@weblearning I was thinking that too, how do we work it in?less than a minute ago via Twitterrific

@anderscj Something 'bout kryptonite is the only threat to his strategic plans while the real world deals with budget cuts, inefficiency etcless than a minute ago via Snaptu.com

@weblearning like it, so what is Superman the Ed Reformer's kryptonite?less than a minute ago via Twitterrific

@anderscj Hard to answer that in a US context. Here in ZA kryptonite wd include unions, ed department, capacity, curriculum reforms. #Bleakless than a minute ago via Snaptu.com

@weblearning I was thinking this morning that kryptonite might refer to something in Superman's past, an Inconvenient Truth.less than a minute ago via web

Moniker of "caped crusader" suggests the use of aggression & violence to impose an ideology.less than a minute ago via Twitterrific

@anderscj Batman is the Caped Crusader!less than a minute ago via web

@coryroush oh right, my mistake, Superman is the man of steel. Suggests he is inflexible.less than a minute ago via Twitterrific

@anderscj Okay, that was a good one.less than a minute ago via web

Membership in a group called the "Justice League" suggests Superman passes his own judgement on others and in doing so is above the law.less than a minute ago via Twitterrific

Superman acts on the behalf of those who never ask him to act on their behalf.less than a minute ago via Twitterrific

So, what else would you add to this list? Is the Superman metaphor appropriate?


Anonymous said...

Wow. Do your research. The film is not funded by the Heritage Foundation. When you see the film you will learn that Superman comes from a quote by Geoffrey Canada. The metaphor for the film is the lottery for kids to get into great schools. The fact that we place kids futures to chance is completely unacceptable.

Carl Anderson said...

I was under the impression that it was a Heritage Foundation film. All the buzz I have been hearing about it points to them as at least having a heavy hand in it's promotion. If they do not directly fund it themselves the film and the foundation at least share the same funding source. I did say that I would hold off judgment until I actually saw the film but that this post was about the metaphor being a poor one. I stand by that for the reasons that the Twitter conversation drew out. I agree that it is unacceptable to leave our kids futures to chance but I am not convinced that all these lottery schools are great schools. In fact, I find some deep philosophical flaws with the kinds of reforms Rhee, who is prominent in the trailer, promote. I don't find fault with what little I do know about Geoffrey Canada. I have been rather impressed with what I have heard about his "baby college." But I do take issue with the metaphor of Superman for the education reformer who will come and save the education system. I think it is fundamentally flawed and may actually do some damage if people start thinking that they need to look to someone powerful from the outside to make changes. The changes and reforms we need, in order for them to be authentic, need to come from within the communities they serve. Superman represents a form of false generosity that only lessens but does not break the hold of oppression at the root cause of the issue.

I also take issue with the characterization in the trailer of the measures used to determine the success or rather failure of the US education system. Why are reading, math, and confidence the only measures they report? And, what is wrong with confidence? Where are the fine arts, critical thinking skills, capacity for solving complex problems, or creativity in that list? Not that their inclusion would necessarily show the US system in any better light but to reduce assessment of schools to simplistic factors that can easily be measured with a scantron sheet is in itself what is ultimately wrong with the US education system today. The over reliance on measures that most people find less meaningful than what can be assessed from more complex and harder to define subjects like the fine arts causes a narrowing of the curriculum to the detriment of our children.