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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 14/01/2011

At our Creating Good Lives event Professor William Julius Wilson talked about the structural and cultural barriers which particularly affect poor black people in the USA. He was extremely positive about what Geoffrey Canada was doing to counteract these in the Harlem Children's Zone and, in passing, told us that if we got a chance to see a documentary called 'Waiting for Superman' we should take it as the film covered some of this story. Dr Nick Higgins, who was at the event, then managed to organise a discussion after the film's showing at the Glasgow Film Theatre on Monday evening. 

The film (150 mins long) was made by David Guggenheim, director of the acclaimed 'An Inconvenient Truth' about climate change. Waiting for Superman was completely different from what I had expected. I thought it would give an in-depth account of what was happening in Harlem as well as looking at 'charter schools' in the USA. Instead the whole focus of the film was the complete failure of the American school system – not just in the ghettos – but throughout the country. Even in affluent areas only 35% of pupils attain the expected level for reading and numeracy.

For me the film's strong point is its use of old footage to show that the USA has always cared about education and invested serious money in its public schools. Despite this, over the past 30 years its results, by international standards, have been exceptionally poor. Guggenheim shows to good effect how each President has attempted to raise educational standards by setting out a new plan for education – a renewed vision and strategy for schools. The latest major initiative – No Child Left Behind – was initiated by the Bush administration and given full support from the Democrats. It too has done little to improve America's poor educational record.

As educational failure in the USA is not simply about poor black kids, Guggenheim does not look at the particular challenges of housing, poverty, family, language and the like. Instead he concentrates on two main issues which he thinks explains their failing schools.

The first is poor, inadequate teachers. According to the film maker it is bad teachers who are failing American kids and they are getting away with it because they have tenure and cannot be fired thus undermining the power of head teachers.  Guggenheim claims that the powerful teachers' union has a particular influence over the Democratic Party and give more money to the party than any other organisation, including the notorious Teamsters Union. The second reason is that teachers in the classroom are confused about what they should be doing because of a blizzard of papers, advice, rules, regulations etc coming at them from various tiers of government. The result of these two factors, according to this film, is a total systems failure.

But Guggenheim's explanation of what ails the  American education system is simply not credible and his analysis weak. No-one goes into teaching to do a bad job. What's more, why should America (unlike Scandinavian countries or Canada where education is exceptionally good) have so many bad teachers in the first place? It is very difficult to fire teachers in the UK yet our results are much better than they are in the US.

In my book Creating Confidence: A handbook for professionals working with young people the first section is called 'learning from America's mistakes'. In it I outline this apparent paradox of American interest and investment in education and their poor results. But I go on to echo a number of critics of American education and explain why the country's obsession with boosting young people's self-esteem in the past thirty years has resulted in a collapse in academic standards. You can read a summary of this argument elsewhere on this site. Suffice to say here that if you (erroneously) think that there is a link between self-esteem and academic performance you then become overly concerned about children's frustration. Frustration is an inevitable part of the learning process but if teachers or parents now think it might damage self-esteem they will then divert pupils on to easier tasks. The thinking here is that if they protect the self-esteem now then later on the child will perform. This is not correct – all they are doing is lowering expectations and challenge. Americans have also given copious praise for basic or indifferent work and this ultimately has a demotivating effect. So the self-esteem ethic paradoxically undermines motivation, performance and a learning culture and leads to a lack of academic ability and skills, complacency and a false sense of confidence. It also undermines resilience and encourages narcissism. This isn't my opinion but reflects the work and views of some of America's most distinguished psychologists. (e.g. Seligman, Baumeister, Dweck.)

The idea of self-esteem as a panacea to every social problem and a way to improve performance has dominated educational and parenting practices in the USA for decades now. Indeed it has become so endemic in their culture that Guggenheim is oblivious to how it is corroding their education system. Though interestingly at one point he reports the research which shows that American youngsters come top of the league table when it comes to confidence in their ability to do maths, but bottom if they are actually asked to undertake a maths test. (The opposite is true for Korean students.)

Watching Waiting for Superman was very vindicating for the Centre and what we have done over the years as we have invested considerable time in warning of the dangers of unthinkingly pursuing a self-esteem agenda. Of course, we do not endorse the harsh, judgemental and punitive approach of the past but we think we need to think carefully about what we put in its place. One of the main lessons of the film is the  importance and power of high expectations and we think this is best achieved through adopting a growth mindset and being careful not to see children (because of poor family background) as incapable of learning. (For more on what see as alternatives click  here.)

Waiting for Superman is definitely worth seeing as it is a fascinating insight into how dysfunctional America – the most powerful and influential country in the world - has become. The end sequence is particularly memorable: schools with different approaches are now springing up and achieving better results but places are limited and entrance is by lottery. In a very American way these lotteries are held in public and turned into highly charged, dramatic spectacles with winners and losers. Indeed the most dispiriting aspect of the film is how all the attempts to improve on what's wrong, such as teacher bonuses or public lotteries, are embedded in values which are part of the problem not part of a lasting solution.

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