‘Waiting for Superman’ — a review

Last week I was invited to a screening of “Waiting for Superman,” a new education documentary that has attracted a lot of attention — it should be released in theaters in late September.  2010 seems to be the year of the “edumentary,” with several films documenting various problems in the U.S. educational system.

I’m torn about how I feel about “Waiting for Superman,” which is the highest-profile of the year’s documentaries. Made by Davis Guggenheim, a filmmaker who won an Oscar for the climate documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” it’s entertaining, with great characters and subject matter that I, at least, find riveting.  It’s an open question whether the moviegoing public will find education reform as compelling as melting polar ice caps, but based on the early buzz and the reactions of the audience I saw, it should do well. The man sitting next to me actually cried out in disbelief at several points; as the lights came up, many people pulled out their cellphones to text the word “Possible” to an address displayed on the screen. (Some kind of pledge to recommend the movie to friends, I think).

But the movie is also manipulative, over-simplified, and in the end, misleading about where the solutions are for increasing achievement across the board — and particularly for low-income kids of color. The film follows five families in Redwood City, Los Angeles, New York and Washington D.C. as each searches for better educational options for their children, and ends with emotionally-wrenching scenes from public lotteries where families wait, in agony, to find out whether they have “won” a coveted charter school spot.  The message of the film is that children who “lose” the lottery are doomed to spend the rest of their schooling in “dropout factories” staffed by teachers who only care about their paychecks and pensions.

Controversial D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee is set up as a straight-talking, take-no-prisoners reformer, as is Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone  (I find Mr. Canada far more inspiring; I just am not sure his success is replicable because it is so entertwined with the force of his personality). Randi Weingarten (actually regarded as a progressive and thoughtful leader of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teacher’s union) is branded as the villain, as are teachers unions in general. Charter schools are held up as the answer, though the voice-over acknowledges early in the film that one in five charters are failing (and never mind that it would be likely impossible to convert our entire educational system to charters, even if anyone really wanted to). The most unforgivable claim is that “we’ve tried more money” and it hasn’t worked. Uh, no, not in California we haven’t.

I guess some people honestly believe that teachers unions are the reason our schools are failing too many children, but I think that claim is both simplistic and illogical. If what matters, ultimately, is the skill level and accomplishment of the teacher, how is it that the best teachers would flock to generally lower-paid and less-secure jobs with private schools and charter schools? Wouldn’t the best teachers want higher-paid jobs and more job security? 

Much has also been made over the idea that giving teachers tenure after three years in the classroom means that it’s impossible to get rid of bad teachers.  Nope. It’s true that the disciplinary/coaching process takes time, and there are timelines and paperwork involved. But more often than not it ends either with a teacher receiving coaching that helps him or her improve or a retirement or other voluntary separation. Determined principals can and do make sure that substandard teachers either improve or leave the system. I don’t buy the argument that abolishing teacher tenure would cause any kind of noticeable improvement in achievement–it might make it even harder to attract quality teachers (they aren’t exactly beating a path to the profession as it is).

I am not sure whether to recommend this film or not, though I think people who are interested in education reform will not be able to stay away. If you see it, I hope you will take its statistics with a grain of salt (some are apples to oranges while others are mischaracterized), and realize that it is, ultimately, entertainment. The filmmaker has created archetypal characters out of real people, and a narrative sequence out of events that are unfolding simultaneously, unrelated to each other. If the film moves you to find out more about the problems facing public education and educate yourself on possible solutions, great. As long as you realize that those solutions are never as simple as a 90-minute movie lays them out to be.


17 responses to “‘Waiting for Superman’ — a review

  1. Oh, SF did try — spending bucketloads in the process: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/10/20/BALG13JJV9.DTL

    More recently, a group from SFUSD led by Margaret Brodkin went to New York last fall and spent a week in HCZ studying their program, their partnerships and their successes; Brodkin’s New Day for Learning initiative is working on replicating these. SFUSD is also working on these issues in a smaller, more focused way by creating the Superintendent’s Zone schools. To say that Canada’s cult of personality and boatloads of private $$ is a hard thing to replicate is not “shrugging off” success. It’s saying this is one of the hardest problems of our time and even Canada, with all the personal and financial resources he brings to the table, has not cracked it.

    But don’t take my word for it. If you are the next Geoffrey Canada, by all means step up!

  2. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128078588

    As for replicating the Harlem Children’s Zone, there is evidently $10 million being offered by the federal government to other communities who give it a try. Is there some reason the SFUSD shouldn’t try to replicate this, even without the extra funding? Seems to me there are plenty of philanthropic people and organizations here that would jump on that bandwagon if someone had the vision and energy to pursue this. It works, and we don’t need to reinvent the wheel in terms of executing the model. I’m disappointed that Rachel Norton seems to shrug this off because there is no equivalent to Geoffrey Canada in the SFUSD. (How do we know that by the way?) Seems like the SFUSD should be studying the Harlem Children’s Zone and programs like “Tools of the Mind” which have documented success for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

  3. The blog readers are free to skip the posts they don’t want to read.

    It’s an unassailable fact that charter schools overall admit far fewer disabled students than public schools do, and those disabled students they do admit are the mildly disabled. While your personal mileage obviously varied, Katy, the fact is that overall, a system based on charter schools will not serve your child or other children with disabilities.

    I’m not inherently saying that charter schools shouldn’t exist. But the movie that Rachel is reviewing here is false, malicious and destructive propaganda attacking public schools and claiming that charter schools are superior. Charter schools and their backers should not engage in that behavior, which is destructive and a lie.

    And the schools that these charter fans are praising are not the small schools offering flexibility and project-based learning, the ones that you can talk into accepting a disabled student. It’s praising the drill-and-chant-march-single-file-down-the-hall-and-keep-kids-with-differences-somewhere-else-please schools. Defending the existence of charter schools is one thing, but defending this vile propaganda doesn’t make sense.

  4. You seem to keep willfully missing the point: choice is the point; having an alternative.
    Until public schools can offer smaller schools for the children who do better in those situations, and flexibility with curriculum for kids who do not learn well with traditional methods, there will be a need for charter schools.
    When I write “do better”, I am not referring just to test scores, I am referring to students wanting to be there (instead of being truant), and feeling safer in schools with smaller student populations.
    None of the public schools in my neighborhood (besides the charter school my son now attends) would admit my child, because of his disability label, and while I still had to fight to get him enrolled in that charter school, the fact is they did enroll him and the typical public schools would not have. SFUSD also imposes admissions hurdles and screens out “the most disadvantaged, challenged, and high-need students” at 65% of their schools, and that is against the Americans With Disabilities Act but no one enforces that law for children, when it comes to schools banning kids with disabilities from attending them.
    Caroline, as a favor to the blog readers here, you and I will never agree and let’s leave it at that and stop this back and forth bickering.

  5. Charters don’t do a better job of educating the most disadvantaged and challenged students. The most widely hailed charter chains have eye-popping attrition of their less successful students, in fact, and that’s after already imposing admissions hurdles that screen out the most disadvantaged, challenged and high-need students to begin with. And of course they are notorious for serving far fewer disabled students than public schools, and of those they do serve, admitting the more mildly disabled.

    Charter schools have now been around for 18 years; they have had nearly two decades to show that they can do a “better” job serving the most high-need and challenged students, and they have not done it. They benefit from a huge amount of power, hype and money on their behalf, but they have not proved to be a solution.
    It’s counterproductive and misleading to claim that they are.

    The charter chains that are hailed for supposedly succeeding with high-need students of color are almost entirely the military school-style, chant-and-drill, march-single-file-down-the-hall model.

  6. Charters offer an alternative to regular public schools. Public schools are doing a really awful job of educating certain segments of the student population. In our district, something close to 4 out of 5 (80%) of African American students fail to score at proficient or above on English and Math tests. We need to find a better way to help these kids. Not all charters are the same, and not all charters are like military schools.

  7. Also, it seems highly likely that this is the year of the “edu-mentary” because that’s where the billionaires backing the destruction of the public school system have decided to put their money this year.

  8. I think that an independently run charter like [school name] functions in a different universe from the hype, shenanigans and trickery funded by the Billionaire Boys Club and promoted by Race to the Top. It does [your school] a disservice and unfairly tarnishes it by association to act like they’re part of the same oozing sleaze pit, Katy. (I’m defending your school, just to clarify.)

    I’m also defending public schools against the notion that they’re full of “mind-numbingly dull houghton mifflin workbook schooling.” And in fact, the charters that you are ill-advisedly associating yourself with tend to rely heavily toward regimented, military-style drilling and chanting, timers in the classroom, marching in silent single file down the hall, and other such practices that make “mind-numbingly dull houghton mifflin workbook schooling” look like a joyously inspiring burst of creativity by comparison.

    Between that and the billionaire-funded general sleaze, I would be quietly keeping my distance if I were a parent in an independent charter.

  9. While you all are so busy bashing charters, why not consider for a moment that Charters offer a choice for kids like my son. Not all kids do well in typical public schools. Some kids need project-based schooling, instead of mind-numbingly dull houghton-mifflin workbook schooling. Some can’t handle the gigantic middle-schools and high schools.
    If all you are using to judge charters is the test scores, you’re missing the point. Choice is the point; having an alternative.
    There is room for all of us, it shouldn’t be always turned into an “us vs. them” circus.

  10. The latest comprehensive study of charter schools done by CREDO at the conservative (and pro-charter) Hoover Institution found charter schools to have lower achievement than regular public schools in nearly 2 of 5 cases (37%)m and higher achievement in only 17% (not quite 1 in 5) cases. The other 40% were no different in achievement than regular public schools. The film maker, to have a good film, must have a compelling narrative and that means good guys and bad guys. The good guys are charters and the bad guys are teachers’ unions. Like most simple answers to complicated questions it is wrong. The Harlem “Zone” is admirable in many ways. What isn’t told is the tens of millions of dollars it receives from wealthy foundations interested in any project that can be represented as showing the regular tax funded public schools as failures. Foundation dollars come off the tax burden of the wealthy while taxes come off the bottom line of the wealthy. “Scaling up” the “Zone” concept will take more than just cut & pasting the model, it will take a substantial investment of public (probably federal) dollars to create the kind of wrap-around services that the kids need to get on a level educational playing field. Listen to the conservative admirers of the “Zone” screech when increased taxes are proposed to do this in communities across the country.

  11. The most unforgivable claim is that “we’ve tried more money” and it hasn’t worked. Uh, no, not in California we haven’t.

    Thanks for this, because this argument is really getting me down. I have been teaching in high-needs California schools for ten years, and in those ten years, we sure haven’t tried more money.

    I think that one thing California – the United States too, I’m sure – needs is a real discussion of what the costs of education are. I am extremely tired of hearing about waste, “doing more with less”, and false historical cost comparisons.

    Even programs that do/did send extra money to schools – say the federal Reading First program – largely spent that extra money on their own program requirements. These may not be the expenditures that school personnel identify as key to their performance.

    I’m pretty interested in school performance, but I have no intention of seeing this movie. I have too much concern for my blood pressure, for one thing. For another, the scenarios these movies create are so alien from the real experience at high-needs schools that I’m just not interested (that, and I think they feed certain racialist dialogues about parenting that I have no interest in supporting).

  12. Good post, Crystal. One disagreement: I would dispute that our public schools are failing the majority of our students. Our public schools are not succeeding in lifting, en masse, the most challenged, disadvantaged students to academic success; I’m just noting that those students aren’t the majority. (No other types of schools are succeeding en masse with the most challenged, disadvantaged students either; of course.)

    I’d certainly agree with you, Frank, that the selectivity is what makes Lowell what it is. Same with SOTA, only in the arts (I’m the parent of a SOTA student and a SOTA graduate).

    Some points on that selectivity issue: Yes, it’s what private school parents are paying for, and it certainly makes those schools’ teachers’ jobs easier. Some observers don’t get it and just claim private schools are “better,” without grasping that difference.

    Charter schools are also free to pick and choose if they want to; they get so little oversight that there’s nothing to stop them. In a twist on the situation with private schools, lots of observers also don’t get that. The twist is that selectivity is an inherent part of the private school process, while it’s covert with charter schools. And yet, despite that, charter schools are not overall more successful than public schools, as study after study has shown during the nearly 20 years charter schools have been in existence.

  13. I haven’t seen the movie, but I intend to when I can. I’d noticed from the previews that charter schools were going to be touted as the solution, but I don’t really see charter schools that way.

    You do raise an interesting point though:
    “If what matters, ultimately, is the skill level and accomplishment of the teacher, how is it that the best teachers would flock to generally lower-paid and less-secure jobs with private schools and charter schools?”

    It sounds like you’re asking “why do good teachers sign up to teach at private schools where the positions are lower-paid and less-secure?” I went to a Catholic high school in San Francisco and some of my teachers talked about this. For them it was the quality of the student. They felt that they were teaching and not babysitting. Prospective students have to apply (and be accepted) and once enrolled, the students and their families know that they can be kicked out. These factors make the students easier to teach that your typical mix of public highschoolers.

    Of course, Caroline would love to point out that charter schools have a similar selection process and that probably accounts for a lot of their success. I’d argue that Lowell’s selection process is a large part of what makes that school so successful. I think selective high schools can be good, but it’s not an appropriate model for kindergarten.

  14. Thanks for posting about this film, Rachel. I, too, have had the opportunity to view this film twice. I had many conflicting responses to the film itself, but as of late, I am more deeply concerned about the legacy of the film. I think that his call to action is not going to achieve what it wants – because it leaves the viewer confused and headed down the wrong path.
    The media company that is promoting the film likes to promote films with a social action associated with it. They were behind films such as “An Inconvenient Truth”, Davis’ first film and “Food Inc”.
    Last night, I re-watched “Food, Inc.” and I noticed something that I am absolutely stunned and worried about. No, it wasn’t the absolute disdain for our food culture in America…being a Berkeley girl, like you, very little of that message was new to me. But what I did notice at the end of Food Inc, you may remember – there is a big call to action. It seems very logical, simple and straightforward:
    1) Americans are the customers
    2) The farms, food producers and other industries will accommodate the demands of the customer.
    Pretty simple – what do we need to do to change this tidal wave of unhealthy, processed food? Simply start supporting and DEMANDING locally grown, organic and unprocessed food. Boom, problem solved. OK, so I know its not that simple, but the call to action is that simple.
    Here’s where, I believe, “Waiting for Superman” has got it all wrong. Even if you believe the movie doesn’t do the problems justice – the solutions are even worse. As you point out many parts of the film that could be misconstrued, or are possibly showing only one part of the issue. However, there is major consensus among even the most knowledgeable public school advocates that public schools can and should be improved in the United States, and more specifically, here in California. But what worries me is that Guggenheim doesn’t have a clear call to action. And what he, and the media company, have chosen to list as part of the solution…. are, in my opinion, a HUGE part of the problem!
    So, I am deeply concerned that “Superman’s” call to action includes many of the band-aids that have plagued public schools and, in large part, have contributed to the vast inequities. If you look at the website http://www.waitingforsuperman.com – there are choices “take action”, “fix the schools” – and when you click on those links, it is almost so confusing you have no idea where to start. To be fair, some of the suggested actions make sense, like, “Find out who your local school board members are and ask what they are doing to improve the quality of your schools.” Makes sense to me. I am sure it wouldn’t be hard for someone to look at your blog or even the SFUSD website and determine what you are doing or attempting do to improve the quality of SFUSD schools.
    However, keep clicking and you find yourself on the “Social Action Partners” tab. And who is front and center? The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Eli Broad Foundation, The Doris an Don Fischer Foundation, The Walton Foundation – and way at the bottom are other organizations, many of whom do wonderful things for our schools, for example, First Book and United Way. But not one of these organizations has offered true systemic changes that are sustainable and more importantly EQUITABLE. Foundations and non-profits can pick and choose what they believe in and therefore invest in. Many, including Diane Ravitch, in her new book ,believe that the “billionaire boys club” as she refers to it, are part of the problem in American public education today. They have become so powerful and education is their pet project. Thus, enormous donations have flooded charter schools and private non-profit organizations. Meanwhile, the system hasn’t changed, and the inequities are getting larger. The bottom line is – this is NOT a call to action. This film hasn’t provided a channel to improve our schools. Only improve or change a few schools for a few kids.
    Because the film will be so widely distributed, and it has an opportunity to be change agent or at least ignite a spark, I am deeply disappointed that there wasn’t more thought put into the call to action.
    In reflecting about my own “call to action”, I realized that I already donate books, volunteer in the classroom, donate money, and write my legislators – and guess what? Our schools are still failing the majority of our students, and the inequities are growing. My call to action is to unite with other parents, Californians and demand systemic change. It won’t be easy, and it might be a long marathon….but with other passionate and dedicated parents, I think it will be possible.

  15. Here’s video of the small number of teachers protesting Bill Gates and getting heckled, with Randi Weingarten egging on the hecklers:

  16. Jill Tucker’s interview with Guggenheim in the Chronicle was quite emphatic (given Tucker’s professionally mild reporter’s voice) about the filmmaker’s absolute lack of actual contact with public school in his real life. He was private-schooled and so are his kids. I know that people who spend their lives in the private-school world sometimes come to fear and even demonize public education. It’s ironic that a film about education would essentially be based on proudly celebrating ignorance, though.

    A couple of other things: I’m not versed in the politics of the national teachers’ unions, but I know that Randi Weingarten has recently been coming down firmly on the side of what cynics call the “education deformers.” Recently, Bill Gates (a non-admired figure among education-reform skeptics) spoke at the national convention of her American Federation of Teachers. A small group of the teacher delegates protested his appearance by walking out, and Weingarten egged on the other delegates to taunt the protesters. (On a video I saw, the delegates doing the taunting were older women. Only a few days later, Gates made a speech calling for slashing pensions for retired teachers, which would likely hit those women pretty hard. Not very appreciative of him. But I digress.) Anyway, Weingarten seems to be in Guggenheim’s camp, so it’s hard to figure what his criticism is about.

    Also, by the way, in regard to the notion that teacher tenure is the tool of Satan that leads to low achievement: Actually, the states with right-to-work laws, meaning that teachers have no job security, are consistently the states with far lower academic achievement. That seems awfully definitive, so it’s hard to figure why so many opinion leaders don’t see it — or at least pretend not to.

  17. Claudia Vizcarra

    thanks for a clear and thoughtful review, it’s so good, i’m sharing broadly w/my friends.