“Waiting for Superman” ? Keep Waiting!

Last night, I finally went to see Waiting for Superman, the new documentary about education by Davis Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning director of “An Inconvenient Truth.” As a high school teacher, as well as an education journalist, I was anxious to see the movie that is stirring up so much controversy.

I got a strong sense of where the film was headed from the opening sequence: Guggenheim drives by three public schools in order to drop his own children off at a private school. And I was not disappointed. Much of the film is devoted to bashing  all “regular” public schools in general, and lavishing praise on all public charter schools.

A Compelling Storyline

To give Guggenheim credit, he is a gifted storyteller. We are pulled into the stories of Anthony, Bianca, Daisy, Emily, and Francisco, delightful children who long for a good education and are supported by wonderful parents. We want them to do well, but apparently the only way they can succeed is by gaining entry to a few high-demand charter schools. The director keeps us on the edge of our seats as we wait to hear the outcome of the lotteries that will determine the fate of these charismatic children. No prizes for guessing the outcome here.

A Disservice To Education

So much for Hollywood. Waiting for Superman may be good at pulling on the heart strings, but it does a terrible disservice to the cause of education. Let me explain. I have been involved in education for most of my professional life. I consider myself an excellent teacher, with plenty of appreciative notes from my students to attest to that. There are tens of thousands of others like me. Yet we do not exist in this film; we are dismissed.

Further, in narrating the movie, Guggenheim at one point states that bad teachers teach 50% of the curriculum, and excellent teachers teach 150% of the curriculum. He then presents an animated cartoon of teachers lifting up the tops of kids’ heads to pour information into their brains. Does he not have a clue as to what education is about? Here’s what he needs to know: education is about inspiration, behavior management, excitement, innovation, figuring out how to reach your students, high expectations, rigor, passion, just so many different elements.

Teaching is not about pouring in information for your students to regurgitate to you. Engaging each student individually is what it’s all about. Mr. Guggenheim, have you tried spending a day in an actual classroom, teaching? Every kid is different. That’s the challenge.

Bad Vs. Good

But back to Hollywood: just like the director of an action movie, Guggenheim does not hesitate to set up a bad guy/good guy paradigm in order to win over his audience. Teachers’ unions are the devil, and charter schools are the rescuing angels.

The unions are presented as the evil ones, preventing our education system from moving forward. A disclaimer here: I believe strongly that the tenure system is wrong. In no other profession is it possible to stay on the job for so many years without undergoing an evaluation that could mean your termination.


That said, Guggenheim presents a completely distorted view of unions.  No mention is made, for example, of the fact that Green Dot schools in Los Angeles, which he praises in the film, are in fact unionized, and they like it this way. Nor do we learn that in April, the Washington Teachers’ Union and the American Federation of Teachers agreed to a contract that includes many of D.C. Superintendent Michelle Rhee’s priorities, including her merit pay plan and an unprecedented weakening of tenure protections.

In other words, things are changing: although New York’s infamous rubber room is portrayed in the movie, in reality it no longer exists, and the cooperation of unions is beginning to happen across the country. In Colorado earlier this year, the American Federation of Teachers state affiliate signed on to the state’s Race to the Top application, which promised to make student achievement data count for up to 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation score, potentially totally reforming the process by which tenure is granted. It may be slow, but the teacher tenure process is being reformed, a fact totally ignored by Superman.

Even more surprising, while Bill Gates is quoted extensively in the film, we learn nothing of all the work that he has done, working with traditional, unionized school districts in places like Memphis, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles. He even addressed the American Federation of Teachers this past summer, praising the union: “In Washington, D.C., New York, New Haven, Tampa, Pittsburgh, Colorado – you have taken historic steps to bury old arguments and improve student achievement.”

In Praise Of Charter Schools

And now for the rescuing angels, the charter schools. Geoffrey Canada speaks throughout the film with a passionate belief that all children deserve the best education, and that’s great. Canada is a hero for many, many people, not least the parents of Harlem. What he has accomplished with the Harlem Children’s Zone is truly incredible. It’s also true that other charter networks featured in the movie, like the KIPP schools, have achieved stellar results educating some of our nation’s most economically deprived children. These examples are admirable.

But, as the film states, only one in five charter schools produces results like this. And, importantly, there are examples of stellar public schools also producing outstanding results. Check out PS 83 in East Harlem, and the George Hall Elementary School in Mobile, Alabama, for schools that are nationally recognized for successfully educating poor children.

A Distorted View Of Education

Waiting for Superman may be important in bringing the long-neglected issue of education to the forefront, but it is also flawed. Guggenheim clearly cares deeply about education. But his vision is narrow, and he has fiercely oversimplified both the educational process and the nature of our nation’s schools.  The complex problem of American educational inequality cannot be reduced to a simple black-and-white formula. It might make for a good movie premise, but it is a lie.

Creative Commons - Xurble


Michael Cunningham

"Students are expected to produce or they are history. Parents pay therefore they require results. "

Could this be proof that people do not respect the things for which they do not pay?

jane richmond
jane richmond7 years ago

Public schools are not what they used to be. Teachers are no longer respected by either the students or the parents. Schools are now day care centers for parents who either work or have better things to do than raise their own children. They are glorified babysitters. Heaven help the teacher who gives a homework assignment or strays from the script. Charter schools and private schools do not have these problems. Students are expected to produce or they are history. Parents pay therefore they require results. The system is broken in that the students are no longer the primary interest. Finding new ways to teach do not mean finding better ways. Let them get back to the business of teaching our young people and out of the pissing contest. The losers in all this mish mash are the students.

janet f.
janet f7 years ago

The bottom line is that the parents need to give a damn and make sure their kids are doing all they need to do to get a good education. You can have great teachers and throw all the money you want to at schools but it won't do a thing unless the parents are doing what they are supposed to do. Make sure the kids go to school and do their homework. Reading a book every once in a while is also a good idea. You need parents who take an active role in their children's upbringing or no amount of money/good teachers will make a difference.

John Mon
John Mon7 years ago

The schools are fine. It's the teachers that need help from the AWFUL unions that lead them! The rubber rooms might be gone but all those teachers that were getting full pay for sitting in a room were just given little tasks to perform. You might think they'd be happy to finally be doing something to earn all that money. No way! As soon as they were given their tasks to do they started complaining that some jobs weren't in their zip code, they might be a little further to travel. Now they all want to be returned to their rubber rooms! What does this tell you about unions? I've heard a number of reporters ask Randi, teachers union leader if teachers should be rated by performance and she'll say anything except yes!

Kay L.
KayL NOFORWARDS7 years ago

Distorted facts... parr for the course for anyone with an agenda.

Michael Cunningham

"Several of the charter schools mentioned in Waiting for Superman, have contracts signed by parents saying that if students don't "toe the line" then the student will be asked to leave. Public schools do NOT have that option."

No they don't! They just ship them off to a "special" school.

Michael Cunningham

"Charter Schools are taking money away from public schools. I think public schools need an overhaul and money and a lot of common sense to make them steller schools."

Let me see if I have this correct. The schools need an "overhaul". Just what would you propose?
The schools need MORE money? How much? The local school district, in a county with less that 600,000 people, has a budget in excess of $1 Billion. To fund 6,100 teachers. It appears that only 25% of that money finds its way into the classroom! Yet you want to give them MORE!?

"Charter Schools are taking money away from public schools."
This I need you to really try and explain. As I understand schools, if a child is enrolled in a charter school they are not enrolled in a public school. Yet you propose that the public school with fewer students receive as much money as they did before those students left. It seems to me that if students leave the school should not experience an increase in revenue!

In addition; "Charter schools in NYC get slightly less government funding than traditional public schools when in a public school building, and 18 percent less per student when it rents private space, a study by the city’s Independent Budget Office.

(U)ndertaken at the request of Patrick Sullivan, representative to the Panel for Educational Policy, confirmed in general terms that charter school students are allocated less city and state funds than their counterparts in traditional schools."

Great White Sha J.

Nice article, not a pressing topic and with great need; however, I agree we need new and better Superman movies (the 80s and Christopher Reeves was awesome).

Great White Sha J.

Marti R.,

Exactly!! That is my point, to parents that do not want all religions out of public education and huge majority of them that want even more religion(s) (of course, most want only their's to benefit)!!

Marti R.
Marti R7 years ago

There is more than one reason to send your children to non-public schools. Some parents actually WANT their children to be taught about God (which ever God they worship) in school.