MOVIE REVIEW: Waiting for Superman

Note: I hesitated to review Waiting for Superman because of our dispute with Mr. Guggenheim about our PBS NewsHour footage, but that dispute was resolved (there’s no truth to the rumor that I threatened to picket the Hollywood opening in my skivvies). It’s an important film about education, a subject I have been reporting on for 35 years, and those two facts outweigh the other consideration.

Waiting for SupermanThere’s much to admire about Waiting for Superman, Davis Guggenheim’s new film about public education. He and his colleagues know how to tell a story, the graphics are sensational, and some of the characters—notably Geoff Canada—just jump off the screen.

And I hope it does well at the box office, because that would demonstrate that a significant number of us care enough about education to spend a few bucks to see a documentary about it.

That said, the film strikes me as a mishmash of contradictions and unsupportable generalizations, even half-truths. And while it may make for box office, its message is oversimplified to the point of being insulting.

I realize that I am swimming against the stream on this, given that the movie has been glowingly reviewed by Tom Friedman in the New York Times and others, but please hear me out. The message of the movie can be reduced to a couple of aphorisms: charter schools are good, unions are bad, and great teachers are good.

Take the last point, one that no one can disagree with. Unfortunately, Waiting for Superman never takes the time to explore what makes a teacher great, although if memory serves almost all of the teachers who were on the screen when ‘goodness’ and ‘greatness’ were being talked about were young and white.

The movie demonizes Randi Weingarten and her union, the American Federation of Teachers, without giving her much of an opportunity to defend herself. Left off the hook completely are school boards (which signed and approved all those awful contracts!) and the National Education Association, the larger union and one that is more deeply entrenched in defending the status quo.

Charter schools are another confusing topic in the movie. Although there’s a throwaway line that says something to the effect that only one out of five charter schools is outstanding, the message of the movie is that charter schools represent education’s salvation. If only a small percentage of charters are great, shouldn’t we find out what makes the great ones great (besides ‘great teachers,’ whatever they are)? If you miss that one line—and I suspect most in the audience will—then the message is simply wrong. Is that intentional, or merely careless, on the part of Mr. Guggenheim and his colleagues?

But the largest contradiction involves the film’s star, Geoff Canada. His intelligence, energy and commitment are palpable, and he gets more ‘face time’ than anyone else (or so it would seem—I didn’t clock it). But Mr. Canada’s prescription for saving youngsters is radical—his Harlem Children’s Zone provides free, comprehensive services for children from birth and their parents—and the movie pointedly does not endorse that approach. That makes no sense, and it seems to me that the moviemakers are capitalizing on Mr. Canada’s charisma to advance their own feel-good agenda of great teachers, weak unions and charter schools.

(The movie’s title comes from a story Mr. Canada tells, and the filmmakers play off that story brilliantly, using footage from the black and white “Superman” TV series with humor and to great effect. I was told that Mr. Guggenheim’s working title for the movie was “Other People’s Children” until he heard Mr. Canada’s anecdote. That’s very plausible.)

Michelle Rhee is also featured in the film, but unfortunately the material about her is already very much out of date. She comes across as surprisingly flat, which is odd given that she is as compelling a figure as Mr. Canada.

The children are appealing, as are their parents, and their stories—trying to get into decent schools—are heart wrenching. I won’t spoil the ending by revealing the results of the various lotteries, but I can’t help but wonder about the “too good to be true” ending. As my Dad used to say, “If something seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t.”

Let me end by urging you to see Waiting for Superman yourself and make up your own mind. I’d like to see public support for films about education, even if my own title for this particular movie would be Waiting for Superficial Man, or something like that.

Watch the trailer:

38 thoughts on “MOVIE REVIEW: Waiting for Superman

  1. The message that nobody seems to be getting to Michelle Rhee is that she will have no legacy. As an educator, a DC resident and parent of a DCPS student, I really like the changes she has made and the improvements I have seen. But because of how she has gotten them done, any and every change and initiative that she put in place will be undone by the next mayor-chancellor team. It will not matter whether the changes and initiatives were for the better or not. Simply because they are associated with her, the next team will remove them.

    Rhee is an education marvel but a political idiot. Rhee must learn HOW to do things. She refuses to listen to anyone, just steamrolls on. Thus, the irony is that because of how she pushed these dramatic changes and improvements on the system, she is in danger of becoming the least effective school head in DCPS history. If she wants to create change, it must last long enough to have an impact.




  2. I only saw the preview clip, its is amazing that we have fallen so far behind in math and science. However, I think you make a very important point about discussing what makes a good or even a great teacher.
    By some standards if you fail a child that did not make the passing grade, you are a bad teacher. The way we assess student learning and academic success has fallen into a fuzzy gray area. Often teachers that attempt to get tough with high expectations and standards are often referred to as “to tough” among other things.
    I think it is important to see what is being said and just as important what is not being said about education.


  3. Well written review of Waiting for Superman. It is balanced and objective. However, I have a problem with the film itself. As you mention, the movie demoniizes Randi Weingarten and her union, the American Federation of Teachers, without giving her much of an opportunity to defend herself. It not ony demonizes Randi; it demonizes teachers at public schools.

    What the film fails to address is that the parents and community also play a significant role in education and they are failing at their jobs. Many parents don’t read to their kids, play with them, or provide enriched activities for them; they are struggling themselves and just don’t have the time or resources. Teachers are not “supermen;” they alone cannot educate kids. The reason charter schools do better is because the parents are required to be involved. We need to support young parents and also support teachers—not demonize them.


  4. So, ‘we’ underfund our public schools to a degree that can only be described as criminal, underpay teachers for generations(!), and butcher core curriculum with all the care and logic of a drunken axe-wielding maniac…….And then complain about the outcome of public education?

    Charter/private school advocates rarely draw attention to some of their primary goals – the further deconstruction of every advancement of the New Deal, and the removal of such inconvenient impediments as the federal prohibition on religion in our schools, as well as that of various forms of discrimination.

    Charter/private schools will be the death of education in this country.

    This film sounds like pretty (and thinly-veiled) propaganda to me……Very disappointing….


    • Having helped write the nation’s first charter, and having testified in 20 states on the charter idea I can’t DISAGREE more on your assertion about charter advocates having the “further deconstructon of every advancement of the New Deal…” as their goals. The late Paul Wellstone, President Bill Clinton, the late Rosa Parks and the current President of the United States are advocates of having more strong charter public schools.

      Charter advocates, like district advocates, are all over the map philosophically. Rhetoric such as Mr. Compton’s does not help students or public schools.


      • Hey, I am not against charter schools (the good ones). I am a charter school parent in nyc. I am against is their taking the “voice of the parent” away. I am against them implementing such disciplinary methods as the merit/demerit system where kids get penalized (points taken away – points that are averaged into final grades) for infractions (what they call them) such as a pencil falling on the floor, a child with an involuntary action (passing gas – in all forms, rubbing their eyes due to allergies – feeling ill and asking permission to see the medical staff, not sitting straight up, not looking at teachers straight in the eye). Please in the memory of Ms. Parks do not use her name – I am sure she thought they were good too, but if she saw how the rights of these kids (predominantely black & hispanic) are taken away and the voice of the parent she would be able to relate. The kids are intimidated to be robots who behave so when the board brings potential investors around they are sitting down like robots and told what to do. Charter schools could flourish and might be the answer but keep that AWFUL emotional abuse away from the kids – someone needs to start a movement on kids rights in charter schools. Merit demerit system was created because the creators feel the kids are not being raised properly at home and the school needs to do it – NO – focus on school work and I don’t mean just reading and writing…you know the basics “middle schools” get….


  5. Does anyone involved with this film actually have kids in a public school? Guggenheim and Billy Kimball sure don’t. I doubt anyone at Participant Prods. has kids in LAUSD.


  6. It’s interesting to look at some points about the charter schools Guggenheim exalts, given that charter skeptics like me contend that a critical advantage enjoyed by many of the successful charters is that they self-select for more-motivated, high-functioning families (those who trouble to learn about them, are willing to try a lottery with long odds, etc.) and that they readily kick out students who don’t get with the program.

    Here are some factoids about three of them.

    — The SEED school kicks out 70% of its students between enrollment and graduation. (Source: a New York Times Sunday Magazine profile of the school.)
    — Geoffrey Canada threw out basically the Promise Academy’s entire 8th-grade class a couple of years ago. (Source: accounts of Paul Tough’s book about HCZ, which I haven’t read myself.)
    — The Los Angeles KIPP school portrayed has 50+ percent attrition between 6th and 8th grade, and when students leave, they and not replaced. (Source: My own research in the California Department of Education database.)

    That doesn’t mean they’re not good schools, but those points raise eyebrows, you have to admit.

    And in a fourth case portrayed — the exaltation of Summit Prep Charter over Woodside High School on the San Francisco Peninsula — those of us here in the area are all “WTF?” In real life, Woodside High is perfectly respected and considered a decent school, and Summit’s reputation can best be described as “meh.” On what planet is Summit considered an escape from Woodside High? Then Guggenheim somehow portrays the miracle difference as the fact that Woodside tracks and Summit doesn’t — again, WTF? Lots of parents like tracking; it works for lots of kids; some prefer no tracking. It’s often considered a more effective way to meet the needs and level of particular students. Anyone with a clue has to be sitting there wondering where the heck Guggenheim got the notion that tracking is a horrific thing that terrorizes families into pleading for seats at obscure and marginal charter schools.

    The fifth school I have no information about. The Woodside/Summit real life-vs.-big-screen disparity pretty much discredits anything else Guggenheim puts on the screen, though.

    By the way, one moment that really offended me as a journalist is this, which I have to paraphrase as I wasn’t taking notes: Guggenheim, narrating, makes a ringing statement along the lines that it used to be believed that poverty was the cause of bad schools, but now we have learned that actually, bad schools cause poverty. Then he zips off to interview a prison official about the high cost of imprisoning people (the unwary viewer might believe that the prison official’s comments are being made to back up Guggenheim’s startling claim, but actually there is no connection). There is never one shred of backup or supporting opinion for Guggenheim’s statement that bad schools cause poverty. What a weasel!

    Also, I was wondering if it’s really the norm for parents to give their kids a whole big song and dance about how they have to get into these exalted charters or they’ll die in the gutter, and then drag the kids off to the lotteries with them. What’s that about — what is wrong with these parents? Or were the lottery scenes with the roomful of whole families just faked for the movie?


    • CarolineSF: Thanks for your comments about Woodside. As a parent of a sophomore at Woodside who saw the film ten days ago, I am dismayed at the portrait painted of Woodside. The filmmakers did not even come visit Woodside. If they had, they would have found a high school that is an innovative leader in education – educating students from many backgrounds.

      Also, the whole part of the film about the lotteries was horrible. Why can’t that kind of thing be done through the mail…perhaps because it wouldn’t have caused the drama the film needed.


  7. Oh yeah, and where’s the expose about the parochial school that refused to let the little girl attend her fifth-grade graduation because Mom couldn’t make the tuition payment? (The girl who lives across the street from the school and is shown watching out the window and weeping as the graduation she’s shut out of goes on.)

    Now that’s what Jesus would do.


    • My reaction exactly. My wife, a school principal, was horrified that a school would punish the child for the shortcomings of the parents.


  8. I am very pleased to see such thoughtful, insightful comments. The current hysterical screaming about “failed public education” outrages me. We live in a country that places absolutely no value on genuine education — would an educated public have believed that Iraq was involved in the events of September 11, 2001? — then we foam at the mouth about the “state of education.” As a commenter above said, education begins in the home. But our culture does not encourage reading, thinking, attending educational or cultural events, instead it encourages consumption, the burning of petroleum for recreation, and the passive viewing of loud, violent, and fast-moving images on screens.

    I live in an area with an incredibly high number of children in special education, some of them downstream from a chemical company that contaminated the water with mercury. Are charter schools going to serve these children? It is no longer simply poor children who end up in special education, but many middle-class children due to the dramatic rise in autism. Are charter schools going to serve these children?

    I do not dispute that there are teachers who are not the best and brightest. However, I would like someone to point to any job or profession only filled with the best and brightest. One can hardly say that doctors’ and surgeons’ ranks are only filled with the best and brightest. What offends people is not that some teachers are not very good or mediocre, but that they are UNIONIZED. I am sick of propaganda aimed at destroying unions, and that seems to be what Whoring for Superman is all about.


  9. We had an opportunity to see Waiting for Superman recently. What a powerful documentary. It presents many of the problems in our education system, suggestions to fix it and many success stories. Unfortunately, the information presented about Woodside High School, located in Silicon Valley, left an impression that Woodside does not do a good job educating its students, when in fact, it is an outstanding high school where students receive a top notch education.

    The filmmakers were offered an opportunity to learn more about Woodside, but regretfully, they declined. Had they visited Woodside and talked with staff, students, administrators or parents, they likely would have avoided some of the mischaracterizations and misrepresentations in the film.

    The information presented in the film about graduation rates and college acceptances is very misleading. Those statistics came from a UCLA study that uses data which tracks students from 9th to 12th grade. The study does not take into account the number of incoming freshmen who are enrolled at Woodside and decide to attend a private or charter school, or move out of the area, without notifying the school before the school year begins. Nor does the study include the number of students who move out of the area during their high school years. Even more inaccurate, the study only includes the seniors who go on to attend California colleges, and leaves out the 10-20% who choose to attend private universities, vocational schools and out-of-state public universities and community colleges.

    In fact, looking at Woodside’s entering freshmen class of 2004 through the graduating class of 2008, 92.4% of those students graduated. The dropout rate was 4.9%. The other 3% of students either moved out of the area, changed schools or were reassigned to special programs. The film should have just used the graduation rate and drop out data, but that would have inconveniently disproved their thesis.

    The Woodside staff is very focused on qualifying students for admittance to college. Most recently, 93% of the graduating Class of 2010 were accepted and committed to attending either a four-year or two-year college. The other seven percent joined the military, went to technical school, decided to work, or chose a gap year experience. The film seems to make an issue of students attending a two-year college. For some students, going to Community College is definitely the right move. Two-year colleges can have smaller class sizes than a four-year university and cost much less. There is a wonderful policy in California which offers a student who completes the required courses at one of the Community Colleges, to be automatically admitted to a California State University, and even receive priority admission to a University of California school as a junior. For some students, this is a golden opportunity.

    As for tracking, the film is flat out wrong – Woodside does not track. Students are given opportunities to advance in subjects if teachers and students think they will succeed. Woodside offers a great summer program, open to all students, which allows a student to advance an entire level in math so that they can get ahead in their math studies.

    Waiting for Superman does not take into account that Woodside must accept every student, whether they are English Language Learners, special education students or students with learning disabilities. It does not talk about all the support services offered to Woodside students who need extra help. The school has an Academic Resource Center open all day where students can meet with a certified teacher to get the extra help they need. They have after school tutoring in the library. They have an AVID program that prepares first-generation college students, or those students in the academic middle, for college.

    WHS also has the Counseling and Advocacy for Teens program – a counseling program staffed with a licensed clinical social worker and interns from local colleges. These counselors provide assistance to students experiencing academic, social, personal, or crisis counseling needs – a great benefit for those attending Woodside High School.

    Waiting for Superman suggests that Woodside High School is living in the past. This could not be more wrong! If anything, WHS is not only keeping up with the world around it, but is an innovative leader. WHS offers many great programs that are essential in today’s world. These include an extensive offering of Advanced Placement courses, robotics and engineering classes, environmental (green) education classes, and a Mandarin language program. In addition, Woodside is about to break ground on a state-of-the-art digital and media arts building where students will be able to learn about photo, audio and video production, animation and web design. WHS hosts a “College Day” in October where the freshmen take a field trip to Cal or Stanford, sophomores and juniors take the PSAT, and seniors spend all day in workshops learning about college applications, financial aid, and career opportunities. In March, the College and Career Center offers “March into College” a series of four evening workshops where parents and students learn together about college choices, the application process and financial aid.

    Waiting for Superman paints an inaccurate picture of Woodside High School and has regrettably tarnished the school’s reputation. Again, had the filmmakers actually visited the school, this mischaracterization would never have happened. Unfortunately, there is no way for those of us who know the truth about Woodside to reach everyone who sees the movie. We appreciate this opportunity to shine a light on a wonderful school and set the record straight.

    Sarah Blatner
    Donna Habeeb
    Woodside High School Parents


  10. Many, many years ago I had a brilliant high school English teacher who, after one semester, left to take care of her new baby. Her successor was miserable – one of those who the literature would call a “bad teacher.” She was putting in time, and would, with some frequency, ask us to write “about anything.” By the third of those “anything” essays I was writing “how to teach English in High School” papers. She, predictably, rewarded such papers with a “D.”

    The next year I had the head of the English department for a nice Great Books course. We enjoyed the books, and he had occasion to ask why I’d done so badly the year before. “She was awful,” I replied, “and so I told her so.” “I did too,” said the Department Head. “I fired her.” We laughed.

    My point is that I remember more about teaching from the bad one than the good one. We learn much from bad experiences. And this insufferable junk about “all good teachers” from the likes of a former Superintendent in Chicago is flat out absurd. Regardless of unionization, schools remain – what real public schools there be – the refuge of Horace Mann’s vision of community, and, if we learn nothing else, we learn well from each other whatever it is. That hardly means we do nothing to improve schools. Yet it equally means that all such efforts have their rewards, regardless of their success. Some of those efforts are more effective than others, that’s all. And it’s nice to know the better ones.


    • At last, a refreshing comment on the “great teacher” nonsense. Why aren’t we talking about strong schools or good school systems?

      The only part of Waiting for Superman that I liked was the comment at the very end – the lottery won’t fix schools, nor will Superman; you have to fix the schools. Unfortunately, the film says nothing along these lines.


  11. Please remember that Caroline, who comments so negatively on charters has at least one of her children in a San Francisco “magnet” school that has a tough admission test. If Ihad hte power, I’d eliminate all public schools with admission tests. Caroline is fine with these publicly funded, essentially private, elite schools. But she spends many hours a week dissing charter public schools that have no admissions tests.


  12. I haven’t seen the whole movie, just trailers. However, I did see “The Lottery” and was upset. It angered me that teachers were viewed people that wake up each morning, go to a building and wait to collect a check. We are there and in the profession because we love kids and we love our subject area. We deal with many issues that kids did not have to face or deal with when I was in high school. I have young men that are the bread winners for their families and are expected to go out and earn a living in anything as long as it brings home money. I have young girls that must take care of 3 or 4 younger sibling because their mom is disabled or ill yet they student is taking advance courses and has her eyes set on a higher education.
    Yes, we do have others whose parents can’t deal with the behavior of their kids and will do anything to not have their kids sent home due to misbehavior.
    But the number one issue I heard in the movie and we face daily is the lack of administrative help. Some administrators do not have the classroom experience. They are wisked through the system to become the next shooting star. Rememnber a shooting star is bright and glorious but for a second. You must train to run the marathon. Others are just waiting to go to the district level and never connect to the staff or students. And of course there are so many expectaitons that are not related to the growth and well being of the student that must be full-filled by administration that they don’t have the time to really look at the whole picture.
    It is time to stop putting so muchemphasis on pie graphs, stop thinking that one idea can fix everything. We are so focused on “common board configurations”, where all white boards must have so many required items that we have no board space to write a graphic organizer or picture when the concept is still vague on the students faces.
    Stop taking kids out to test every two weeks to see how the big test in the spring might come out. Stop telling and showing the kids that they are difficient in an area, and testing and re-testing. Let us teach. Let us connect with our students. You can have an assessment that shows student gains in knowledge in our subject but can you let us teach?


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