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.
There’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: