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Movie Review: Waiting for “Superman”

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Last week, I attended an advanced screening of Waiting for “Superman” here in Miami. Though the film opened in selected markets on September 24th, the Miami official opening was slated for a few days after this screening. The preview was sponsored in part by Everybody Wins! South Florida, of which, in the interests of full disclosure, I am a supporter. The web site of Everybody Wins! USA presents the organization’s mission as, “Everybody Wins! is a national children’s literacy and mentoring nonprofit proven to build the skills and love of reading among low-income elementary students,” so sponsorship of this important (and controversial) documentary was a natural for them.

The film’s title comes from Geoffrey Canada, who as founder and CEO of Harlem Childrens Zone charter schools, is seen throughout the film. A dedicated and very successful educator who grew up in New York’s South Bronx neighborhood, Canada tells us early on, “One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me ‘Superman’ did not exist. ‘Cause even in the depths of the ghetto you just thought he was coming…She thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real. I was crying because no one was coming with enough power to save us.”

Directed, co-written and narrated by Davis Guggenheim ( An Inconvenient Truth), Waiting For “Superman” is making a lot of waves in the educational community, and rightly so. To begin with, Guggenheim takes on the powerful and influential teachers unions, the largest two of which, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) are together the biggest contributors to political campaign funds on a national level, and especially in Washington, with a combined total of $5.4 million in campaign contributions during the 2008 election season, 95% to Democratic candidates.

Guggenheim takes the two unions to task for their work rules, especially the concept of tenure, which he points out makes it almost impossible to fire teachers and which engenders the annual educational ritual of principals shuffling inadequate teachers from school to school in a vain effort to get rid of them. This exercise in futility is variously known around the country as the Dance of the Lemons, the Turkey Trot and Pass the Trash. As a taxpayer, I was particularly offended by the scene in New York’s infamous “Rubber Room,” where teachers who have been determined by their schools’ administrations to be utterly inadequate and failures as teachers spend their entire workdays at full pay, sometimes for years, awaiting the outcome of negotiations between their union and school authorities. As we see individual teachers reading the paper and even sleeping, Guggenheim’s narration informs us that the Rubber Room costs New York taxpayers 65 million dollars a year!

But Waiting for “Superman” is well balanced; Guggenheim follows the stories of five youngsters, ranging in age from kindergarten to eighth grade, and their parents as they struggle to receive an adequate education under very trying circumstances. One by one, we are introduced to Bianca, the kindergartner, who is from Harlem; Francisco, a first-grader in the Bronx; Daisy, a fifth-grader living in Los Angeles; Anthony, from the nation’s capital, another fifth grader; and Emily, who is an eighth-grader from Redwood City, California, and the only one of the five not from an impoverished family.

The kids, all but one living in disadvantaged neighborhoods and attending “failure factories,” are personable and engaging and, along with their parents (mostly single mothers), determined to better their lot in life, obtain a good education and succeed. They are the true heroes of this film, and toward the end, as their respective lotteries are held, we share their joy and pain as they learn their fates.

In addition to the kids and Geoffrey Canada, Guggenheim focuses his cameras on the Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public School system, Michelle Rhee. A dynamic and forceful administrator who admits in the film that she is not very popular among the District’s teachers, she is cast by Guggenheim as another of his heroes. Since becoming Chancellor, Ms Rhee has shaken up the DC schools, closing nearly a hundred of them, and firing a number of principals, and Guggenheim’s depiction of her is flattering but factual.

Waiting For “Superman” is not without flaws. Though as a film it is visually impressive and engaging, with excellent production values and a well-written script, especially the narration (Guggenheim’s voiceover is superb), where the documentary stumbles is in its treatment of the facts, not so much by commission, but by omission. A particular case in point: charter schools. The film emphasizes repeatedly (and deservedly so) the good that Geoffrey Canada and others are accomplishing with their charter organizations, but glosses over (but does mention) the fact that charter schools as a whole have a significantly high failure rate, as measured by student testing, which in some areas even exceeds the rates of competing public schools. Additionally, while Waiting For “Superman” correctly assigns most of the blame for the failure of US public schools over the past several decades to the teacher unions, it all but ignores (or gives very short shrift to) such factors as bureaucratic meddling and ineptitude, voter apathy on school tax issues (a major problem here in Florida, where a significant portion of the voting population are childless elders), apathetic parents, and inadequate education and preparation of educators.

All in all, Waiting For “Superman” is an important and timely film. Few thinking people in today’s America would disagree that our educational system is badly broken, and Davis Guggenheim’s well-crafted documentary takes an important and much needed step towards igniting a national dialogue on this issue so vital to our nation’s future.

Go see it.

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About Clavos

Raised in Mexico by American parents, Clavos is proudly bi-cultural, and considers both Spanish and English as his native languages. A lifelong boating enthusiast, Clavos lives aboard his ancient trawler, Second Act, in Coconut Grove, Florida and enjoys cruising the Bahamas and Florida Keys from that base. When not dealing with the never-ending maintenance issues inherent in ancient trawlers, Clavos sells yachts to finance his boat habit, but his real love (after boating, of course) is writing and editing; a craft he has practiced at Blogcritics since 2006.
  • lloyd

    You mentioned that the film all but ignored apathetic parents. Having tried to find the best for our 5 children through their educations (just a few more years to go), we have tried public schools, private schools, home schooling and accredited home school co-ops. After all that and four good college experiences so far, I am convinced that the key to the successful education of almost any child is directly related to the quality and quantity of the involvement of the parents in that education. This alone can make up for almost the worst the education system can throw at you. Parents, not the schools, not the government, should be and are responsible for the education of their children.
    Of course, there are exceptions. Some succeed in spite of their parents, too. I have an acquaintance whose mother went bar hopping every night when he was growing up. She took him with her, and he did his homework in the bars (don’t know how he was allowed in). He went to medical school and is a practicing physician today. It can happen.
    The other big problem with the public education system is the involvement of the federal government (not constitutional). It should stay out of it, the Department of Education should be dissolved, and the education of the American youth left up to the parents and the local school districts.
    I’m looking forward to seeing the movie. Thanks for the good review.

  • Clavos

    Doug, forgot to say do see the movie, it’s very impressive.

  • Clavos

    Sorry for the delay in response, Doug, somehow I missed the email notifying me.

    You ask: “Is tailoring our entire education system around what could work at the worst of the worst schools really a good idea?” No, emphatically, it is not and if I gave the impression that Guggenheim was advocating a blanket “solution” like that, I apologize; he wasn’t, but his focus in the film, centered around the five youngsters mentioned in the review, is naturally enough on the state of schools in impoverished neighborhoods — some of which qualify as the so-called “failure factories.”

    Your point about aiming our schools (and society in general) at the lowest common denominator is well taken; we do have a tendency to do that, and I think it stems from the egalitarian nature of our society,which is a good principle, but we do need to learn how to balance between the extremes while staying true to our principles.

  • Doug Hunter

    I have yet to see the movie, but your review has made me want to. You mention the film is well balanced, yet say it focuses on ‘failure factories’. Is tailoring our entire education system around what could work at the worst of the worst schools really a good idea? I think we spend too much time building and regulating society around the lowest common denominator while ignoring the needs of the other 90% of the population as is. It’s possible that the problems on display at the ‘failure factories’ aren’t the same as those of the education system as a whole.

  • The kids in the film at least have parents or caregivers who want them to succeed and try to do something about it.

    No doubt many urban kids [and others] suffer because of apathy at home. That would be a difficult thing to portray in a film like this one. Apathy is probably a worse disaster than poverty alone.

  • Clavos

    A very cogent insight, QA, thank you.

    And you’re right; Guggenheim gives only passing and superficial attention to the home situations of these kids — it’s a significant shortcoming of the film.

    That said, his treatment of problems on the school/school system side of the issue is both fairly thorough, and in my opinion, dead on.

  • Quondam Amicus

    Sounds like a very good film, and I look forward to seeing it. Apparently most of the causality is laid at the feet of the unions; I hope Guggenheim at least tips his hat to the discipline issues which teachers are virtually helpless to correct in any meaningful way.

    Due to the social disorder directly related to the rise of the mid-20th century welfare state, and it’s licentiousness promotion of single parent households, the very fabric of societal order has been ripped. This situation, combined with, and further exacerbated by, a continually skyrocketing divorce rate have disrupted and destroyed the home lives of over half of the children attending public schools. The damage to these kids isn’t always immediately apparent, but it manifests itself eventually.

    It’s no wonder teachers can’t teach. The “Lord of the Flies” has conquered the classroom.

  • Thank you, Dan, for a typically Carl Paladino-esque positive and forward-looking statement. Pray, elaborate on “the racial component of dysfunctional school systems.” We’re all ears.

  • Dan

    hardcore proggressives would sooner chew glass than acknowledge the racial component of dysfunctional school systems.

    The grand diversity that all are mandated to proclaim a “strength” is more pronounced in the K thru 12 demographic. This is our future.

    It’s too thorny a problem to actually solve. But parents have been figuring out ways– usually expensive, and requiring sacrifice– to keep their own kids segregated from underclass kids, so we’ll probably continue to muddle through by throwing money at liberal bureaucrats who think up creative but “inside the box” (politically correct) policy solutions guaranteed to fail.

  • Clavos

    The most important aspect of Waiting for “Superman” is that it is stirring up awareness on the part of the citizenry that we have a huge problem with our educational system. I don’t think that even Guggenheim would say that everything he points out in the movie is the ONLY point of view, or even necessarily the best one. I think his intention was to stir up the debate, and in that, I think he has succeeded admirably.

    It’s interesting to me, as a denizen of the Politics section (now BigTent) of Blogcritics for a number of years, that this topic — this problem, is the closest thing to a truly bipartisan issue I’ve seen in many years. For this reason, I believe it is incumbent upon all of us who care about America, about her kids, and most importantly, about our future, to participate in the discussion, do our homework, and do what we can to see that the country arrives at a workable solution to a very real and scary problem.

  • Clav,

    Nice work. I agree that teacher unions have grossly overstepped their bounds. I remember years ago being rather appalled that there was such a thing. I naively thought that unions were the stuff of stevedores and steel workers – blue collar folks. Unionizing teachers just seemed wrong to me. I felt then and still do now, that unionizing teachers rendered them somehow less professional and gave credence to the notion which seems to pervade here in the US that teaching is NOT a profession, but rather, just a job.

    That being said, I believe that teachers – especially good teachers – are terribly undervalued and generally underpaid. Many other countries value their teachers highly and pay them in kind. Here, the adage – “Those who can – do, those who can’t – teach.” is sad, and perhaps all too often, true.

    I don’t believe that teacher unions are the whole problem, nor are they all bad. As you rightly stated the problem is much more comprehensive than that. Many teachers are in fact good at what they do, but are oft times thwarted in their efforts as they have little support from administrations and/or the community at large.

    My wife taught in the Indianapolis Public School system several years ago. Early on she complained at not having enough books and other classroom materials. She was told to forget about it; to just give the kids busy work – word searches & the like. As was the case for many teachers then, and I assume likely, now, she had to pay for supplies – paper, pencils, & whatever – out of her own pocket as the system had little to offer. (At that time teachers were allowed 1 ream of paper per classroom, per year.) The main goal of administrators was that teachers were to keep the kids relatively quiet and to prevent them from killing each other. Anything else was gravy.

    There are some glimmers of hope out there, but there is obviously a long way to go.


  • I don’t know why people feel a knee-jerk need to “rebut” this movie, which is as positive-spirited and non-confrontational a treatment of this subject as one can possibly imagine.

    There shouldn’t even be such things as “failure factories.” There should be no need for heartbreaking, demeaning public lotteries where a few celebrate and many cry as they find out whether they got one of the sparse spots available in the successful charter schools.

    No, charter schools are not the magic solution for all problems. But this movie is helping to encourage a national conversation, one we need to have.

  • Clavos

    Thanks, EB, I enjoyed both experiences; the movie and writing the review, so I hope to be back.

  • Very good job. That sounds exactly like the movie I saw. Don’t know if you have time for other movies but don’t be a stranger.

  • landon

    Take a look at this article–food for thought.