Waiting for Superman: An Education Rescue, or a Hit Job?

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By Patrick Boyle    

Waiting for Superman, the 100-minute diatribe about the failures of American public education, has won praise from as high up as President Barack Obama. “This is a great American story,” the president told the child stars of Superman during a recent Oval Office visit.

What’s more, leading youth organizations are trying to capitalize on the public debate provoked by the documentary, urging people to see it and steering them to ways to help disadvantaged kids.

But not everyone is impressed. Valerie Strauss, a longtime education reporter and blogger at The Washington Post, calls Superman “an often misleading and sometimes dishonest look at the public education system.” The American Federation of Teachers basically calls the movie a lie.

Director Davis Guggenheim (who also directed An Inconvenient Truth) has ignited the conversation that he hoped for. His main suppositions:  

  • America’s public schools are a scandal.
  • America’s teachers and their unions are the culprits.

The movie delivers those messages through headshot interviews (Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada gets the leading role), animation-enlivened data and, most grippingly, by following five young, struggling students whose wide-eyed  ambitions threaten to be quashed by their schools. Four of those schools stand as caricatures of urban hellholes; the other appears to be a mediocre suburban school.

In the broad brushstrokes of Superman, however, just about every public school comes off as so sinfully inept that it’s a wonder that the students learn to add. It posits that standing in the way of change is the educational bureaucracy – most notably the teachers unions, for forcing upon school systems contracts that protect the jobs of bad teachers at the expense of the children. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, comes off as so evil that she could wear horns.

Among the heroes are Canada and Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who tell about the frustrations of trying to enact core changes in education systems in the face of resistance from entrenched administrators and teachers. (Rhee’s reform campaign drew so much backlash from parents, teachers and the city’s new mayor-elect that she resigned this month.)

One Superman in the wings: charter schools, painted as the antithesis of the bloated, lazy public school system. Each of the five students that the film follows enters a lottery to get into charter schools – a quest that provides the movie’s dramatic narrative and heart-tugging conclusion.

Praise and criticism

Among general audiences, Superman has been widely hailed. It’s been called a “masterpiece of moral clarity” (Big Hollywood) and  “edifying and heartbreaking” (Time), and won a presidential imprimatur with the children’s Oval office visit this month. (Guggenheim did video work for Obama when he was running for president, including a biographical film and an infomercial about him.)

New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein is among the reformers hoping that Superman will boost their agenda for change, telling New York magazine that the movie “grabs at you. It should grab at you. Those kids are dying.”

In much of the education system, however, the response has been critical. The most common complaint: The movie tries to sell a simple solution to a complex problem.

The American Federation of Teachers created a page at its website entitled Not Waiting for Superman, which calls the movie “incomplete and inaccurate,” showcases good public schools and offers tools for teachers to promote their own schools. The National Education Association also created a page of resources to rebut Superman, including links to published criticism and other websites about the movie.

Criticism has also come from those who advocate or follow education reform.

At an education reform conference hosted by The Century Foundation last week, urban expert David Rusk called the movie’s prescription for change – vastly improve education by improving teacher quality – “nonsense.”

Strauss, of The Post, notes that most charter schools do no better than local, traditional schools when it comes to test scores.

Others find fault with the movie’s dramatic focus on those five children: Each benefits from incredibly involved parents or grandparents. “I don’t care how many jobs I have to attain  – she will go to college,” one woman says of her child. 

On the Huffington Post, English professor Joel Shatzky (of Kingsborough Community College in New York) says these youths are so out of the norm to be useless as representatives of the vast majority of kids stuck in lousy schools. For most of those youths, he writes, parental indifference and absenteeism are major factors behind their struggles – an idea not touched by the movie.

Youth work tie-in

Regardless of what one thinks of the film, some youth groups want to make sure that they are part of the discussions about it.

After Mentor President Larry Wright saw a screening of the film several months ago, he came away thinking “this is going to be a hot topic,” and sought to make mentoring part of the answer for viewers who want take action. Like the AFT and NEA, Mentor has created a Superman page on its website – this one promoting the film and guiding visitors to resources to get involved. One of those resources is the movie’s website, where the “what you can do” page includes a link to Mentor’s guide to finding mentoring opportunities by ZIP code.

America’s Promise (AP) also created a Superman page on its website, which includes downloadable tool kits to be used by facilitators who organize viewings and discussions. The materials are aimed at such groups as community organizations, parents and business people.

David Park, AP’s senior vice president for communications and marketing, said AP hopes such discussions will help “get more people involved and invested” in the education system, “and help people understand that they have a role to play regardless of whether they have children in the school system or not.”

Mentor and AP hope the movie will get more non-educators involved in education reform. “It’s harder to do that,” Park said, “but it’s ultimately what needs to happen in order to create movement.”

Patrick Boyle is editor of Youth Today.