On “Waiting for ‘Superman'”

Posted on

Waiting for “Superman” is a documentary on the American public schools system released in 2010.  The film follows five children and their concerned parents beginning with their current situations in declining public schools and concludes dramatically with each family participating in a lottery admissions system for an elite charter school they expect will insure their children enjoy a life better than the one their parents and guardians enjoy.  The film not only depicts the process by which these families try and do right by their children, it also describes the narrative of decline the films producers, including famed writer and director Davis Guggenheim (24, An Inconvenient Truth) see as plaguing our nation’s public schools.

The film’s highly anticipated release occurred in September 2010, and prior to, and after its release it captivated the world of education policy.  The film was featured on the cover of Time, discussed on Oprah, and NBC devoted an entire week of programming to covering the films themes and heroes (Ravitch 252).  The films backers included the largest and most influential of foundations, and Bill Gates, one of the films experts, so successfully publicized the film through a $2 million donation (Ravitch 252).  In addition, the five children featured in the film were invited to the White House to meet President Obama after its release (Ravitch 252).  The films audience is primarily concerned parents and teachers (films website), and it is designed to show that the nation’s public schools are in a state of disrepair because their rigid design of 50 years is not compatible with contemporary economic and societal realities.  Schools are designed to “track” to insure that some kids go to college and others are prepared for entry into lower levels of employment, training or academia.  In a modern economy where almost everyone needs a college degree to insure success, the film argues that our educational system is neither prepared enough nor capable of achieving high rates of college acceptance.

If the current school system is the problem, then why not change it to make it more successful?  The film argues that the system has inherent hurdles that impede reform efforts, especially teachers unions.  The structure of the film highlights the current state of our system, contrasting it with how successful it was in the 1970’s.  ***Which, by the way, is a complete fallacy; we have never had the best school system in the world (Ravitch 249)*** As seen in the screenshot below they do an excellent cinematic job of showing the sad state of contemporary schools, utilizing dark music, dark colors and moving animated graphics to show just how bad our schools are today (seen at 0:18).

From there, the film showcases trailblazing charter school visionaries as the only people that can save our schools, our children and our society.  Specifically mentioned are Washington D.C.’s SEED boarding school program, Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Success Academy, a newer suburban San Francisco charter school and the renowned Knowledge Is Power Programs, or KIPP schools.  The film is clearly designed to be a pro-charter school documentary with an anti-union focus (it specifically vilifies unions as one of the chief causes behind failing public schools) and it struck a powerful chord with the nation upon its release, although it was met with academic skepticism.  Several of the key facts stated in the film are only half-truths that, when exposed, attenuate their arguments.

First and foremost is the half-truth stated in the film’s first chart.   While America has doubled funding to public schools, it has gotten little to no positive output from said funding.  This statistic is crucial to the film’s argument that our school system, as currently constructed, is unable to break through the “achievement barrier” and carry America into the 21st century.  The truth of the matter is more complicated than indicated by the film however, and academics from across the field have criticized Waiting for “Superman” for this factual error.  The full truth is that the increased funds came with increased burdens for schools, as federal laws, economic realities, the drug trade and immigration patterns have brought a whole host of “high needs students” into public schools.  These students require tremendous resources to insure a proper education, but their lower academic ability causes test scores to suffer in public schools.  In contrast, charter schools can deny admission to “high needs students” or can counsel them out of their schools.  This has a double-edged affect on the comparison between traditional public and charter schools.  It results in charter schools skimming off the best, brightest, richest and most motivated students from public schools through lotteries and school choice (only knowledgeable parents have the wherewithal to enter their children in the lottery), and ends with public schools having the less motivated, higher needs students that charter schools do not admit (Ravitch 253-255).  If this trend persists, charters might outperform public schools, but their demographics will be starkly dissimilar.  Furthermore, the vast majority of charters are less successful than comparable public schools, and the system itself is fraught with waste, fraud and carelessness (Ravitch 141-143, The Myth of Charter Schools).

All in all, policymakers at local, state and federal levels have responded to the charter school movements well publicized “success” (even though the film admits only 1 of 5 charters achieves “amazing” levels of success promised by nearly all charter applicants) by increasing their charter licensing and by increasing funding to charter schools.  Programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top use charter schools as either the example for success or as the avenue through success can be achieved when all else fails, and those decisions are supported by the dynamic cinematography and half-truths espoused by Waiting for “Superman”.  Needless to say, those who see charter schools as the future of schooling responded positively to the film.  The film’s sharp critiques have also been received by policymakers, and are increasing funding not just to increase the number of charter schools, but also to insure they admit the same demographic as traditional public schools do (Megan 1).

Overall, Waiting for “Superman”, despite its strong critics in the academic world, has had a tremendous impact on educational policy.  While it is obviously difficult to draw a correlation between recent increases in charter school funding and the film specifically, it is clear that the views espoused by the film are part of a growing wave of public opinion against traditional public schools and for charter schools, although said wave of opinion is most surely ill-informed on the subject given the dearth of evidence showing the ill-fated future of the vast majority of charter schools.  Ultimately, the film is not touting failing corporate charter schools however, but instead favors schools that have longer hours, increased attention for students, smaller classes and better teachers, although even two of the largest programs mentioned in the film (KIPP and HCZ) have had several well-publicized failures along with their successes.  The film has biases that might not be clear to the average viewer that does not research the film’s funding (especially with the vehemently pro-charter Gates Foundation), and half-truths that are most likely left unnoticed by the majority of viewers.  In the end, the film is most certainly influential, but given the lack of emphasis on telling the WHOLE story with regards to charters or on telling the entire truth with regards to the traditional public school system, and teacher’s unions (especially with teacher tenure), it is probably as manipulative as it is influential.

Works Cited

Megan, Kathleen. “Charter Schools Vow To Broaden Their Enrollment.” The Hartford

Courant Online. 13 Feb. 2012. Web. 13 Feb. 2012. <http://www.courant.com/news/education/hc-charters-support-malloy-0210-20120209,0,7200798.story>.

Ravitch, Diane. The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing

and Choice Are Undermining Education. New York: Basic, 2010. Print.

Ravitch, Diane. “The Myth of Charter Schools.” The New York Times [New York] 13

Jan. 2011, New York Times Book Review sec. The New York Review of Books. The New York Times, 2011. Web. 13 Feb. 2012. <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/11/myth-charter-schools/?pagination=false>.

Waiting for Superman. Dir. Davis Guggenheim. By Billy Kimball. Prod. Diane

Weyermann. Participant Media, Walden Media, 2010. DVD. Trinflix. Trinity College, Jan. 2012. Web. 13 Feb. 2012. <http://internet2.trincoll.edu/streammanager/Viewer.aspx>.

Published by

George T. Phillips

George Phillips is a sophomore at Trinity College (CT) from Allentown, PA. A Public Policy and Law and Urban Studies double-major, he also works with Hartford's iQUILT plan.