Waiting for Superman is moving to say the least. Despite the criticisms of some education policy reformers like Kevin G. Welner and Richard D. Kahlenberg, director Davis Guggenheim engages the viewer with the personal experiences of charismatic driven students and their struggling parents, who go to great lengths to try and give their children the best education they can. Perhaps the most moving storylines is that of Anthony, a student in Washington DC. Anthony is raised by his grandmother after losing his father to drug addiction (Guggenheim 0:5:00). As an applicant for the lottery into The Seed School, the first urban public boarding school and another option other than his low performing district school, Anthony is asked by the interviewers why he wants to get into the school. Despite his young age Anthony poignantly responds, “I want to go to college and get an education… because if I have kids I don’t want kids to be in this environment…I want my kids to have better than what I had.” (Guggenheim 1:21:45).
For a young person to already have the awareness that education has the power to change his life and future in such a big way is touching. However, when you contrast it against the tremendous hurdles Anthony will face in obtaining the quality education he desires it becomes heartbreaking. The most powerful scene in the movie builds off of this interview, and shows when Anthony is ultimately admitted into the boarding school and hangs a picture of his father next to his bed (Guggenheim 1:45:25). In this scene Guggenheim suggests to viewers that this educational opportunity will be what separates Anthony from his father, and that it will give Anthony the opportunity to be the type of father he spoke of wanting to be.
Despite the emotional power of the film, Waiting for Superman, does have its share of critics. One critique comes from education reformer Kevin G. Welner, and author of The Dirty Dozen: How Charter Schools Influence Student Enrollment. In a post published on a Washington Post blog, Mr. Welner describes what he views as the shortcomings of the film. Welner alleges that the film does not expose the economic problems affecting the communities of many of the students and families featured in the documentary, and especially the issue of wealth distribution, which he says the film Inside Job does a much better job of describing. Mr. Welner argues that Guggenheim should have, “explored these issues instead of bashing unions and promoting charters” (Welner). He also states that had the film explained the persisting economic problems present for families like Anthony’s, viewers would have a better understanding of the full scope of persisting inequality, “moviegoers might have walked away understanding a great deal about why the families it profiled and so many similar families across America face a bleak educational future” (Welner). Welner, who in his own work is critical of the practices employed by some charter schools, believes that Waiting for Superman does not show the “structural inequality” experienced by many of the families in the film, and further more that the charter schools championed by the film are not the solution to this problem because they promote deregulation and privatization (Welner).
Richard D. Kahlenberg, coauthor of A Smarter Charter is also critical of the movie, especially for its harsh depiction of teachers unions and collective bargaining. Mr. Kahlenberg argues that the film’s vilification of the union as being opposed to the interests of students, “While many divide the world between teachers’ unions and reformers, the truth is that unions have long advocated a number of genuine reforms—inside and outside the classroom—that can have a sustained impact on reducing the achievement gap” (Kahlenberg 17). Kahlenberg joins Welner in saying that issues of poverty cannot be overlooked when determining solutions to educational problems (Kahlenberg 17).
Guggenheim, Davis. Waiting for “Superman.” 2010. Film.
Kahlenberg, Richard D. “Bipartisan, but Unfounded: The Assault on Teachers’ Unions.” American Educator 35.4 (2012): 14-18. http://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Kahlenberg_0.pdf.
Welner, Kevin G. “Why ‘Inside Job’ bests ‘Waiting for Superman’ on school reform.” The Answer Sheet. Valerie Strauss. The Washington Post, 16 June 2011. Web. 14 April 2016. http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/school- turnaroundsreform/why-waiting-for-superman-shoul.html.