Waiting for “Superman”
In 2010, Waiting for “Superman” was released. The filmmaker, David Guggenheim and his team followed five children and their families throughout the country as they waited for the lottery to go to their chosen charter schools, to escape “dropout factories” aka, public schools. The documentary presents reformers and educators throughout the country who believe that quality teachers are what will make the difference and save education.
This is a very short synopsis of the movie, and to many critics, the message is flawed. In this film, Waiting for “Superman” Guggenheim, the filmmaker, through the chosen families and the facts and figures he shows, gives a one sided story of educational reforms in the last decade. Based on his opinion, and the educators and reformers he interviews, to have great schools, you need great teachers, and then everything will fall into place. Through his opinions, he persuades the audience that bad teachers and unions are the problem, and this is what needs to change to get quality schools again.
While watching the film, hard facts and figures are constantly being presented. Since 1971, educational spending per student has almost doubled, yet the reading and math scores since then have remained about the same. By picking and choosing facts such as these, Guggenheim is hooking the reader and persuading them that this is just one of the many issues in education today that he believes needs to be fixed. In addition, in Illinois, only 1 in 2500 teachers get fired, however, 1 in 57 doctors have lost their medical license. By presenting these figures, Guggenheim is showing the problem with unions and how they are preventing quality teachers and high performances from the students, one of Guggenheim’s arguments throughout the film. Moreover, Guggenheim wants to present the reality of the educational system and how harsh it is.
Besides the facts and figures presented in the film, Guggenheim has chosen five students throughout the country who have high aspirations for themselves and are applying to charter schools. The families of the students are struggling to find their children better schools so they can have better opportunities while some of the students are also struggling in school at the same time. One of the students, Francisco, is a great example of Guggenheim’s argument that teachers are what matter. Francisco’s mother is constantly being shown writing letters to his teacher and making calls, however, his mother never hears back from his teacher. She has been told by teachers her son needs help in reading, but when she takes him to a private tutor, they say he is doing well. Another student, Emily, although from a wealthy background unlike the other four students, has been placed into the lower tracking. Tracking supports Guggenheim’s argument that teachers matter because lower tracking means teachers have lesser expectations from their students and therefore do not have to try to teach as hard as other teachers who teach in high tracking classes.
In addition to the five students, Geoffery Canada and Michelle Rhee, two reformers, are presented in this film and because there is such a large emphasis on them both, it persuades the audience to listen to their ideals and believe in their strategies to reform schools. Canada and Rhee both believe in having quality teachers, and Rhee even fired a high number of teachers and principals in DC to help raise the quality of the schools and hire more “competent” teachers.
Through showing the facts, and the families, Guggenheim persuades the audience and shows his intended goals for the film. The story that the filmmaker wanted to show was that the education of the U.S is in jeopardy. The facts show how money is being spent poorly, and how few teachers get fired because of tenure. The families show you how difficult it is to change schools, and how important it is for their children to have great teachers. Guggenheim wanted to make this documentary because he realized how lucky he was to be able to have the free choice of sending his children to whatever schools he wanted them to go to. He wanted to learn what happens to those families that have no choice, because every child deserves a great education. Guggenheim wanted to get across reformers’ beliefs, such as Rhee and Canada, that teachers are what will change the system (waitingforsuperman.com, 2010).
One scene that I thought was particularly important to helping Guggenheim support his argument was when he showed the clip from the Simpsons. The teacher announces that she just was given tenure; therefore, she would sit at her desk and read a magazine while a student taught the class instead. She did this because she is protected now by tenure, and therefore doesn’t need to try. I thought this was very important to the film because it showed Guggenheim and the reformer’s beliefs that teachers need to be constantly assessed and be high performing. However, tenure blocks the ability to fire low performing teachers, and some teachers begin to become low performing because tenure protects them. Therefore, this particular teacher would now be difficult to fire.
Although Guggenheim realizes there is a problem with the system, the film is highly criticized. Gerald Tirozzi in Education Digest criticizes the chosen students in the film because they have the importance of education reinforced in their homes. But, Tirozzi asks, “What of the students who don’t have that advantage? They don’t appear in the film” (Tirozzi, 2010). Tirozzi also criticizes the fact that Guggenheim shows all of these students escaping public schools to go to charter schools, yet Guggenheim’s states that he is not pro-charter. In addition, Tirozzi notes that although the depiction of the film is that charter schools are the answer, that is not so and there are high performing public schools all throughout the country, even in poor, urban areas. In addition, Tirozzi discusses that public schools are being avoided in this film, while most of the nations students go there. Teachers, unions and charter schools are not the only answer. (Tirozzi, 2010).
Another critic of this film, Elizabeth Dutro, discusses Canada and his own program, Harlem Children’s Zone, which provides students with, for example, free medical, dental, and parenting sessions. By providing these things at schools, Canada is showing that “schools are only one key ingredient in a much larger mix of social services necessary to mitigate the impact of multi-generational poverty in some urban neighborhoods” (Dutro, 2011). In addition, she argues that poverty is virtually ignored throughout this film and the film “never addresses anti-poverty measures as potential solutions” This movie ignores the structure of poverty and it’s impact on education. Finally, “the solutions offered by the film are simplified, ignore research evidence, and are too often built on false assumptions that undermine the need to examine the systemic inequities and consequential reforms and policies that surround schooling in the United States” (Dutro, 2011).
Diane Ravitch, another critic of Waiting for “Superman” and an educational reformer and educator, points out the flaws in her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. To Ravitch, Guggenheim and his film left out important facts. For one, “50 percent of those who enter teaching leave within five years” therefore showing that it is not impossible to fire teacher (Ravitch, 2010, 255). Tenure simply grants the “right to a hearing before he or she may be terminated” (Ravitch, 2010, 255). Ravitch also discusses the fact that spending has increased per student, but it is because more spending has gone to special education services (Ravitch, 2010, 256).
Both Tirozzi, Dutro and Ravitch discuss what was left out in this film and how Guggenheim simply ignored these facts to make his argument stronger and more persuasive. By ignoring students with little reinforcement at home, by ignoring high performing public schools in poor areas, by ignoring the structure of poverty and the structure of social services, by ignoring special education, by ignoring the problems with standardized testing, by ignoring social class, Guggenheim can make his argument that teachers and unions are what need to be fixed to make better schools. Guggenheim himself has chosen private schools for his own children, and Guggenheim has chosen to follow five children who are applying to charter schools, yet Guggenheim ignores all of the children who don’t apply to charter schools, and ignores all of the children who remain in public schools and do well. This movie attracted families who are trying to escape public schooling, however, pubic schools accept anyone and everyone, while charter schools don’t. And when children no longer can attend charter schools, they are back to public schooling. Guggenheim ignores all of this throughout this film and makes it seem, even if it was not intended, as if charter schools are the answer to find better quality teachers since public schools are linked to unions. However, public schooling is the foundation of education in America and will always accept all types of students.
Throughout this film, Guggenheim persuades his audience that bad schools and unions are the problem with America’s education by ignoring the other problems with education previously discussed. His chosen students and reformers show a basic solution to a larger problem of education. However, through those students and reformers, Guggenheim is successful at presenting and persuading his argument that to have great schools, we must have great teachers.
Ravitch, Diane. The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing
And Choice are Undermining Education. New York: Basic, 2010. Print.
Tirozzi, G. N. (2010). Is superman the conversation we need? The
Education Digest, 76(4), 23-25.http://search.proquest.com/docview/819517118?accountid=14405
Dutro, E. (2011). Review of “waiting for superman”.National Education
Policy Center. School of Education 249 UCB University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309. http://nepc.colorado.edu. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/860366018?accountid=14405
Davis Guggenheim. Waiting for “Superman.” Video documentary,