Waiting for “Superman”

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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,
2010. http://www.waitingforsuperman.com.

On “Waiting for ‘Superman'”

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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>.