Waiting for “Superman” – I’d Rather Wait for Godot.

I finally saw this film which garnered so much attention last year.  While all cinematic experiences involve manipulation of the viewer, I was disappointed at the extent to which this highly touted “documentary” dragged the spectator along.

“Superman” jumped from topic to topic while lightly brushing on nearly 40 complex education issues over the course of 1 1/2 hours.  Big topics may have received as much as four minutes from the filmmaker.   However, some important issues were touched upon in as little as 30 seconds.

You want an example?  The contentious issue of “merit pay” for teachers.  This magic bullet proposed by former Washington D.C. schools’ chancellor, Michelle Rhee, seeks to reward teachers for high performance with increased pay.  Eventually, it would come to replace the dysfunctional merit system currently plaguing American school districts.

Davis Guggenheim(at right)

Filmmaker, Davis Guggenheim, devoted all of 60 seconds (if that long) to this issue, while failing to explore how this concept would actually be implemented and made to work.  Instead, Guggenheim played up union opposition to it with a carefully edited soundbite of American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randy Weingarten.  Anyone who has ever heard Ms. Weingarten speak on this issue will realize that Guggenheim’s presentation does not fully represent Weingarten’s or AFT’s position on this issue.

My biggest disappointment with the film was the formulaic approach Guggenheim adopted when dealing with such an important issue.  It like watching a Western:

Town in peril — the viewer was led to believe that the American education system system as a whole was on the brink of collapse.  Only charter schools and certain special academies were meeting their mission of preparing America’s youth for competition in the world.  Even suburban schools were painted with this brush — their evil tracking schemes denied middle-of-the-road students from achieving full potential.  To watch this film with the eyes of a true believer, there’s nothing good happening in U.S. public schools nowadays (unless the school has the title “charter” or “academy” attached to it).

Randy Weingarten

Black Bart — those evil teachers’ unions have only one mission: to put the needs of adults over those of children.  Oversimplify the issue much?  How about including the irrefutable statistics showing that non-unionized states have the lowest levels of student achievement in the two most-examined areas of public education, math and reading (see my November 2, 2010 blog post, In Support of Teachers’ Unions).  Because these “bad” unions exist, dashing school superintendents cannot implement the changes that are drastically needed.  Instead, they must create draconian measures such as NYC’s “rubber rooms” to house delinquent teachers who cannot be fired because of horrible collective bargaining agreements.  Give me a break.  Talk about selective history — Who agreed to these contracts in the first place?

Michelle Rhee

White Knight — Thank God for Michelle Rhee!  She has all the answers.  After showing a series of D.C. schools chancellors who quit after promising to stay the course and improve the system, Rhee was touted as the ultimate solution to the gigantic and overwhelming problems facing the nation’s most under-performing school district.  The fact that she was only 37 years old and had only been a teacher for three years was quickly glossed over while the filmmaker failed to explain her meteoric (political) rise to the top.  In fact, the records of her exemplary period as a teacher in Baltimore could not be located during her confirmation process.  As chancellor, she fired principals and whispered in students’ ears “Is your teacher doing well?”  Clearly, Michelle is the model.  Except that…she quit.  After only three years on the job, she put down her ubiquitous laptop and walked away when her political “rabbi”, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty lost in the 2010 primaries.  You’re right, Michelle.  You’re not like your predecessors.  You’re now a highly-paid political consultant and CEO engaged to a former N.B.A. star.

Geoffrey Canada

Wise sage — Let me start by stating that I am a big fan of Geoffrey Canada and the fantastic work he has done with his charter school and cradle-to-college approach in Harlem.  I have heard him speak many times, and I am duly impressed.  He is an innovative educator, a great human being and a really funny and engaging guy.  But, Davis Guggenheim put Geoffrey Canada up on a pedestal as high as the Chrysler Building.  If only Guggenheim had devoted as much time to the complex issues he briefly skipped across as to the pithy remarks of St. Geoffrey.

Cliffhanger — the film tracked the progress of five or six promising students and their parents.  Each of these cases was stuck in a bad educational situation with limited choices.  After watching the parents’ agonizing attempts to seek better alternatives for their children, the families were forced to take their chances on the dreaded lottery system in an attempt to get into a better school environment.  I’m not made of stone.  I cried with the parents and students.  It was compelling.  I sensed it was real.  But, Guggenheim’s devotion of so much of the film to these individual dramas did nothing to explore potential solutions to the myriad problems facing the system.

Well, that’s one guy’s impression of this film.  I wished I could have given it a glowing review.  My neighbor and fellow blogger had a differing opinion.  I encourage you to read his review at Ravenweb Blog.

Education seems to be in America the only commodity of which the customer tries to get as little he can for his money.

Max Leon Forman (1909-1990) Jewish-American writer.

— The Major


3 responses to this post.

  1. Your argument is very well stated and you do a good job explaining your problems with the film. Of the particular points you raise, I think you’re generally spot on, although I contend that Michelle Rhee hardly comes across as a White Knight. Instead, she’s shown as more emblematic of how pervasive, complicated, and systemic the problems are – and that an ambitious agent of change alone isn’t going to fix this and is instead likely to fail.

    I think, fundamentally, the movie is concerned with the big picture — and this is where I perhaps view it differently than you. The purpose of Waiting for Superman is neither to dig into the weeds[1] to solve practical issues in education, nor is it to give equal voice to all sides. Instead, it is a documentary with a bias that emphasizes some high-level truths about the American public education system: that it’s not working, that it’s underperforming the rest of the world, and that many kids are left with no choice other than to participate in a lottery or continue in a substandard school. Critically, these are not misrepresentations or overstatement. These problems are everyday reality for millions of kids in America. Not every child and not every school – the film doesn’t state and in fact explicitly acknowledges a divide as the narrator drives by an underperforming school to drop his kids off at a good school.

    Does Waiting for Superman resort to manipulation and drama? Absolutely. But no more than the other side does with its lobbyists, budget plays, and unions. In the final analysis, this film was made to get people to sit up and focus on education and demand better for their kids. In this respect, I think it succeeded and I applaud Davis Guggenheim for his effort.

    [1] If you’d like more of a fact-based summation of the problems in public schools, I suggest read The Shame of the Nation by Jonathan Kozol. This details overcrowded classes in rotting school buildings, how promising students are forced into menial job training courses, and the funding differences between rich and poor schools.


  2. Posted by Cecily on March 24, 2011 at 9:19 am

    I love your post – it made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me want to respond. Wait, I had the same reaction to the documentary. And wasn’t that really the point? I agree with much of what you say regarding characterizations of some of the individuals he highlights. Although your portrayal of Rhee’s departure is shaky at best based on interviews including one with Melissa Block from NPR but I’m gonna let it slide because my assumption is your intent is to sway people to your point of view – yes? If so, then why is Guggenheim on the receiving end of such a scathing review for doing the same thing? Here’s my list of assumptions:

    Guggenheim wasn’t trying to represent all sides of the argument fairly, he was trying to get people to wake up and pay attention to a critical aspect of our community: education. And yes he used ploys – emotional appeals, fact-based arguments, humor. Aristotle would be proud.

    Guggenheim didn’t tout this film as a reference tool for solutions. Otherwise the title might have been, “Waiting for Me Because I Have All the Answers”.

    I think this film is ultimately pro-(GOOD) teacher. I took it as a ruler-on-the-knuckles to parents to say, “Hey you! Yeah the lazy one who puts all the responsibility for raising your kids onto the shoulders of the selfless human beings in the classroom. Wake up! That’s not always such a good idea and here’s why – some of those teachers aren’t up to par. Now cut it out and quit blaming them for everything because you’re the one who stopped paying attention. You want to hold them accountable? Okay, but you first.” Does he offer extreme case examples of bad teachers, you bet. Again, I cut him slack because his intent is to incite people to get off their asses and do something about our school system and some people will only act when it’s really, really bad.

    He didn’t intend to cover every single issue nor to cover in depth the issues he did devote time to. The guy’s trying to talk about education, unions, tracking systems, etc. within the limited amount of time the American attention span allows. Pulling out all the stops to keep people from hearing the teacher squawk from Charlie Brown, “wah, wah, wah, wah..”, that’s a challenge that I think Guggenheim meets.

    Although taking action is the end goal of this film, I think discussion is the first goal. He wants to get people talking about education – what’s wrong with it, what’s right with it, who’s doing a good job, can we learn from them, where do we get the money? Guggenheim isn’t waiting for Superman or Godot. He’s waiting for all involved (parents, teachers, unions, students, gov’t officials, etc.) to own up to their share of responsibility and come together and have honest, difficult discussions about our problems without being paralyzed by defensiveness. Actually, scratch that – he’s not waiting for that. Our kids are.

    I thank both you and Guggenheim for giving us this opportunity to start a discussion!


    • Cecily and Frank,

      Thanks for your thoughtful replies. Our ability to disagree in a civilized manner is one of the many things I value in our friendship.

      We certainly had different takes on this film. Your characterization of the film as a clarion call to clueless parents is interesting. However, I did not have the same impression. In fact, all of the parents portrayed in the film were caring, passionate advocates for their children’s education. I strongly doubt that any of the parents that you described in Cecily’s comment will even see this documentary.

      Instead, in many parts of the film, teachers’ unions were singled out as the key component of the problem. While they are certainly not perfect, I was not left with the impression that unions were treated objectively by the filmmaker.

      The fact is that the educational dilemma facing this nation are too vast to be addressed with a single swoop of the brush. You can’t discuss the problems facing northeastern inner city schools, the problems facing schools with as a significant ESL population, and the issues facing schools in under-performing rural states in the same breath. It’s apples and tennis racquets and vacuum cleaners.

      That is what Guggenheim tried to do in this piece. I realize that you are giving him kudos for simply bringing up the topic. However, he missed a real opportunity to discuss the issues in a meaningful way. Such treatment would not have been: “Hey, I have all the answers.” Rather, it would have been: “Hey, here are the main issues, and let’s explore them.”

      If it were up to me, I would have addressed three or four (or perhaps at most five) of the most salient topics in a careful way. Instead of tapping everybody in the lecture hall on the shoulder, I would have sat down with them for a real discussion.

      As for your enigmatic comments on Michelle Rhee, I’m not sure what you’re getting at. Her resignation followed immediately on the heels of Fenty’s political loss. Perhaps you are privy to facts that I have missed. I did not hear the Melissa Block interview. Please enlighten me. It was pretty clear to me that Guggenheim was singing her praises. That’s why I referred to her as his “White Knight” in my post.

      In the end, I will never be a fan of this film. Perhaps it was over-hyped from the start. I would recommend it to others, but only with strong precautions — the same way you would if AAA tried to use a 24-car pile-up as a warning in their pitch to get drivers to wear seat belts.

      I appreciate your enthusiasm for this film. But, I value your passion for education much more.

      — TM


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