Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 09/27/2010

Willingham: 'Superman' is entertainment, nothing more

By Valerie Strauss

This post was written by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

By Daniel Willingham
In an iconic scene in the film Back to the Future, Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox) uses a skateboard to escape bully Biff Tannen (played by Tom Wilson). The scene culminates when the bully crashes his convertible into a truck which dumps manure all over him and his pals.

It was the only role of note for Wilson, and the actor reports that he is frequently stopped by strangers and asked “Was that really manure?”

His answer? “It’s a movie.”

In other words, it’s a story, a piece meant to entertain. Reality takes a back seat to these goals.

Is Waiting for Superman an incisive analysis of American education? It’s a movie.

A movie (even a documentary) must tell a story. It must entertain.

In The New York Times, the director, Davis Guggenheim, is quoted as saying:

“Any film is a simplification. I know the inside-baseball people in education will criticize it. I was always saying to myself: ‘Davis, you’re not an education expert. Tell the story from the point of view of a kid trying to find a good school.”

It’s a movie.

In the Los Angeles Times, the director responds to the criticism that Waiting for Superman depicts only charter schools as good. "All the good schools are charter schools not because I think all good schools are charter schools, but because those are the ones that have a lottery, and I knew the lottery was a central metaphor."

It’s a movie.

There is also much in the movie that is true, and told vividly. American kids fare poorly compared to kids from other industrialized nations. On average, there is nothing like equality of educational access between rich and poor. There are “lemons” in the teachers corps who ought to be fired. And perhaps most important (although it breaks my heart to believe this actually needs to be said) poor kids can learn just as well as rich kids.

But Waiting for Superman, in it’s quest for movie simplicity, caricatures complex institutions and policies. The trope is familiar: spirited band of virtuous reformers (Harlem Children's Zone founder Geoffrey Canada, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee) battle unfeeling, selfish and powerful foe (teacher’s unions).

Do teacher’s unions deserve to get beat up on? Sure. So do big city bureaucracies, which take a few licks in the movie. But so too do lazy parents, mountebanks hawking educational drivel, inattentive, idle, or corrupt state legislators, greedy and unprincipled textbook companies, out-of-touch professors at schools of education, and incompetent or cowardly boards of education.

At the end of the day, the ones who deserve the severest criticism might be you and me for letting it all happen, given that the school system is ultimately under the control of politicians and their appointees.

But if you’re not well versed in education issues, you’ll walk away remembering that there are some good guys out there trying to fix things, but that evil lady from New York named Wein-something-or-other is trying to stop them.

And you won’t walk away thinking that instruction has anything to do with schooling. All we need to do are get the right structures in place, and “great teachers” will be forthcoming. Apparently, the classroom is a black box, and we needn’t concern ourselves with its contents.

Guggenheim is aware that Waiting for Superman tells an incomplete story.

On National Public Radio: “"It’s important for people to understand that charters are not the silver bullet.”

In New York Magazine: “Here’s what I’m scared of: that the movie will be misperceived as a pro-charter, anti-union piece.”

Well, dude, if you were worried about that misperception, you shouldn’t have sacrificed accuracy in favor of storytelling. You should not have made a movie.

It could be argued that Waiting for Superman is terrific in that it is starting a national conversation. There’s something to that. I’m thrilled that education is on the minds of more Americans than ever.

But the post-movie conversation ought to start by saying “Okay, that was really fun. Now let’s get serious about what’s going on.”


Follow my blog every day by bookmarking And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page at Bookmark it!

By Valerie Strauss  | September 27, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  back to the future, dan willingham, michael j. fox, school reform, waiting for superman  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: What ‘Superman’ got wrong, point by point
Next: The elephant that Obama and Lauer ignored: Poverty and student achievement


How about a column by Valerie Strauss regarding the need for public education in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics?

According to Education Week last week:

... the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, looks broadly at the need to improve STEM education for all K-12 students, with a focus on new federal actions to better prepare and inspire them in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

...the National Science Board, raises an alarm about what it sees as the failure of the U.S. education system to identify and nurture the next generation of high-achieving STEM innovators...

The question should be whether the United States needs public education in the the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics.

In 2000 there were plenty of Americans enrolled in these fields because there were jobs for Americans in these fields.

Now enrollments have dropped since there are no longer entry level jobs for Americans in these fields and these fields require at least 5 years of work in entry level work to obtain the necessary expertise and experience in the field.

Why should the public spend money on these fields when Americans will not spend $50,000 to $100,000 in a field where there are no jobs for Americans?

The government policy is to accept the idea of only the non exportable jobs for Americans so why should public funds be spent on fields where there are no jobs for Americans.

Far better for public funds to be spent on training auto mechanics and nurses which still offer jobs for Americans.

The House Committee on Science and Technology
June 12, 2007
As Dr. Alan Blinder, one of today’s witnesses testified, these examples seem to be only the tip of the iceberg. Dr. Blinder has estimated that more than one in four American jobs are vulnerable to offshoring. More striking is his finding that most American technical jobs in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields are amongst the most vulnerable to offshoring.

Posted by: bsallamack | September 27, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

bsallamack ,
The IndyStar has another article on the kids in kindergarten.

All of us should read it to see and hopefully understand, what goes on in schools.

"Then, there is the little girl in a beige
jumper and long black hair. English isn't
the primary language spoken in her home.

When Abels asks her to pick out the picture
on a page that shows an item whose name
makes the pl sound, she chooses a tomato.
Asked to identify letters in the alphabet --
G, N, E, Y, R -- she comes up empty.

She may have a sharp mind. But right now,
for her, language is a barrier to learning.
She's going to need lots of help."

Posted by: edlharris | September 27, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

I too feel that the movie brings attention to an issue that has been there for a long time. City schools with big bureaucracies that need help. But I also can see that the reformers are going in the wrong direction, not because I love the status quo,but because I don't see them taking issues (like the non-English speaker edlharris mentions) seriously. There seems to be such an effort to get test scores up that no one cares if the kids learn English or to read and write, do math, etc.

Posted by: celestun100 | September 27, 2010 1:13 PM | Report abuse

Daniel, I think you're right - what's scary, though, is the influence that movies and TV shows like that of Oprah Winfrey have.

I suspect that there are many households today where serious reading constitutes an article in People magazine, and sound bites like Superman are taken as THE TRUTH.

Perhaps education students and professors in college should start making documentaries on various aspects of education NOW, instead of writing term papers.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | September 27, 2010 1:19 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: edlharris
I read only the first page. There appears to be a problem when you push the buttons to read other pages.

Given the current federal policies I guess when the child you refer to fails a 4th grade reading test, the school system will be justified in firing all her teachers from kindergarten to the 4th grade.

I though am more interested in why we even keep up this pretense of concern for public education. Let us cut costs since the government fully knows there will no jobs for Americans in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Let us revert back to arithmetic in public educations. Public education can probably simply be stopped at the eight grade.

Billions of public funds can be saved in public education in fields where there are no jobs for Americans.

I tire constantly of these claims that Americans have to be educated in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics when our government policy is to accept that the jobs in these fields are not for Americans.

The reality is that since our economy no longer has jobs for Americans with higher education we can lower our expenditures for public education.

We have accepted that all of the jobs using computer technology in an office or laboratory is for cheap foreign labor and not for Americans, so why not stop public expenditures that are no longer necessary.

Posted by: bsallamack | September 27, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

It's pretty disturbing that a "cognitive scientist" deems the movie "Superman" as entertainment.

A movie that supposedly documents inner city school disparities as entertaining?

A movie that supposedly exposes systemic disfunction as entertaining?

The emotions of children begging for an opportunity to get into a charter school by the luck of a number pulled out of a lottery tumbler?

I didn't have intentions on seeing this movie. But I think I will now, if nothing else, to have ability to establish my own individual opinion.

Hopefully the public will do so as well.

Because from what I've read thus far provided by Ms. Strauss relating to "Superman", she's is only permitting one-sided views and/or opinions on her blog.

Posted by: TwoSons | September 27, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse

@PL Michaels
Exactly right.

Maybe we can get Michael Moore to help the schools and teachers. Anyone who doesn't have a financial interest in seeing charter schools get federal money would do.

Posted by: celestun100 | September 27, 2010 2:34 PM | Report abuse

In the Los Angeles Times, the director responds to the criticism that Waiting for Superman depicts only charter schools as good.
Why on earth do we need this drivel?

Yes charter schools are better than going to unsafe poverty public schools with mayhem in classrooms.

The students behave and do not disrupt classes since they know if they do they will be thrown back into the unsafe public schools.

Might as well save public money and bring back the Reform schools. Far cheaper to simply throw the disruptive and/or prone to violence instead of building enough charter schools so that the public schools only contain the disruptive and/or prone to violence.

But it is politically incorrect to say that these poverty public schools are unsafe and filled with those who will probably wind up in prison.

It is okay to make sure your car doors are locked when you drive by these poverty public schools since no one will know.

Posted by: bsallamack | September 27, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

Do you think Bill Gates helped financed this?

One thing I'm sure of, Guggenheim did not do this for the children.

Posted by: educationlover54 | September 27, 2010 7:56 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company