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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 09/28/2010

Strengths and weaknesses of 'Superman'

By Valerie Strauss

I've published several pieces on the education film "Waiting for Superman" by different educators because each had something new to say. This post does, too, looking at what is good about the film as well as its problems. It was written by Mark Phillips, professor emeritus of secondary education at San Francisco State University and author of a monthly column on education for the Marin Independent Journal.

By Mark Phillips
Filmmakers have discovered the crisis in public education. Unfortunately this is not necessarily good news. When I heard that Davis Guggenheim, the director of An Inconvenient Truth, the Academy award winning film about Al Gore’s crusade to halt global warming, was doing a film about the crisis in public education I was excited.

Given the immensity of the crisis, the power of film to influence people, and the skills and integrity of Guggenheim, I had high expectations. In addition, Guggenheim knows something about education. His 2004 film, The First Year, was excellent.

It turns out that my anticipation was only partially justified. The road to misguided educational reform is paved with good intentions and Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman is too often guilty of following that road. While I hope that the film will find a large audience and prompt wide discussion, my initial optimism has been replaced by respectful disappointment and frustration.

Guggenheim’s major goal was to make a film that would “get the 90 percent of the population that drive by schools and don’t care, who turn past the front page stories on education ... to the table.” Given major studio publicity, media attention, and the power of many of his scenes, he may at least partially achieve his goal.

The strengths of the film are notable. Guggenheim’s goal is “a quality public school for every kid,” and Waiting for Superman effectively captures the children and families who desperately want a good school and a chance to go to college. Throughout the film we share their dreams and frustrations.

Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the highly successful Harlem Children’s Zone, who is featured prominently in the film, was once one of these kids. He shares the story of one of the saddest days in his life, when he found out Superman was not real. He cried “because it meant that there was no one with enough power to save us.”

And in scene after scene we experience the powerlessness of culturally disadvantaged kids and parents faced with attending schools that apparently will not help save them.

The problems targeted by Guggenheim are significant. The film drives home the importance of good teachers and schools and the cost of bad ones, poor teachers who are seemingly protected by tenure, corrupt school boards, and bloated and ineffective bureaucracies. How can we overcome these obstacles and reach the goal of a quality public education for every child? The high price paid by those children who are most disadvantaged is brought home powerfully.

Guggenheim also provides some partial answers. Canada’s work is inspiring. Michelle Rhee’s efforts as the chancellor of schools of Washington, D.C. are more problematic, but her energy for change has created hope for many.

The director shows us some excellent charter schools including: the Kipp Schools’ LA Prep, Canada’s Promise Academy Charter School in Harlem, Summit Preparatory Charter School in Redwood City, California; and the SEED Public Charter School in Washington D.C.

But the film also shows that only a small number of the students who want to get into these schools can. Their admission is often decided by a lottery, their fates determined by which little wooden ball comes up. Madeleine Sackler’s less highly publicized but also noteworthy film, "The Lottery," zeroes in on this process as it follows four families through the lottery sysytem.

Both films capture the poignancy of kids who desperately want a good education but are unable to escape from the under-achieving schools they’re assigned to.

Waiting for Superman could have been an “A” film, but despite all its strengths, it is also a naïve one. Its analysis of the problems is often superficial, it’s conclusions and recommendations simplistic and, at times, misguided.

Ironically, one of the failings of the film is that it is too much like a "Superman" film, replete with heroes and villains, hostile threats and romanticized outcomes. Like a Hollywood thriller, drama is heightened and less exciting realities ignored.

We have good teachers and bad teachers, good schools and bad schools. Instead of Lex Luthor we have the threat of the evil teachers unions and their super weapon, tenure. There is even a dark scene set in one of New York City’s infamous "rubber rooms" for teachers, those on probation who do nothing for years because they can’t be fired.

And while there may be no Superman, both Canada and Rhee are cast as heroes who are saving education in their respective territories. We’re lead to believe that the road to a quality education for every kid in America is paved by charismatic leaders and leads to a charter school for every kid who wants one, the closing of bad schools and, with the neutralizing or elimination of tenure, the firing of bad teachers. This may be good docudrama but it is not a good blueprint for educational reform.

There is no recognition that most of the major reforms in education are being made by local leaders, both administrators and teachers, taking it one small step at a time, while struggling with limited budgets and little outside support, to bring about needed systemic change. Most of these leaders are not charismatic and wouldn’t make exciting on-camera presences. They just get the job done in quiet ways.

There is no examination of the struggles of many of the so-called “bad” schools, with decaying infrastructures, little money, and few resources for faculty development. There is no look at large high schools that are restructuring, creating schools within schools and other alternatives to provide better learning environments for kids. While the best charter schools provide a great alternative for many kids and are also lighting the way to better educational approaches, charter schools are not THE answer. Multiple paths to reform are being created. This film looks at only one.

Demonizing failing schools as Dropout Factories also accomplishes little. Some should be closed, but many are struggling to change. We’d be better served by reforming these with building improvements, teacher training, and program development, rather than assuming that more charter schools are the only answer.

And while there are bad teachers who should be guided into another profession, the film ignores the gray area of those teachers who need mentoring and additional training, not replacement.

Guggenheim says that he didn’t intend to make a film attacking the unions and that he’s a member of a union. This may be true, but the film belies his intent. It fans the flames of the war on tenure rather than posing ideas for reforming the process. Teacher unions are justifiably open to criticism for their lack of leadership in improving teacher performance, but the film doesn’t deal with the complex alternatives to eliminating tenure.

The film also infers that funding is not a major problem, since we’ve increased spending with apparently little success. The fact that school buildings are falling apart, there is an absence of funds for faculty and administrative development, and that class sizes are increasing, are all fiscally related and not solely the result of bloated educational bureaucracies.

Perhaps the biggest hole in the film is represented in one animation scene that shows kids heads being filled with knowledge by a teacher while the narrator says: “It should be simple, a teacher in a schoolhouse filling their students with knowledge and sending them on their way, but we’ve made it complicated.”

But WE haven’t made it complicated, Davis! Teaching has become complicated and that’s part of the problem. Learners are more challenging today. They are more diverse, more technologically developed, and more socially stressed. This poses a major challenge to teachers, and filling them with knowledge isn’t the answer. The best charter schools recognize that. But teachers in all of those other schools also need helping adapting to these learners. The answer is not as simplistic as attacking tenure or demonizing bad schools.

Having heard Guggenheim discuss the film in a post-screening Q and A, I know he has a more complex understanding of the problems and possible solutions than his film reflects

If I could, I’d grade the film as “Incomplete” in the hope that he’d make a Director’s Cut that would reflect those complexities more accurately.

I believe Guggenheim cares deeply about kids, knows that good teachers are the key variable, and is genuinely concerned about the quality of our schools. I hope he succeeds in his primary goal of waking up many people.

But I’m concerned about what his viewers will conclude and what solutions they’ll endorse if this film is their only source of information. The darkness around all of these topics is deep and wise, informed discussion of this film is needed to provide greater light.


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By Valerie Strauss  | September 28, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Tags:  al gore, an inconvenient truth, charter schools, davis guggenheim, the lottery, waiting for superman  
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The truth is true reform is heroic, but very dull. Most people would be
bored watching a movie about professional development and teaching reading strategies.

Posted by: celestun100 | September 28, 2010 9:24 AM | Report abuse

Valerie, this is an organization that has been dedicated to dropout prevention since 1986, The National Dropout Prevention Center/Network. The center is associated with Clemson University and headed by Dr. Jay Smink. Perhaps you could throw some questions his way.

Posted by: shadwell1 | September 28, 2010 9:39 AM | Report abuse

I agree and made that point in the column. But Guggenheim could have interviewed people like Linda Darling-Hammond and Diane Ravitch, major educational leaders whose perspective challenges his to some degree. He knows and respects their work but he chose not to include them. He could have looked at some exciting teaching going on in so called bad schools, but he didn't. There was/is a more balanced and no less interesting film out there ready to be made. It could be made without be boring. Guggenheim has the skills to do that. It's too bad that he made the film while still naive about the subject and vulnerable to the seductive charisma of someone like Rhee.


Posted by: markpsf | September 28, 2010 9:45 AM | Report abuse

I agree it is too bad. But, I basically have lost hope, so it doesn't surprise me that a biased film would come out.

As has been mentioned in several thousand comments by now on these pages, nobody is interested in asking the teachers who are doing a good job what would need to be done to reform.

I remember when I first became a teacher, I thought I had all the answers and that the other teachers must be "doing something wrong". I thought that before I became a parent as well. It is a silly, naive attitude that seems to be part of human nature. That is what these reformers make me think about. How I felt toward older teachers before I had tried it myself.

I am glad you think so highly of Guggenheim. I was turned off by the general message of the film and won't see it, at least not any time soon, but I won't write Guggenheim off just yet and I will try to see "The First Year". Thanks.

Posted by: celestun100 | September 28, 2010 9:56 AM | Report abuse

What happens when education reform becomes political?

That is what happened in DC.

What happens when education reform becomes the "it thing" the message is lost in madness. Thanks to the help of institutions like the WPost, Oprah, NBC et. al, it becomes divisive.

This is what is happening across the country.

People like Michelle Rhee, Gov. Christie, Joe Scarborough, Guggeinhein and in some cases Canada, are disingenous and flame fanners. While Canada adds some valuable insights into the debate, the message is lost because his Harlem School Zone is not operatnig under the same governing authority as most public schools, DC included.

Rhee wants to make this whole thing about the teachers unions fighting reforms when the reality is they were fighting her. Both Cory Booker and Robert Bobb clearly believe that community involvement is paramount in the effort to reform. Michelle Rhee does not believe this. When reform becomes more about you than the children, we get nowhere fast.

Posted by: dcis1 | September 28, 2010 10:18 AM | Report abuse

I’m surprised by the comments on the politicization of the issue and the corresponding need for a villain. We’ve learned from our current Administration that; the recession was caused by former Pres Bush and the greedy bankers; the never ending growth in medical costs is caused by the greedy insurers, and our deficits are caused by the tax cuts for the rich. If these complex problems can be reduced to common villain, why not treat the education crisis the same. The only debate should be on who is the villain, greedy teachers union, greedy school administrators or the greed parents demanding quality while providing little or no support on student motivation, disciple and homework.

Posted by: jackmandr | September 28, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Re the comments about Rhee. Yes hubris always gets you into trouble eventually and any change that is forced from above is ultimately going to create defensive reactions.

A question that critics of the film have to ask themselves tho is whether they'd rather be right or be effective. The film will be popular. It will reach parents and many of those who are already critical of teachers and schools will find ammunition here. Defensive responses from educators, from the many of us who know the limits of the film, will accomplish little and likely be counter productive.

Educational change IS always political in some ways and this film needs to be approached with effective political strategy. Angry responses from the left might well be justified but most definitely will not be effective.

See the film and then make sure you engage in non-defensive dialogue within your community to help educate people about all the other perspectives to both naming the problems and solving them.

As an example, this story in the NY Times today reminds us that there are very good large non-charter high schools out there.



Posted by: markpsf | September 28, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

Re the comments about Rhee. Yes hubris always gets you into trouble eventually and any change that is forced from above is ultimately going to create defensive reactions.

A question that critics of the film have to ask themselves tho is whether they'd rather be right or be effective. The film will be popular. It will reach parents and many of those who are already critical of teachers and schools will find ammunition here. Defensive responses from educators, from the many of us who know the limits of the film, will accomplish little and likely be counter productive.

Educational change IS always political in some ways and this film needs to be approached with effective political strategy. Angry responses from the left might well be justified but most definitely will not be effective.

See the film and then make sure you engage in non-defensive dialogue within your community to help educate people about all the other perspectives to both naming the problems and solving them.

As an example, this story in the NY Times today reminds us that there are very good large non-charter high schools out there.



Posted by: markpsf | September 28, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

Most of the mainstream media have jumped on the bandwagon with the teacher bashing, charter schools are best, and standardized testing agenda. It is refreshing to read the postings on this blog. For more information and views on this topic you can check my blog at

Posted by: scied | September 28, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

Thanks Mark and I think you've highlighted the concern many have with education reform, this documentary and the ensuing coverage both have received.

Why must critics place themselves in a position of reevaluating their stances when it doesn't seem like any of that is being done in return. If "defensive responses from educators" will accomplish little, where exactly do you think labeling those who don't agree with reform methodology as anti or angry will take us? I don't think very far - not when the bulk of the criticism is placed upon those who do what most of us don't - teach.

And Again, "angry responses from the left" does little to further dialogue because it creates an unfortunate "us" vs. "them" meme which is wholly unproductive. It's no secret why Rhee and other have been able to claim that she was "fired" in DC due to her efforts when in fact, it was the politicization of her role that is in part the reason. It was the decision made by political leaders to paint those who didn't agree with them as backwards, union-loving, morons.

I'm not an educator, may be considered on the left, but I am not angry and the same goes for many like me who are similarly situated.

If you consider the current play, UNIONS and teachers are responsible for low-performing schools and teachers. That is the exact point made by Michelle Rhee on the two Sunday shows she was featured as a guest.

Posted by: dcis1 | September 28, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

For dcis1 (maybe we'll eventually all have code names like some sci-fi movie!)

Thanks for the response, but teachers and Unions aren't responsible for low-performing schools and teachers. They do SHARE responsibility and must own up to their part more effectively.They do need to step up to the plate to help professionalize teaching by developing a peer review system tied to a fair performance pay process.

BUT, our cultural values and our unwillingness to raise the status of teachers also plays a major role. In Finland, as the most oft cited example, it is difficult to get credentialed but once you do you enter one of the two highest esteemed professions in the country. Schools in Finland give only ONE standardized test, near the completion of schooling, yet have one of the highest achievement rates in the world.

My daughter teaches in one of those under-funded large borderline high schools where a heavy immigrant population of students struggle to "make it" despite innumerable obstacles.
Her teaching evaluations are all in the "Superior" category. There are hundreds of thousands like her, teaching in schools like the one she works in. Lumping those teachers into the Rhee style attacks is plain WRONG as well as counter-productive.

As teachers and teacher unions need to not be defensive, so too reformer leaders need to stop attacking and blaming. Blaming and defending go nowhere. Attacking always creates defenses.

There needs to be a cooperative effort amongst educational leaders like Rhee, teachers, parents, and yes, even students, to help bring about change. In many communities that is happening, but again, without the hoopla that makes for entertaining films.

Keep caring and then work in your community to help improve things.

And again dcis1, thanks!


Posted by: markpsf | September 28, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for what appears to be a fairly even-handed review of the movie since I have not seen it yet.
Your support of the daily work by educators everywhere is appreciated. It is what is making things work, not a movie-worthy topic.

One point: how are teachers and others being attacked suppose to react when these falsehoods are being spread from Hollywood and the White House? Remaining calm and talking sense and rationality doesn't get much attention either. The biggest problem is that nobody ever asks the teachers across the country to speak out loudly about what works in a classsroom and what does not. Nobody else knows this better than they and the rest seem not to care much, certainly not the media.

Another point: since when are teacher unions guilty of NOT leading "teacher improvement"? It doesn't take much time to go to and survey the last thirty-five years of their presidents' directives and many missions to improve education in America. Al Shanker is still a highly-respected leader who first proposed charter schools and teacher evaluations.

It could be very useful for you, Mark, if you haven't already, to spend four or five years teaching in both elementary and high school classes in a public system. Nobody really knows until they have been there and experienced the consequences (and joys) of teaching the children.

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | September 28, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

I agree they do share in the responsibility and based on what I've read, the unions have stepped up. It should explain how 80% of teachers supported DC's contract. Can you honestly say that the coverage this reform effort has gotten demonstrates that there is collective blame? I've watched, read, and debated this subject and the consensus seems as if the problem needs to start and end with teachers/unions. That I disagree with. In fact, beyond the Teacher's TownHall on Sunday, there has been more discussion centered around those two than where it all begins, at home.

It's no secret that the teaching profession is devalued on one hand and held responsible for failure on the other. But now they want longer school years. If the support (to teachers) is there, I say go for it. Otherwise, it becomes another novel idea by people such as Rhee.

Based on what I've seen, Rhee does not have the capacity to consensus build nor does she express an interest in it. Because of that, she is more an impediment to real progress than not.

Posted by: dcis1 | September 28, 2010 3:05 PM | Report abuse

The students who lost out in the charter school lotteries shouldn't feel so bad. A study commissioned by the federal government found no difference in test scores of children who won the lottery compared to children who lost. There were some differences in various groups, but over all it didn't matter if a child attended a charter or a regular public school.

Posted by: Susan50 | September 28, 2010 3:56 PM | Report abuse

Another marvelous addition to the “Manufactured Crisis”. First, Gates, then Zuckerman, now Guggenheim on Oprah, those that know not that they know not.

But, the “informed” public largely doesn’t buy it, “In fact, while Americans will agree that there are major problems with the public school system across the country, a more detailed analysis of available polling data shows that Americans are much more positive when asked about schools in their local community, and that parents of students in the nation's public schools are even more positive when asked about the school their child attends. In short, while people tend to agree that schools are in trouble "out there" across the country, there is much less indication of dissatisfaction when Americans evaluate the public schools in situations they know best.” ("Americans Not Convinced That Local Schools Are In Crisis", excerpt from the 38th Annual Phi Delta Kappan/ Gallup Poll of the Publics Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, August 24, 2006)

So, if parents locally in all 50 states are satisfied with the public schools, and the crisis in the public schools is somewhere “out there”, where is it? Answer? It’s manufactured by those that know not that they know not.

Consider the sentiments of CS Lewis, "Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."

Posted by: herein | September 28, 2010 5:40 PM | Report abuse

I don't think Guggenheim wants to anything other than destroy teachers in order to make himself look good.

Posted by: educationlover54 | September 28, 2010 6:59 PM | Report abuse

Please encourage young people not to go into teaching. Don't let them get taken advantage of.

Posted by: educationlover54 | September 28, 2010 7:02 PM | Report abuse

Valerie - Please write about the suicide of the LA teacher who was despondent about his test scores.

Posted by: educationlover54 | September 28, 2010 7:12 PM | Report abuse

In response to questions re my thoughts on teacher union responsibilities and my own experience in public schools.
I taught high school for 10 years before going into teacher training. I'm also a union member. I think unions have done a lot for the profession.

But I also think the unions have been more defensive than proactive in dealing with the monitoring of teaching quality and have not adequately addressed the issue of merit pay. Because of this they've also left the union and the profession politically vulnerable to the attack on tenure.

I'm glad to see that the AFT and Randi Weingartner are making positive moves to address this.


Posted by: markpsf | September 28, 2010 9:13 PM | Report abuse

I should be surprised anymore to read that teachers unions, who do not hire teachers in the first place, should be responsible for firing the incompetent ones. Tenure only guarantees due process. Nothing more. When an incompetent teacher is allowed to remain in front of a classroom or in a "rubber room" it's because an administrator hasn't sufficiently documented and communicated the malfeasance, prescribed and monitored remediation and followed due process. Administrators hire them. They are responsible to fire them. Often they don't document because they'd have to admit that they made an error in hiring in the first place.

Posted by: buckbuck11 | September 28, 2010 9:19 PM | Report abuse

Ms. Strauss, do you have any idea where, or even whether, Michelle Rhee received a teaching credential? She taught second grade in Baltimore, so she should have had a Maryland elementary-level credential. I can find no mention of it online.

I do know that she taught school through Teach for America, and TFA participants are somewhat notorious for never getting certified at all. Few of them plan on teaching for more than a couple of years, so I guess they figure, what's the point?

Could it be possible that Michelle Rhee has never had a teaching credential in her life?

Posted by: ProudPublicSchoolTeacher | September 30, 2010 2:31 AM | Report abuse

For "ProudPublicSchoolTeacher"

She doesn't have a credential.
BUT, I think that is the very least of her limitations.
I have two credentials.
I taught for almost 30 years in a credentialing program.
And I have always thought all teacher trainers need public school classroom roots.
But there are educational leaders who have a real sense of grass roots realities, who've lived in the trenches, who start from listening to teachers, and who include teachers in decision making, who don't have credentials.

I think where Rhee has failed most is in using a model of change that is primarily top down, letting hubris and arrogance dominate too much, and in not listening. She improved over time, but not without being hit with some two by fours. I don't think her primary limitations relate to not having a credential. They are more about her training as an effective change agent.


Posted by: markpsf | October 1, 2010 12:00 PM | Report abuse

I was shocked to hear Guggenheim described as a "person from the Left." Maybe the author of the article was joking,and I missed something.

He said he was driving his children to a posh school, and drove by these schools and realized "something had to be done." (audience wipes tears). This man with an idea that would gain him more notoriety, really has no ideas on edcuational policy, but his movie is "fab." Give us educators a break with this nonsense, please!

Posted by: Onpoint3 | October 2, 2010 8:59 PM | Report abuse

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