Waiting for Superman: Not Entirely Horrible

I had a great lede to this post worked out in my head, talking about how the last time I saw a movie that I hated more was The Passion of the Christ. I was going to compare how in both cases, people who were not experts on their subject took advantage of their fame and financial backing in order to poorly redefine the conversation on an important subject. But whereas when I saw Passion I found it worse than its detractors claimed, I cannot say the same for Waiting for Superman. Well informed educators should see the movie (ideally without paying for it), and come to their own conclusions about it. However, the film is a very dangerous thing for those who are not on the front lines – it is largely myopic and uncritical, presenting a 2/3 distorted view of public education.

What Superman Got Right

  • The most pleasant surprise in the film was it’s critique of so-called “good” suburban schools. Superman correctly points out that these schools only look good because of the top 25% of students who are tracked into honors and AP courses. Many, if not most, suburban schools are not adding any value to the students they produce, but merely passing them along on the path they were already on. I will write a full post soon talking about my experiences in these schools.
  • It points out that only 1 in 5 charter schools gets great results.
  • It gives an excellent analysis of how schools are setup to do the job they were designed to do 50 years ago, when only 20% of the population went to college, and only 40% went into skilled jobs. It is correct that we need to redesign schools for the 21st century.
  • The film asks the right questions, and it gets two key answers correct: great teachers are what makes a difference, and all students can learn regardless of their background. If I had to pick a litmus test for new teachers, these two beliefs would be it.

What Superman Got Wrong Because of Myopic Ignorance

  • The single worst part of the film is unfortunately its only real depiction of what teaching actually is. In a cutely animated piece that begins with a voice-over saying, “Teaching should be simple,'” we see a teacher literally popping open the heads of her students and pouring an alphabet soup of knowledge into their brains. At best, this is a problematic depiction of what teachers do. At worst, this is a depiction of bad teaching, what Paulo Friere famously called the “Banking Model of Education,” and is exactly the problem with many teachers. Most people in the public do not understand the complexity of what teachers do in their classrooms and how modern research has disproven this notion of education, and the film unfortunately just re-informed people’s misconceptions.
  • Similarly, it says that the difference between good and bad teachers is that good teachers will cover 150% of the curriculum, and bad teacher will only cover 50%. My education professor, Bil Johnson, referred to coverage as the “Disease Model of Education,” where we expose students to the curriculum and hope they catch it. What this piece of data actually communicated was the difference in student learning, not the difference in what teachers did. Student learning is what matters, not teacher coverage.
  • It reinforces the “good ol’ days” myth that things were fine in education up until the 1970’s. That’s not true on two levels. First, there as been a “crisis” in public education in America roughly once a decade for 100 years. And second what changed in the 1970’s wasn’t schools, but rather the Civil Rights Movement forced America to pay attention to all its children for the first time.
  • The film says absolutely nothing about the problems of rural schools, which are very different from those of urban schools.

What Is Clearly Manipulative Propaganda

  • The film is intentionally misleading on tenure. Tenure does not, as the film claims, guarantee a job for life. Tenure is simply a guarantee of due process. Also, at least in New York, tenure is not in the teaching contract, but is state law that can be changed at any time without the permission of the teacher’s union.
  • The film gives a one-sided, demonizing view of teachers unions, which the director has publically refuted, but this article from The Nation does a far better job dealing with that issue than I ever could.
  • It claims that 25 years ago we didn’t know what worked in urban schools, and that people like a Michelle Rhee, Geoffrey Canada, and the KIPP founders have figured it out. The film is wrong. Schools founded by people such as Ted Sizer, Deborah Meier, and Dennis Litsky over the past 30 years have shown otherwise, and they did so using VERY different pedagogy than KIPP and their imitators. Schools like East Side Community School, Vanguard, and The Urban Academy in NYC have been successfully educating high-need urban students for a long time, but without the resources and public attention of the new charters.
  • The movie claims that great teachers make a difference, but does not interview a single teacher in the film, and only shows very brief moments of good teachers’ classrooms.
  • The movie says nothing about the fact that most charter schools have more resources, fewer students with severe special education needs, fewer English language learners, and that they can kick students out, unlike public schools.
  • Most significantly, it uses five children to make an implicit argument that the only hope for urban children of color or suburban children who test poorly is to get into a charter school. It sets up a situation where the climax of the film is the school lottery that will determine whether the students have a future. This is horribly wrong on two accounts. First, even the so-called “dropout factories” still do graduate a portion of their students, and these students are the ones who are motivated and have parental support at home, students just Ike the ones in the film whose parents take the time to research and enter charter school lotteries. I would bet a lot of money that all the children featured in the film are going to do just fine with a public school education. But more importantly, the film refuses to show good, urban public schools like the one I teach in that are being successful with more challenging populations than most charter schools. For someone who doesn’t know any better, and I’m beginning to fear this group most importantly includes the young teachers in charter schools, the only logical conclusions to make from the film is that only charter schools can educate poor urban children. The film could have made its core points with two students on the path to a successful public school, but chose not to in what can only be interrupted as an attack on all public schools, even those of us who are outperforming the vast majority of charters.

8 thoughts on “Waiting for Superman: Not Entirely Horrible

  1. I found your critique of Waiting for Superman particularly on target. I have forwarded it to a number of my teacher friends locally.
    I also wanted to compliment you on your portfolio. I’m a doctoral student in social studies education and have been doing a great deal of teacher ed with preservice social studies teachers. Are the elements of your portfolio of your own design, or is this something your school/ district has initiated? I’d be very interested in using a modified version with my teacher-candidates as they move through their first year.



  2. Thanks for your comment, Jehane. The elements of my portfolio were developed with two other teachers at my school, based on Teacher Portfolios done at the Manhattan Village Academy, developed by my now-principal.

    It was a good process for someone who is actually teaching, but I did a far more rigorous student-teaching portfolio that I think served me far better at that point in my carrer. I can email that to you if you would like.


  3. Thanks for this evaluation of the movie. But I am not sure that some of things you say are ‘right’ are all that right. For example, the film says 20% of charters are doing great. That may be derived from the CREDO study which showed 17% of charters doing ‘better’. Aside from the inadequate metric of tests being the only gauge,’better than’ probably does not mean ‘great’ – and the film jacks up the estimate. But

    I did reall appreciate your making important points that are often not made, that are correct based on my viewing, e.g., the critique of the ‘good old days’.

    We did a flyer we’ve been using at showings – it is on the web at http://www.citizensforpublicschools.org – we encourage people to flyer showings of WsF, and to borrow whatever they want from this flyer.


  4. Steve, I am concerned about this passage in your review:

    “Many, if not most, suburban schools are not adding any value to the students they produce, but merely passing them along on the path they were already on.”

    Isn’t that really what we should be doing? Kid comes in ready to learn fractions, we teach him fractions. No one has exceeded expectations, or failed to meet them. The expectation was good, we did it, next!

    In fact, a step further, I find the phrase “value added” offensive. If we think that educating a kid is “adding value” then maybe we’ve missed something big.


  5. @Jonathan: Kid comes in ready to learn fraction and learns fractions, then yes, we’re good. Here’s where I’ve seen problems: kid comes in not ready to learn fractions, or is resistant to learning fractions, and is labeled a challenging student in 5th grade, tracked, and never recovers with peers. Also, kid comes in knowing fractions, but still is taught fractions for x years, thus learning nothing. I’m going to write a full post on this soon, with more thoughts.

    In the adding value front, I’m just trying to use their language against them. Believe me, I’m not talking about test scores like the LA Times. I’ll make that more clear in the post.


  6. I came into this post thinking I’d be outraged, since I hate hate HATED Waiting for Superman, but turns out we are actually in agreement. I guess those things they got wrong just get me more worked up. anyway, thanks for being one of the voices of reason out there in a world where I just keep seeing rave reviews of that idiotic movie. I enjoyed reading your critique.


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