September 2010 Issue
August 22, 2010

POV: Waiting for Superman misleads

Author: Rachel Norton
Source: NYSUT United

I was invited to a screening of Waiting for Superman, the new education documentary that should be released in theaters in late September.

I'm torn about how I feel about the film, which is the highest-profile of the year's documentaries. Made by Davis Guggenheim, a filmmaker who won an Oscar for the climate documentary An Inconvenient Truth, it's entertaining, with great characters and subject matter that I, at least, find riveting.

It's an open question whether the movie-going public will find education reform as compelling as melting polar ice caps, but based on the early buzz and the reactions of the audience I saw, it should do well. But the movie is also manipulative, over-simplified, and in the end, misleading about the solutions for increasing achievement across the board — and particularly for low-income kids of color.

The film follows five families in Redwood City, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C. as each searches for better educational options for their children, and ends with emotionally wrenching scenes from public lotteries where families wait, in agony, to find out whether they have "won" a coveted charter school spot. The message of the film is that children who "lose" the lottery are doomed to spend the rest of their schooling in "dropout factories" staffed by teachers who only care about their paychecks and pensions.

Controversial D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee is set up as a straight-talking, take-no-prisoners reformer, as is Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children's Zone.

Randi Weingarten (actually well-regarded as a progressive and thoughtful leader of the American Federation of Teachers) is branded as the villain, as are teacher unions in general. Charter schools are held up as the answer, though the voice-over acknowledges early in the film that one in five charters is failing.

I guess some people honestly believe teachers unions are the reason our schools are failing too many children, but I think that claim is both simplistic and illogical.

If what matters, ultimately, is the skill level and accomplishment of the teacher, how is it that the best teachers would flock to generally lower-paid and less-secure jobs with private schools and charter schools? Wouldn't the best teachers want higher-paid jobs and more job security?

Much has also been made over the idea that giving teachers tenure after three years in the classroom means that it's impossible to get rid of bad teachers. Nope. It's true the disciplinary/coaching process takes time. But more often than not it ends either with a teacher receiving coaching, retirement or other voluntary separation.

Determined principals can and do make sure that substandard teachers either improve or leave the system.

I don't buy the argument that abolishing teacher tenure would cause any kind of noticeable improvement in achievement — it might make it even harder to attract quality teachers (they aren't exactly beating a path to the profession as it is).

If you see the film, I hope you will take its statistics with a grain of salt and realize that it is, ultimately, entertainment.

If the film moves you to find out more about the problems facing public education and educate yourself on possible solutions, great. As long as you realize that those solutions are never as simple as a 90-minute movie lays them out to be.

Rachel Norton is a member of the San Francisco Board of Education. The article was edited from a review first posted July 20 on and is reprinted