you're reading...

Seeing Waiting For Superman

Tag, you're it.

Last night at a glittery and fluttery event at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (meaning not very glittery, not very fluttery), I attended a private screening of Waiting For Superman.

Word on the street was that the Dean, and other members of the school were nervous about showing the film, since it is already so controversial, and the controversy fed attendance, pre-show chattiness and head-swirling–the frisson of controversy that any audience that thinks well of itself likes to be a part of.  It was a sold-out house, with much of the Ed School faculty out gabbing; new graduate students (some fresh from working with Michelle Rhee); even some public school teachers in attendance, at the end of their long days.  Some Harvard luminaries showed: my beautiful mentor Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, magnificent and be-combed; Skip Gates got a shout out for being there (who needs Bill Gates when you have Henry Louis Gates, someone asked), Paul Reville, State Secretary of Education;  Mitch Chester, State Commissioner of Education; the superintendent of Cambridge Public Schools Jeff Young, a local math teacher.

The event began with a brief address by the film’s producer, Michael Flaherty on the intent of the film:  to be a game changer, to stir outrage, to build momentum.  He quoted Desmond Tutu saying about America, “you have become very accustomed to the unacceptable.”  For the producers, the film describes a two-tier system of education in America, one in which if you go to a white suburban school your odds of emerging with a acceptable education are fairly good, and if you live in urban Washington DC and are poor, your chances are utterly dismal.  Noting the ways in which the American public school system has repelled efforts at reform and innovation in the past, Flaherty said every ten years someone proclaims, “This is the moment.”  In his words, the movie was made to take up the momentum of NOW, to supercharge it, to tell the story of the profound need for change, and to create momentum for action.  If you move people’s hearts, you change policy, he said–a theory of action we here at the COOP, and in my own work, have embraced to our guts.

It is a tear-wrenching movie, a well-made play about the meaning and importance of education in children’s lives, and the ways in which they, and their families, are soon to be devastated by the failures of their local public school.  As the lottery balls roll at the movie’s climax, and the absurdity of a system in which a child’s future depends on whether his or her number is called, there was hardly a dry eye in my row of seats, as we discover whether or not the five children profiled are admitted to the local charter schools to which they apply.  Pass the tissues; surreptitiously wipe your eyes before any of your colleagues noticed that this movie really got to you.  I didn’t stay for the wine reception afterwards, to see how it played with the crowd.  Since resisting emotional appeals is a lot of what an audience like this prides itself on, I would bet the response was “mixed.”

But folks, before you mobilize to join the Facebook page NOT Waiting for Superman, or take up arms against this movie, see it.

The documentary is really a set of stories, stories about 5 children: Anthony, a fifth-grader in Washington DC who lives with his grandmother (“my dad died, he took drugs”); Daisy, a Latina girl who wants to be a veterinarian but who, statistically, if she attends her local drop-out factory high school has about a 3 in 100 chance of emerging with the courses required to even apply to the California university or state college system; Emily, who goes to a well-heeled suburban school but one from which, due to tracking and relatively low expectations (Emily has low test scores), she is likely to emerge with an education that does not prepare her for college level work and fails to engage or challenge her mind; or Francisco, who has troubles reading in school and has already been tracked into special education by the first grade, when his mother knows he engages with books at home.

The movie is an equity story, a story about why we do education the way we do in America, and the system’s seeming intractability and ability to repel even the most intrepid reformers.  (Michelle Rhee and Geoffrey Canada are profiled extensively, as the kind of individuals it takes to kick some ass and bring their A Game to the problem.)   The demon in this story, from my point of view, is not so much American public school teachers, but their unions and their insistence on wage and working conditions that have made it impossible to recognize highly-skilled performance, poor performers, or get rid of lemons.  (The movie extensively discusses the difficulty of firing teachers, the broken teacher evaluation system, the ways in which teachers’ unions have decided to “treat all teachers as the same,” a move ironically in conflict with their self interests.)  While all this data may be very familiar to those of us in the education reform game, and the research cited part of the work we do, the movie puts this data together as a story, the stories of little boys and girls who will emerge absolutely and assuredly without the skills they will need to survive in our economy if they do what the American dream tells them to do:  faithfully attend their local public school.

Yes, the only schools that are positively portrayed are charters, and only a certain kind of charter school (there are lots of other kinds doing great work).  And yes, the great work of hundreds of thousands of public school teachers is not the center of the story.  But as we discuss here at the Coop, there are not enough individual practitioners doing extraordinary work to change the game, and as the system is currently constructed, a great teacher’s expertise cannot be recognized in powerful and important ways–in ways the system can learn from.

Yes, the movie does not discuss WHY we do education, and whether simply getting kids better schooled up is really what the Big Show is about.  Its ambitions are actually considerably more straightforward: it wants to get people really pissed off about what is going on in the American public education system, to better inform people about how the game works, and to play to Americans’ fundamental sense of fairness.

Will you play fair?  Will you go see it?

Do it.  And bring tissues.  You will never forget Anthony, or Daisy, or Francisco.  Or their parents.  And that is the point.

About Kirsten Olson

I'm writer and educational activist. I work in public, charter, private, unschools. I'm here for the learning revolution.


25 thoughts on “Seeing Waiting For Superman

  1. while I appreciate your sharing your reactions with us, I also note the reactions of quite a few people who will strongly disagree with the thrust of your piece. That includes the attack on unions, which is a coordinated attack, as is the entire rollout. W4S and Education Nation have been of a piece. Featuring Michelle Rhee given that her track record in DC was NOT that effective despite the favorable press she has received is ridiculous. Doing a presentation that the only good schools are charter schools while ignoring the bad charter schools, taking what Canada does more than a little out of context – think of the impact we could have in public schools with the amount of support those children and families get, the help with nutrition and medical care – but none of that is seen.

    The presentation is intended to make the audience believe that there is only one way. Regardless of the comments introducing the film by the dean.

    I know people who are not hostile to charters who have come away with a far more negative impression than you have. That includes sitting members of Congress who know something about education, either by sitting on a relevant committee and/or because they are themselves former educators. I know current educators, including some in charter schools, who find much to fault in the film. I find relatively neutral observers like John Merrow who describe the film with far more balance than I read in your post.

    Without unions, teachers are going to be vulnerable to abuse. If one is not entirely happy with the functioning of one’s union, get involved as a union activist – I benefit from the union, I see the unions under attack, I have volunteered for a leadership role precisely because I have won an award for my teaching so I defy people to tell me I am just a union hack.

    I’m sorry, but I do not hold the film in high regard. That a film can move us in certain ways may merely mean that it is effective propaganda. I can cite many examples, from Hollywood films of the 0s and 40s, to the work of Leni Riefenstahl (eg, Trumph of the Will) to illustrate how a film can move us without the direction in which it moves us necessarily demonstrating that we should be moved in that direction.

    Posted by teacherken | September 24, 2010, 10:09 am
    • I would add that with unions, charter school teachers like me, are vulnerable to abuse from our colleagues and leadership. I’ve not seen the Waiting for Superman; I don’t know that I will be able to any time soon. I do know that I can find virtual reams of invective against the unions from pop reformers and virtual reams of invective against charter schools and – by extension – their teachers, from union leaders and members. I imagine that if I didn’t work in a “right to work” state, I might even feel like a scab for taking the professional risks I have.

      Here’s the deal: in helping to start-up a charter school serving students at-risk, I traded in years of decent test scores for years of bad test scores (which I own, completely). I changed how I treat kids. I changed how I teach. I changed how I work with colleagues. Conversely, I’ve opened myself up for all kinds of anxiety about whether or not I’m setting myself up to be a redundancy.

      I, frankly, don’t know if I want a union that protects me from my own decisions. I don’t know if I want a contract that makes my choices moot. I want to be challenged and supported and contracted according to my worth to my school and division by whomever will enter into those negotiations with me. I don’t want a union – or public education system – that marginalizes and attacks me for taking risks.

      Waiting for Superman aside, I am waiting for profound, systemic changes I don’t see unions advancing because such changes would alter the nature of schooling, teaching, and just compensation for the different types of work educators should be doing now and in the future. There’s a Pandora’s Box of change that needs to be open even if hope, and not the unions, are all that’s left inside. I see unions participating in fights over a movie, trivializing my work, and refusing to acknowledge that there could be another way, let alone several other ways, to help children learn. I am not here to say, “Follow the charter!” I am here to say, “Charter, magnetize, or specialize me so I can help find better ways!”

      Kirsten’s reminder that that our system is broken is what hits me here. It’s time to right our ships and sail on – in camaraderie, good faith, and in different directions, if need be – from these rocks against which we keep dashing one another.

      Yours from Virginia, where we all have work to do,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | September 24, 2010, 11:01 am
      • My issue with charter schools is not the teachers. It’s that they are inherently wrong. They are not required to jump through the same hoops as public schools, but they use the same public money – draining it from a system that often has plenty of people – union people included – who would love to do more but lack the resources.

        Unions serve an important purpose – they balance the power between labor and management. It may frustrate management that unions prevent them from just unilaterally doing what they want, but I have no sympathy for that. If something is worth doing, then it’s worth doing right, and giving due process, and getting all the stakeholders on board and agreed.

        Posted by Sue Densmore | September 27, 2010, 8:33 am
        • Sue, I work at a charter school that serves some of the students most at-risk in my division. We have to jump through the same testing hoops the rest of our state’s schools do every Spring. Because we do not yet have an alternative accreditation plan, despite the particulars of our population, we are assessed and staffed like every general middle school of 500-700 students in our division. The organization that supports our work has partnered with our division and brought in over $500,000 dollars over our school’s short history.

          I work with our neediest students. We have brought in money for staffing, supplies, and infrastructure, including all of our own furniture and technology. The state, having sent multiple agents to see our school, including the state Secretary of Education, holds us to the same accountability standards even though they know our work with our students. I gave up a position in which I earned test scores that were fine for a position in which I was all but guaranteed to take a hit in my stats just as our country is moving to judge teachers by nothing but numbers.

          If I’m wrong, I don’t want to be right. If there is a union that tells me I’m inherently wrong, I don’t want to be a part of it. If there is a table with room neither for me or my students, I want to upend it and invite everyone to sit on the floor with us in something more closely resembling a community of equals.


          [Let me correct myself: while our staffing formula is based on the normal one for our division, both the system and our supporting non-profit have kicked in extra staffing money. 9/27/2010.]

          Posted by Chad Sansing | September 27, 2010, 12:55 pm
  2. Deborah Meier worked with the union to create a smaller, more flexible contract, so that Central Park East could function differently than the other public schools in NYC. (Read The Power of Their Ideas for the story of this wonderful school.) Her piece on Waiting for Superman at Bridging Differences talks about this whole genre of movies.

    It sounds like this is a powerful piece of propaganda. I don’t watch many movies, and am easily moved. After reading your glowing piece on a movie I know is a con job, I’m almost scared to watch it.

    Posted by Sue VanHattum | September 24, 2010, 10:19 am
  3. Teachers should have a voice in the education policy debate currently taking place on a state and national level.

    Through the VIVA Project — — teachers can share and collaborate on their own ideas about what should be done about education reform. The most compelling ideas will be taken directly to top state and national policymakers.

    Visit the website and make teachers voices heard. It’s that simple and that incredibly important.

    Posted by Georgina | September 24, 2010, 12:29 pm
  4. If this movie does nothing more than help real people see they have a voice than I am happy!

    Posted by dloitz | September 27, 2010, 11:32 am
  5. Chad, I would love for you to do a post on Charter schools or our better yet how charters are not all the same! The conversation right now on the national level acts like they are all the same, for good or bad, I think this is a problem. I believe we need to talk about education on a more personal level and that means removing the generalized terminology. There are 5000+ charter school in the country, and each state has didn’t rules and regulation. It hurts the transformation cause to continue to talk like they are all uniform and the same. One of my goals is to start talking about all schools as unique communities of learners, good or bad, we can not continue to judge every school the same way, that is not accountability, that is stupidity.

    Posted by dloitz | September 27, 2010, 1:13 pm
  6. Hey well, I’ve been taking in these comments and have a couple of thoughts.

    There is vociferous reaction here, a strong reaction, to something most people (as far as I can tell) haven’t yet seen. I wonder about that. That kind of reactiveness, the “I’m going to hang with the people I agree with,” and damn the evidence, that seems part of the problem we’re in. There is a kind of herding instinct, and a sense of defensiveness, that is really worth some deeper probing.

    Another piece. There is a confounding of the very real critiques of the American public school system, and its profound inequities, and the so-called “billioniare’s club” of charter schools (named by Diane Ravitch, I believe, in her blog during the summer). About 65-70% of my practice is with actual charter schools, and they are ALL struggling for money, and none have billioniare backers, and all wonder whether they are going to be re-chartered and make it for another five years. (None of them received a million dollar check from Oprah.) But it seems that in an almost Karl Rove-ish kind of way, folks are trying to damn the whole charter school movement, and the very real critiques of the system this movie highlights, because some charters (and only a couple of charter models) are the darlings of hedge fund managers. It seems too simplistic. It seems convenient. It seems dodgy.

    Although the equation for learning in the movie is much too simple–you teach ’em right and they’ll learn–(when we here at the COOP know it’s just a lot more complicated than that), and again, lot of charters I really work with day to day (today, in fact!) aren’t star-studded little guilds at all, one of the reasons that charters figure so prominently in this discourse is that they have provided, over the course of the last 10-15 years, an existence proof that all kinds of kids, no matter what their backgrounds, can perform at high levels. And the American public school system hasn’t done that. For decades and decades.

    So I read Sue’s comment about Debbie Meier, and I have to say that although I am a long-time admirer of Debbie, her reflexive, one-note commentaries that teachers are ALWAYS heros and heroines, and that if we just let them do what they know how to do all would be well, has grown tiresome and simplistic to me. I just don’t agree with that. We have abundant school failure to prove it.

    So, folks are galvanizing to resist and protest the movie. But what about the data the movie presents? About the difficulty of firing incompetent teachers? About the ways in which the sector has resisted more effective teacher evaluation? About the rates of dropout-ism and learner disengagement? What about the need for remediation for kids at every level when they get to college? What about the data about outcomes for kids based on teacher competence?

    What the movie says is that this is a system that has, little by little, evolved to serve the needs of adults, not children. Sometimes this happens in subtle ways (co-opting the “options” that are acceptable for kids); sometimes in not subtle ways, like employing people who shouldn’t have jobs anywhere near children. That’s a reality I live every day when I’m in school. A little like Joe’s piece about the bus driver: a lot of the ways we do things in school just plain, flat out screw kids up.

    In the absence of a professional teacher’s organization that makes this their highest priority, and a professional ethos that says this is unacceptable (love the VIVA project!), movies like this will happen.

    It was designed to stir outrage and to fight back against the illusion that it’s all fair inside the school house.

    Not far from our goals here at the Coop?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | September 27, 2010, 4:13 pm
  7. Kirsten and all,

    I think this article by Rick Ayers is worth reading. I wonder how you would respond Kirsten?

    I went to a public hearing for a new democratic charter school last night in a small town outside of Eugene, Oregon and I believe I learned more about the process of education reform than I will watching this film.

    I now believe more than ever that we need people to get involved on a local level….to visit school in other districts, to go to board meeting, to meet as families and as communities, to have guide conversations about what it means to educate? Not just being told what to do, but actually doing it.

    I think if this film has any power, I hope it is just to get people talking about education. The scope might be narrow, but that is real people come in, we need to be willing to stand up at a screening and say “I am willing to talk about education with you!” “I am willing to listen” that is our duty as education transformation artist, not just reacting to this film!

    Who is with me!?

    Posted by dloitz | September 28, 2010, 1:59 pm
  8. Hi David, I am now struggling to salvage a little bit of the workday, having spent a languorous hour here at the COOP. So I answer in haste.

    I agree with many of Rick Ayer’s points, and some of his take down of the movie. I huge warning bell went off for me when the movie posits, as it implicitly does, that the “answer” to poverty, neighborhood disintegration, and a cycle of intergenerational oppression and depression, is school and only school. We in the business know that’s too simple, and too big a burden for education to bear. On the other hand, school is the focus of the movie–it describes its importance in five individual children’s lives (all of our children’s lives)–and says, there is something we can do to make life better, an institution that we can act on. And we should. If we’re in the business of education, we can be aware of how important all the other factors in children’s lives are, but we have to focus on what we do in school. That’s our realm of influence.

    I also (as noted) feel like the equation for learning is much too simple and formulaic in the movie. This is a big problem in the “No Excuses” model of charter highlighted here. What happens to the agency of learners at a KIPP school, when what they’ve learned to do is to fiercely comply to the learning standards and norms of their highly prescriptive cognitive environments–to be successful in one way–and then they move to an elite, super-competitive boarding school where “thinking for yourself” is highly valued? I had this conversation with the Executive Director of a KIPP school. He called it out himself, and said it was a “problem of growth,” inherent in the model.

    But I also work with a lot of very poor students for whom finding ways to be conventionally successful really matters. And for many, their local public school hasn’t given them much of a chance to do that. So it’s a complicated matter. White upper middle class people who dismiss someone else’s educational goals, or preferred style of education, just because it is not their own, seem to me limited and narrow-minded. People want different things from education. We are not all the same. The one universal truth is that the teaching and learning going on in school practically everywhere around the country could (and should) be so much better. That’s the Big Game to me.

    So, I didn’t go to the movie with the intent to be offended. (I was there curious, interested in seeing how an audience that takes its own opinions very seriously dealt with its content.) I didn’t go thinking that I was about to be convinced of the fact that millionaires are trying to take over the school system, that charters are a capitalist scam, that teachers are the least appreciated and most imperiled folks on the planet. Because this is an issue I spend do much time thinking and talking about, it seems like an important movie for us all to understand.

    And by putting the lives of children at the center (where I think they so infrequently are), this movie is very powerful. It does what it intends to do, which is to make people a lot more curious and questioning about what is going on down at the school in their neighborhood. And that’s good for us all.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | September 29, 2010, 10:30 am
  9. Love this Kirsten! I agree with you. I posted this on my tumblr….but i think it would be good here.

    I just want to add, What is the so called Model of a Bad Teacher? We keep saying Bad Teachers need to go, but what does one look like? I mean truly bad hurting the system, hurting kids type bad teacher…. i had bad teachers in High School and College (This is where most of them are) but most of them were old school traditional teachers lacking a open mind….but is that not a problem in all walks of life….. It is too easy to call out the BAD teachers and not talk about the way the system is set up to create bad teaching and bad practices….The system is outdated…the fact there are any good teachers is a testament to the human spirit! Let’s stop talking in generalizations and add personal stories to the conversation….

    Posted by dloitz | September 29, 2010, 10:48 am
  10. I really think this article is worth reading and worth talking about!

    Posted by dloitz | September 29, 2010, 2:16 pm
  11. Thank you for this reflection, Kirsten. I am dying to see the film myself, but it won’t come to Jackson, MS, for a while.

    I did see a few clips on the Oprah special on the film, and I was moved by the stories of the children. I am sure that it is gut-wrenching to watch them and their parents see if their names are called in the charter school lottery.

    Apparently, the movie doesn’t tell a fundamental truth: that most charter schools aren’t as effective (by the assumed measure of success: high test scores) as similar public schools. Both Gail Collins and Diane Ravitch have pointed out a study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes that only 17 percent of charter schools surpassed public schools. The rest performed about the same or worse.

    I think it’s criminal to pin children’s hopes for their future on getting into a school that may be worse than their public neighborhood school. I can’t imagine what it feels like to think you’re doomed for failure at age 10 because you didn’t win the lottery.

    Posted by Melia Dicker | September 30, 2010, 12:00 pm
    • Melia, your comment brings up for me a dilemma we frequently face on the Coöp:

      How do you shift public discourse about education so it’s not about the test scores, and what evidence is enough for the naysayers if not evidence of growth or primary evidence of excellent work?

      I imagine a courtroom where a lawyer says, “Oh, no no no, my client couldn’t possibly have done that, despite what the evidence says, because his test scores clearly show that the defendant is not achieving at the level required to perpetrate such a crime.” I imagine a prosecutor saying, “Clearly, the defendant is guilty. Look at those amazing test scores – the defendant is capable of anything, evidence be damned!”

      Many public schools aren’t as effective as some public schools. That doesn’t keep us from supporting the teachers in those schools or from hoping that they will be given the tools they need to make a difference. Charter schools are public schools that have a better chance than traditional public schools do of experimenting responsibly with significantly transformative strategies – like democratic education.

      It’s criminal to pin children’s hopes for their future on getting into any school that may hurt them.

      Charter schools are public schools, and all public schools should be heavily invested in redefining why and how we educate.

      Your arguments remind me indirectly of the pop #edreform dichotomies in Ira Socol’s third installment of his “Designed to Fail” series:

      In fact, today’s “educational reformers” will discuss absolutely everything except the system of American education and its social reproductivity. They will argue for and against teacher training (teachers are not well-trained enough, six weeks of Teach for America training is plenty), for and against increased teacher pay (it is essential, teachers are paid too much), for and against privatization (we must use the business model, federal involvement in education is required), but they will not touch the essential unfairness of American society or its economic system.

      I would add that we argue for and against standardized testing (it’s undemocratic and unfair/we can use the scores for all sorts of straw man theses) and democratic education (it’s just not doable in a public school/there’s no other way to protect our democracy).

      Over the past two years, I’ve come down off the fence and have become convinced public schools must become democratic institutions. I invite you to come off the fence on test scores and charters – let’s use our country’s genius to find more authentic measures of learning and agree that we should be experimenting – responsibly, yes, but also boldly – to transform public education and assessment of learning wherever we can.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | September 30, 2010, 1:26 pm
  12. dloitz: Regarding your request to Chad Sansing about describing how chartered schools are different, you might enjoy this piece by Ted Kolderie. I’ve shared this with Chad before:

    Click to access Kolderie-Urban_Ed.pdf

    Posted by Kim Farris-Berg | October 15, 2010, 9:24 am
    • Thanks again, Kim – through my work I’m consistently brought back to these lines from the article:

      The states must find ways to educate students who have never learned well. They need a strategy that does not rely exclusively on changing existing schools.

      While I might say “students who have never been [taught/resourced in a way that helps them learn at school],” I do think that so long as charter schools market themselves as destinations, rather than as public-school-partners, we won’t solve deep systemic, structural, and pedagogical problems in public education. While charters are a school choice tactic, at their best they could be the Google Labs of public education, sharing out new practices with all schools. We can shuffle so many students between schools or we can reinvent them all beginning with why and how we educate.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | October 15, 2010, 10:12 am
    this is just really weird….here is a the director telling us that actually test scores mean nothing…. he was a c- student….yet the teacher saw something in him that was not able to be measure on a test and helped him develop that…. Great message….yet you made a movie that preaches the opposite… weird and actually a bit like… Oh wait don’t call me out on what I did….because look I really do like teachers….look at this cute little video I made.

    Wow….kinda of dumb founded.

    what do you think?

    Posted by dloitz | October 22, 2010, 5:30 pm


  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Seeing Waiting For Superman « Cooperative Catalyst -- - September 25, 2010

  2. Pingback: Writing at the Cooperative: Week in Review « Cooperative Catalyst - September 27, 2010

  3. Pingback: Waiting For Superman Redux « Pedagogies of Abundance - December 2, 2010

  4. Pingback: Waiting For Superman Redux « Kirsten Olson - September 24, 2014

Join the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 4,100 other followers

Comments are subject to moderation.

%d bloggers like this: