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Finally Saw ‘Waiting for Superman’

I must confess that I recently forced myself to see the controversial film only because it would not be credible to comment on it otherwise. Just as the film’s director, Davis Guggenheim, approached his task with a discernible bias, I assumed that my viewpoint regarding the film’s conclusions would be very difficult to change. I was not disappointed.

After having seen the film, it would be equally difficult to envision an audience member who would not be deeply moved by the five children and their parents featured in the film.   This compelling human drama is used by the filmmaker to put a human face on a complex problem. It provides what Guggenheim hopes will be  a compelling stage for the introduction of the major ideological themes of the film. Unfortunately, the message he imparts is that teachers’ unions are a malevolent force in American education; huge numbers of America’s teachers are incompetent louts relying upon tenure to allow them to sleepwalk through their lifetime jobs, and the system is an amorphous blob incapable of putting the needs of children first. In an increasingly polarized education reform debate this is clearly only one side.

As Dana Goldstein states in her comprehensive critique of the film, published in The Nation, it is not what you see in the film, so much as what is missing – intentionally left aside – that diminishes the credibility of the film.

Here’s what you see in Waiting for Superman, the new documentary that celebrates the charter school movement while blaming teachers unions for much of what ails American education: working- and middle-class parents desperate to get their charming, healthy, well-behaved children into successful public charter schools.

Here’s what you don’t see: the four out of five charters that are no better, on average, than traditional neighborhood public schools (and are sometimes much worse); charter school teachers, like those at the Green Dot schools in Los Angeles, who are unionized and like it that way; and noncharter neighborhood public schools, like PS 83 in East Harlem and the George Hall Elementary School in Mobile, Alabama, that are nationally recognized for successfully educating poor children.

You don’t see teen moms, households without an adult English speaker or headed by a drug addict, or any of the millions of children who never have a chance to enter a charter school lottery (or get help with their homework or a nice breakfast) because adults simply aren’t engaged in their education. These children, of course, are often the ones who are most difficult to educate, and the ones neighborhood public schools can’t turn away.

Davis Guggenheim, the film’s director, has bought into the Kline/Rhee agenda, and when it came time for casting calls for experts, spokespersons for the other side of the debate were not invited. Randy Weingarten, president of the AFT, is shown rallying her members in grainy black and white footage with ominous background music to remind the audience that this is the enemy. The image of teachers, other than those in the charter schools, is portrayed through insulting imagery and cartoon characters. And on and on it goes.

Most outrageous, perhaps, is the vast oversimplification of the problem in deference to diatribes about “crummy schools” and “crappy education”. This is old news now since the film has peaked, but the phenomenon is worth examining and the debate is not going away.

Let’s talk about statistics that you will not see or hear in the film or on that side of the debate. Consider, for example, the fact that the United States ranks 25th among 26 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) nations for percentage of children living in poverty.  The 26th is Mexico.

The data is from the Innocenti Report Card on Child Poverty in 2005, (well before the devastating impact of the global recession of 2009). Here is a summary of the current status of child poverty in the US from the National Center for Children in Poverty:

Nearly 15 million children in the United States – 21% of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level – $22,050 a year for a family of four. Research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, 42% of children live in low-income families.

Most of these children have parents who work, but low wages and unstable employment leave their families struggling to make ends meet. Poverty can impede children’s ability to learn and contribute to social, emotional, and behavioral problems. Poverty also can contribute to poor health and mental health. Risks are greatest for children who experience poverty when they are young and/or experience deep and persistent poverty.

Research is clear that poverty is the single greatest threat to children’s well-being. But effective public policies – to make work pay for low-income parents and to provide high-quality early care and learning experiences for their children – can make a difference. Investments in the most vulnerable children are also critical.

We are not allowed to talk about the impact of poverty on children’s development because, if we do, we are making excuses. Because, as the film, leads its audience to believe, charter schools like KIPP have proven that poor kids can learn.

Erik Hanneshek,  an economist who has studied teacher effect, suggested in the film that if we were able to remove the bottom 10% of teachers – the least effective – we could, in a very short time, surpass the achievement scores of Finland. Note the rate of child poverty in Finland in the chart above – 2.8%. Although child poverty is rising in Finland – there are now 100,000 children living in poverty – the measurement is below 60% of the median income.

While we were implementing No Child Left Behind, Britain set a different kind of goal for itself – the elimination of child poverty. When Tony Blair took office the UK had the third highest child poverty rate among industrial nations with a rate of 26% , today that is down to 12 %. They accomplished this with a comprehensive reexamination of how best to support children and families. They now provide universal free preschool for 3 and 4 year olds, while we continue to nibble at the edges, perhaps waiting for superman or Bill Gates to solve the problems by increasing test scores.

Are we incapable as a nation of coming up with a comprehensive plan to improve the lives of our most vulnerable children without constantly seeking scapegoats?


For further commentary on the film, check out the following articles.

Waiting for Substance, by LynNell Hancock.  Published in the Columbia Journalism Review.

The Myth of Charter Schools, by Diane Ravitch.  Published in the New York Review of Books.

In ‘Waiting for Superman,’ a Scene Isn’t What it Seems, by Sharon Otterman.  Published in the New York Times.

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