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Movie Review: Waiting for “Superman”

By Philip Martin

This article was published October 22, 2010 at 3:37 a.m.

Philip Martin is blogging daily with reviews of movies, TV, music and more at Blood, Dirt & Angels.

— Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for “Superman” is the latest and best film to emerge from a burgeoning new genre, what we might call the “America’s schools are broken and we’re all doomed” horror documentary.

A highly hyped Academy Award favorite for the Best Documentary Oscar that - judging by my e-mail and phone messages - may be the most anticipated grown-up movie of the year, it’s also probably the highest profile nonfiction film to hit American theaters since Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911.

Still, though it seriously and soberly considers a seemingly intractable problem, presenting us with columns of dire facts and anecdotes of bureaucratic atrocity, Waiting for “Superman” also succeeds as entertainment and allows us to leave the cinema feeling, if not uplifted, at least hopeful. LikeGuggenheim’s earlier film, An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for “Superman” allows us to feel as though we’ve somehow joined the resistance - the odds are against us, comrades, but we few, we lucky few, we shall overcome.

I do not mean to be facetious; there’s a frightening disconnect between the how well our kids are learning and how smart they believe they are - we can’t add or spell or think critically but we still believe we’re theworld’s best and brightest. Early on in “Superman,” we’re presented with a chart that ranks the math skills of students from developed nations. The United States comes in last but when its students are asked where they think they rank, they invariably guess they’re No. 1.

That illusion is hazardous to our civic and national health, and even if we differ on how that problem ought to be attacked, we should at least recognize the problem exists.

Over the past few weeks, my e-mail in-box has been bombarded with messages from advocacy groups warning me that Waiting for “Superman” doesn’t tell the “whole story” about our public schools, and I’m quite sure that it doesn’t.The problems facing educators are complex and deep-rooted, if not unsolvable. Most teachers want to do good, most may even be doing the best they can given the pragmatic constraints of political will and public money. I’ve got two sisters who teach in public schools - I know how hard they’re trying and how much they’re frustrated.

Guggenheim understandsthat teachers are the key to rebuilding our once great education system, and though Waiting for “Superman” faces up to the unspoken obvious - not all teachers are good teachers - it also argues that good teachers can compensate for poor neighborhoods and even poor parenting. The key, as Guggenheim sees it, is the widespread implementation of policies that have been battle-tested in some of the country’s toughest districts by a handful of bold, innovators such as Geoffrey Canada, who presides over a trio of charter schools that have enjoyed phenomenal success in terrible neighborhoods where traditional public schools have degenerated into “dropout factories.”

Guggenheim portrays Canada - also one of the subjects of Madeline Sackler’s The Lottery - as a ferocious opponent of mediocrity, and the bete noire of the American Federation ofTeachers.

Still, Waiting for “Superman” is a persuasive, thoughtful argument; an advocacy film that should be taken as an opportunity to open an important conversation about our future - and whether we’re willing to do the work necessary to justify our national amour-propre.

MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 10/22/2010

Print Headline: REVIEW Waiting for “Superman”


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JakeTidmore says... October 22, 2010 at 8:11 a.m.

You have made an error in calling charter schools the bete noire of the AFT. Please do your homework. Here is a quote from their website and the section on AFT & charter schools:

"The American Federation of Teachers strongly supports charter schools that embody the core values of public education and a democratic society: equal access for all students, especially students with special needs and English language learners; high academic standards; accountability to parents and the public; a commitment to helping all public schools improve; and a commitment to the employees' right to freely choose union representation.

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are granted autonomy from some state and local regulations in exchange for meeting the terms of each school's charter. State laws, which vary widely, govern who can authorize charters, who can apply for them, and the total number allowed. Today, there are more than 4,500 charter schools across 40 states and the District of Columbia, enrolling more than 1 million children.

Charter Schools Can Empower Teachers

In a landmark address in 1988, former AFT president Albert Shanker became one of the first education leaders to champion the concept of charter schools. Shanker envisioned teacher-led laboratories of reform that would experiment with new instructional practices. These practices would then be subjected to rigorous evaluation and, if successful, would serve as models for other public schools.

Shanker also saw charter schools as a way to empower teachers, free them from overly bureaucratic regulations, and strengthen their voice in school and curriculum decision-making. In his view, unions were essential to charter schools, because unions help create the kind of secure work environment that encourages innovation and risk-taking."

Where do you find that AFT dislikes charter schools in this statement??

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leahdalton501_hotmail_com says... October 22, 2010 at 10:04 a.m.

Jake, in my reading of the story, it seems that the writer is saying that the film maker (Guggenheim) is portraying the charter schools as the bete noire of the AFT.

"Guggenheim portrays Canada... as a ferocious opponent of mediocrity, and the bete noire of the American Federation ofTeachers."

I don't think the writer is taking that position at all.

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JakeTidmore says... October 22, 2010 at 3:34 p.m.

Still, the writer fails to correct Guggenheim's misleading statement, in effect, giving it credibility.

You argue a technicality. I prefer that some semblance of truth and fairness be shown when citing an image that is different from reality. In fact it is Guggenheim who has the bete noire. It is his dislike of teacher unions that comes out in the film and his almost fictional characterization of AFT and its leaders and the so-called "bad teacher" epidemic.

Here is AFT's critique of his missteps in the film:

I stand by my first assertion: the writer has not done his homework and makes an observation that is 180 degrees from the actual relationship between Guggenheim and AFT. It is Guggenheim who has the extreme dislike and who is using any trick at his disposal to put them in a bad light, no matter what the facts or the truth are about the real situation.

To those of us who have been dealing with the charter school debate for years and years, this film is simply a piece of propaganda being foisted on the American public as a legitimate look at the situation when it is just a one-sided and overly biased hard sell of charter schools. The most thorough research and comprehensive data assembled from all studies show that charter schools are no better than public schools as a whole and in some instances are worse.

Guggenheim hides more than he reveals. The writer abets him in this endeavor, albeit innocently. It will always be difficult to resolve our educational issues when one man's prejudices are presented as fair analysis. Too much data proves Guggenheim guilty of bearing false witness about charter schools and about AFT.

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Coralie says... October 22, 2010 at 4:24 p.m.

In all the national slugfest about the public schools--blaming the teachers, blaming the unions--nobody has pointed out the gorilla in the room: television and electronic gadgets. The apparent decline in achievement seemed to begin about the time that television had saturated all households. Now even toddlers are watching TV and videos more time than they are playing. You think that has no effect on learning?
and many other books and articles

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