Movie Review: Waiting for Superman: Or just another Clark Kent playing dress-up?


Remember that movie An Inconvenient Truth? It was pretty good, right? Al Gore’s triumphant return to relevance, or something like that… Well, Davis Guggenheim, the director of that cleverly developed treatise on climate change, shifts his attention to the state of public education in America in his latest feature documentary, Waiting for Superman. A few weeks back I went to the Kabuki Theater in San Francisco to retrieve a lost phone only to discover that Waiting for Superman, a surprise entry into this year’s SF International Film Festival, was starting in five minutes. I had a stack of student work burning a hole (turning to compost is probably more accurate) in my teacher bag, but who am I to refuse destiny?

Let me make this clear right away. I think this is a bad documentary. As a piece of journalism, it’s lazy and manipulative. As a “methodical dissection” of our public education system (which the film’s official movie site purports it to be), it falls far, far short. Its flaws are multiform, but for brevity’s sake, I’m going to focus on, oh, I don’t know, four:

1. Waiting for Superman is a Michael Moore rip-off, plain and simple, and this in a time when Moore’s own stuff is a little tired already. From the amusingly quaint 1950’s-era footage to the use of animation to add humor and watchability, Guggenheim borrows freely from Moore’s bag of tricks. He even includes footage of Bush saying dumb things. I mean, I like laughing at Dubya as much as the next guy, but at this point, it just seems too easy, you know? All of this stuff would’ve been fresh eight years ago, but in 2010, I couldn’t help thinking, “Haven’t I seen this before?” There’s no nice way to say this—Guggenheim’s a biter.

All in all, it is a moderately entertaining film, which should come as no surprise; Moore’s shtick works. But unlike Moore in, say, Roger & Me or Bowling for Columbine, Guggenheim sacrifices content for entertainment. It’s one thing to propel a viewer through dense, difficult subject matter; it’s quite another to do so and also shed light on the subject.

2. And that’s the problem with this film—it doesn’t really have anything new to say about education. And the things it does say are oversimplified and/or politically trendy. About halfway through, I began to have the sneaking suspicion that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called Guggenheim up and said, “Hey, remember what you did for Al? Well, I’ve got something for you.” (OMG—is Duncan the Man of Steel? He certainly is dreamy enough.). Personally, I have a hard time trusting a documentary that so unwaveringly cleaves to one party’s line, even if that line is occasionally my own.

One of the film’s major theses is that teacher unions are getting in the way of educational reform. To anyone even peripherally acquainted with the current educational zeitgeist, this is not a new sentiment. And with good reason—though their intent is to protect teachers, teacher unions too often simply protect the status quo. This includes keeping bad teachers in a job. Guggenheim points to oft-touted examples of bureaucratic excess such as New York City’s “Rubber Room” where suspended teachers receive full salary and benefits to do nothing (a story already covered by, most notably, The New Yorker and This American Life).

Unfortunately, Guggenheim’s view on this debate is as free from nuance as a DC comic book. Enter Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of D.C. schools, as the caped union buster. And over there, feasting on the wormy corpses of our children’s dreams, is Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, as Lex Luthor. Rather than provide useful historical context or explore the philosophical gap between these two opposing figures, Guggenheim is content to paint the issue in broad strokes. Yes, of course, the Rubber Room is straight out of Catch 22, and, yes, of course, there are bad teachers out there (we’ve all had them), but, c’mon, what about all of the average to amazing teachers who are doing their job? Instead, Guggenheim focuses on a minority—the woefully inept, cruelly indifferent, really, really, bad teacher.

3. Guggenheim would also have us believe that all but the most exceptional public schools are freakin’ wastelands. Well, at least we’ve got charter schools to save us. Never mind that there is no existing evidence that charter schools, as a whole, are any better at improving test scores than public schools. Guggenheim flouts graduation rate, but an important variable here is that students of charter schools have parents who signed them up for charter school in the first place. To me, this suggests a level of parental involvement that will have as real an impact on the likelihood of a student’s graduation as any but the most extraordinary school.

Guggenheim ends his film with footage of prospective charter school students and their families awaiting the results of the entrance lottery, striking a cheap note of melodrama. As other kids’ numbers are called, we, the audience, are on the edge of our seats, fervently praying that our kids, the ones we were introduced to an hour ago, will not have their dreams crushed. The implication is that if these kids don’t get into a charter school, they are fucked (and, by extension, how sad that the fate of their entire lives should be decided by a lottery). Guggenheim acts like going to public school is akin to being thrown into the Return of the Jedi sand pit. This does a disservice to the innovative, hardworking public school teachers who will teach this group of cast-off students in the years to come.

4. Finally—and this is perhaps the movie’s most damning flaw—Guggenheim offers no real solutions. He presents a few well-known successful models, but doesn’t inquire into the specifics in any useful kind of way. His big finding is that good teachers increase student learning. One legitimate reaction to such a conclusion is, “No shit, asshole.” Another more diplomatic reaction is, ”Well, that sounds sensible enough. So what does a good teacher look like? And how are good teachers made?” Either Guggenheim didn’t ask those questions, or he didn’t deem them to be within the scope of this particular “dissection.”

The movie comes out in the fall. I’m not going to say don’t go see it. I even think maybe you should. More than anything else, I’m curious to see the public reaction. Will it avalanche into a kind of cultural tipping point for charter schools—the way An Inconvenient Truth was for climate change? Or will it be dismissed as a hazily constructed piece of sham journalism? I’m hoping for the latter.

Alistair teaches English and Journalism in Hayward, CA.




Filed under Movie Reviews

29 responses to “Movie Review: Waiting for Superman: Or just another Clark Kent playing dress-up?

  1. Dave Roland

    I attended a screening of this film last night; I don’t think your assessment is fair or accurate.

    Guggenheim’s message was that the state of American education is worse than most assume – and not just in poor urban schools, but in the suburbs as well. His hypothesis was that the state of our schools is the result of a system petrified by the power of teacher unions, which inhibit administrators from replacing demonstrably ineffective teachers with others who might be better. He showed that the system has resulted in many students being trapped in schools where, statistics say, they are unlikely to reach their academic potential, and they may not graduate at all. He showed that, despite the pessimism of many in our society, demographics are not destiny – that children of all races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds can succeed if they are given the right environment. And he also showed that, unfortunately, for many families attaining that kind of environment comes down to winning a lottery.

    So, as to your criticisms:

    The movie clearly adopts the now-standard approach to social policy documentary making, using clips from old films and TV shows to make certain points, and utilizing cartoons to illustrate statistical data, but it is a far cry from Michael Moore’s guerrilla interviews or the way that Moore manufactures confrontation. In fact, Guggenheim prearranged an interview with Randi Weingarten and, while he may well have trimmed more persuasive parts from it, based on previous interviews and debates of hers I have seen, it doesn’t appear that he misrepresented her or her positions. Even the video of political figures (which included roughly equal doses of every president since LBJ) was not shaped to make them look stupid, but rather to point out that for all of their efforts, hopes, expenditures, and good intentions, they have utterly failed to improve the situation. So I think it is far off-base to suggest that “Waiting for ‘Superman'” is a Michael Moore-style film.

    Your next point is that the film has nothing new to say about education. Well, that’s true – but the goal of the film is to make a much broader group of people aware of what is already common knowledge within the education world. The filmmaker hopes that if enough people get angry about the unions’ resistance to reform, then the unions will eventually have to give in, at least on the more indefensible stands they have taken, such as denying teachers the right to choose for themselves whether they are willing to sacrifice their own tenure in exchange for a nearly-doubled salary. Even as Guggenheim offers a negative portrayal of the unions, however, I thought he went out of his way to offer a positive view of teachers in general. The film made clear his respect for the difficulty of the profession and the dedication shown by so many – he just also pointed out that where teachers do prove themselves to be unfit, there should be a way to get them out of classrooms and off payrolls. This is not controversial, and I don’t think the director spent an inordinate amount of time on the issue.

    You next raise a couple of points that warrant response, regarding public schools, generally, and charter schools. What the film shows is that people frequently assume that even suburban schools are doing better at educating kids than they really are. It points out that many of the students who do go on to college have to take remedial courses before they are prepares for a rigorous academic environment, and that even beautiful, modern facilities can mask failure. While the film follows several families as they try to get their children into high-performing charter schools, it also points out that only one in five charter schools can be considered high-performing. It doesn’t present charter schools as a magic bullet, but rather holds up the style of education provided in these specific examples as something that can – and from the filmmaker’s perspective, should – be adopted by ALL schools. In other words, to the extent that the film calls for a specific solution (which I’m not sure it does), that solution is not to put all children in charter schools, but rather to make all schools more like the charters shown in the movie. That would entail discipline, high expectations for all students, longer school days, and more flexibility to hire (and reward) good teachers and get rid of bad ones.

    You also claim that there is “no existing evidence” that charter schools improve educational outcomes and, somewhat ironically, you also suggest that if a parent is motivated enough to try and get their child into a good charter school, the kid will likely to just fine. Why is this ironic? Because the random selection afforded by charter school lotteries actually creates perfect conditions to measure the impact of those schools. While it is true that one cannot presume that any given charter school will be an improvement over any given traditional public school, Caroline Hoxby (formerly at Harvard, now at Stanford’s Hoover Institution) and other scholars have demonstrated in multiple studies that children unsuccessfully entered into charter school lotteries lag well behind those who won the lotteries. This indicates that, at least for charter schools where there is more demand than the schools can accommodate, the schools themselves make a significant difference in the education outcomes of those students. However melodramatic the lottery scenes might seem, they really do represent a pivotal crossroads in the educational lives of the featured children and for all of the other children participating.

    In short, I think the movie is well-designed to accomplish it intended purposes: to wake people up to the state of American education, to give them hope that no child should be considered a lost cause, and to start a national conversation about what can be done to make all schools look more like the success stories featured in the film. Whether, in the end, any real difference will result from people viewing the film is another matter entirely. Only time will tell.

  2. Alistair

    Thanks Dave for starting the debate. Hopefully others will join in once WfS is officially released.

    I don’t think the film is as objective in its approach as you suggest. I’ll try to address some of your points.

    The average American is absolutely aware that our education system is a mess. And I don’t think they harbor any misconceptions about the relative state of that mess. (Ask any Californian, for example). This movie is not waking anyone up. Unlike An Inconvenient Truth, in which Guggenheim brought a marginal issue into the spotlight, this movie is about something that already figures prominently in the average American’s consciousness.

    I do agree with you that Guggenheim makes two good points that the average American may not be familiar with: the role teacher unions play in a school’s inability to replace bad teachers, and the misconception that suburban schools are doing better than urban schools. Unfortunately, the former doesn’t get a fair treatment (see below), and the latter only registers as a side note within the context of the entire film.

    I also agree with you (and Guggenheim) that it’s too hard to fire bad teachers (frustratingly, my own very smart, capable students often fail those bad teachers’ classes) and that teacher unions should be held to task for this. However, I don’t think teacher unions, as a whole, were given a fair shake in this film. As benefactor of teacher unions, I’m grateful for my benefits, my guaranteed prep period, my access to union support in the case of administrative harassment, etc. Yet nowhere in the film does Guggenheim examine the ways in which unions make teachers’ lives (and, in the best cases, students’ too) more sustainable. Guggenheim’s oversimplified hypothesis is that unions are getting in the way of reform. I would argue that they also protect the reforms of yesterday. I wish he had been intellectually curious enough to examine this philosophical gap rather than simply settling so firmly on one side. Not to mention it’s absurd that all of the success models that Guggenheim refers to are charter school models–in other words, schools without unions. As someone currently teaching summer school at a charter–two three hour classes per day without a prep period–I can personally attest to the suckiness of life without a union.

    I strongly disagree with your assertion that the filmmaker “went out of his way to offer a positive view of teachers in general.” Charter school teachers, maybe, but certainly not public. The only public school teachers we see are those in the Rubber Room and at least one other inept schmuck caught on camera in his classroom. The charter school teachers, by contrast, practically sparkle.

    I mention in my original article that an important variable in a child’s success is parental involvement, and that every charter school student has parents who were at least involved enough to enter them into the lottery in the first place. What I’m really talking about here is a kind of tracking. All of the kids whose parents don’t ask them if they have homework, who will never show up for a parent teacher conference, who are too busy or too absent to participate in their child’s education, are tracked out. They go to public school, along with a much smaller population of kids who are unsuccessfully entered into charter school lotteries. Many of their public school peers are not pushed/supported at home which undoubtedly has a negative effect on the overall quality of learning at the school, at no fault to the teacher or school. Of course, this causes unsuccessfully entered students to lag behind their successfully entered peers. I propose that the same principles that govern other forms of tracking are at work here too. In which case, charter schools may simply be a new, accepted version of tracking.

    Guggenheim’s limited selection of success models (all of them charter) DOES imbue the charter model with a kind of magic possibility. If this were not his motive, then why doesn’t he present even one successful public school model?

    As for copying Michael Moore, I mean that Guggenheim has not yet found his voice as an artist (or, if you prefer, as a journalist), a point you second when you mention that Guggenheim, “clearly adopts the now-standard approach to social policy documentary making.” Aside from the aesthetic angle to this conversation, I would argue that in addition to this being a standard approach to social policy documentary filmmaking, it’s a standard approach to the documentary as popular entertainment. The danger in this kind of documentary is that sometimes we, as viewers, are having such a good time that we forget to be critical. And that’s why I think this particular film is so dangerous. It positions itself as a piece of journalism but doesn’t do the work. Instead, we applaud Guggenheim’s commendable but obvious conclusions (Rubber Room bad! good teachers good!), experience a range of triggered emotions, and completely ignore the fact that we’re being sold someone’s ideology.

  3. Jennifer

    I think that in the debate over the impact of teachers’ unions on education, we need to look at the broader context of labor in the United States.

    Although there has been a recent slight increase in the number of individuals in unions, union labor is on significant decline in the United States. At the same time, unions (and especially their benefits) are under incredible attack. Some of these attacks are disingenuous (we hear a lot about pension underfunding, but not so much about how some companies looted pension savings, or how some pension funds made investments very lucrative for their advisors but not for their pensioners, for instance).

    There has been concerted anti-union pressure nationwide. Teachers represent a massive union block – and a professional one that holds a valued place in society. If one is interested in deunionization, then the teachers’ unions must go. What better way to do that than to attack the status of the teacher (Rubber Room ’em one and all) and blame it on collective bargaining?

    I am a teacher and an active participant in my union. I don’t agree with all of its decisions; I believe that my unions have at times identified too much with administrators, districts and “the system” rather than with schools, communities and families.

    But is the union the primary driver of school failure? Of course not. In California, over a quarter of schools have vermin infestation. My school has leaded pipes, hopefully-still-encapsulated asbestos, ants, mice and peeling paint. We are so badly funded that last year we ran out of copy paper.

    My union is a driver for better school funding and for challenging our district to maintain functioning, non-hazardous school sites. In this way, the union is a driver of creating the conditions for success.

    All of my students qualified for free lunch; half were English Language Learners. Over half had experienced significant trauma. Many suffered periodic food insecurity; several had periods of homelessness over the year. These issues are not union caused, and they have a huge impact on student learning. They are inarguably more negative for my students than any union policy.

  4. Trade union membership is healthy for citizens, and may even contribute to higher test scores.

    # 1 Sweden: 82%

    = 2 Finland: 76%

    # 9 Canada: 30%

    # 17 United States: 13%


    Child poverty (Child poverty index is defined as the share of the children living in the households with income below 50% of the national median.)

    # 1 Mexico: 26.2

    # 2 United States: 22.4

    #13 Germany: 10.7

    # 21 Finland: 4.3

    Prisoners (per capita)

    # 1 United States: 715 per 100,000 people

    # 2 Russia: 584 per 100,000 people

    # 3 Belarus: 554 per 100,000 people

    = 113 Finland: 71 per 100,000 people

    Other than offering the statistics above, I’m still trying to figure out where are these supermen/superwomen teachers are hiding. When my kids’ schools need a position filled (which they do b/c turnover is high), there isn’t exactly a huge crowd of fantastically-qualified teacher applicants knocking down the door.

    This movie joins “The Cartel” and “The Lottery” as this year’s selection of neoliberal propaganda documentaries. We’re a corporate plutocracy now, didn’t you know? Today’s education “reform” movement (being driven by CEOs and hedgefund managers) is totally bogus and mostly about privatization and union busting.

    Notice that they never utter a word about any of the things I listed above, or the policies that produced them? That’s because it’s important to spread the message to the public that the cause of all our woes are public school teachers.

  5. This is a fantastically good read, thanks to Susan Ohanian for linking to it.
    The trailers for the movie were masterpieces of low level propaganda. As is the film.

  6. CarolineSF

    Great review, especially as it’s not by someone like me who already has strong feelings (and in fact won’t see the movie).

    A couple of points for you teacher-bashers out there: The states with right-to-work laws, meaning that teachers have no job security at all, are the states with the lowest academic achievement (mainly southern states) — very consistently. And the strongest union states — Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York– are also the states with the highest academic achievement. So tell us again how the whole problem is teachers’ unions?

    And the claim that it’s “impossible to fire bad teachers”? Well, here’s a situation that was pretty typical. My son had a really dreadful teacher in high school, just a laughingstock. (He used to leave the class alone for a while and come back reeking of pot.) The kindly, warm, welcoming, personable principal would apologize to parents who complained, but it was just impossible to fire him. Well, then that principal left and was replaced by a veteran administrator, and in short order, that teacher was quietly gone. Turns out it wasn’t “impossible” for a competent and effective administrator to fire a bad teacher after all — what do you know.

    Alistair, those “it’s a miracle!” charter schools that graduate 100% of their students and/or send 100% of their graduates to college? They invariably have such a clever little trick. They just kick out all the students who aren’t on track to graduate and get into college. Gosh, why didn’t all schools think of that?

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  8. NYCee

    This very biased flick was just lauded as a work of genius on Morning Joe by Joe Scarborough and friends because… well, because Scarborough and mainstream media dullards who frequent his Starbucks table (like John Heilemann of New York Magazine, who crowed about this flick in recent piece and on the Joe show) cant get enough of bashing teachers unions every chance they get – a trend that is getting a lot of gas from media gasbags these days and a lot of support in the way of policies from Democrats in power (with Republicans already on board, since this sort of “reform” is rightwing catnip).

    This movie appears to be the goose that rolls a gigantic golden egg right into their laps… (to those in the know, re education and teachers and unions… it just lays an egg). They said, on MJ, it takes a Nixon to go to China, it takes a “liberal” like Guggenheim to take on the teachers unions, as he did with this movie.

    I haven’t seen Waiting for Superman, but I find it appalling based on what I’ve heard thus far. I know this movie stinks because of how it is lauded for falling in line with the education “reform” bandwagon and its policies, which stink. Yet they are sweeping the nation, or rather, destroying our public school system – not to reform it as in phoenix rising from the ashes but just to kill what is good while not solving what is bad. (Bye bye baby with bath water.)

    I have seen what is happening to teachers and unions under our current push for “reform” courtesy of Obama and Duncan – see: Race to the Top – which is simply Bush/GOP/rightwing taken beyond where Bush could go… rightwing sporting a huckster’s happy face fashioned from a donkey’s (Democrats) arse.

    Michelle Rhee – apparently a goddess in this movie – is a huckster too. The bogus nature of everything from her curriculum vitae (with unsubstantiated claims of high test gains by her students) to her sweeping “reforms” will be revealed, as time goes on, to be based on bogus claims.

    Unfortunately, the American public is easily bamboozled, en masse, into supporting harmful policies like unjustified wars and sucker ed reform, the latter now based on the need to kill unions/public ed and spread charters (see: privatize education), tying teachers/administrators evaluations – and firings – to students test scores (all pushed for hard under Rhee, Obama, Duncan… et alL who suck).

    It would be nice if the suckered would do the research. Read some Diane Ravitch. And they might start their journey to enlightenment by getting where Rhee is coming from by taking a slogan that is eerily repeated, along with a few other sentences, in the intro to her beloved IMPACT curriculum… 2010 is 1984 with “two minutes of hate”… for teachers. That is, if all students dont achieve at the highest levels – because in the new view, it is always and only the teacher’s fault if kids dont get to the top.

    From IMPACT’s propaganda wall:

    • All children, regardless of background or circumstance, can achieve at the highest levels.

    (If the teachers would only use their magic powers instead of selfishly, lazily refusing to do so… )

    And then there is this IMPACT brainwashing gem:

    • Achievement is a function of effort, not innate ability.

    (Teachers’ effort… the crippled student can walk if he has a real teacher, that would be walk one who can walk on water… )

    All this wildly unrealistic performance pressure being put on teachers does have a benefit… but not where people are led to believe it does. It funds teach to the test non education that masquerades as reformed improved education, on the cheap – fire the “bad” teachers; weaken union protections that keep “bad” teachers on the job (for “bad” in this context, see: experienced, higher paid, pension getting); use waves of low paid beginning teachers to replace the higher paid, benefit receiving (“dead wood”) older EXPERIENCED teachers. Burn out the newbies after a few years – a la Teach for America’s average stint in the tough schools they are supposed to “save” – whereupon yet another wave of newbies will be hired and the cycle of teachers on the cheap, education cheapened… as shell game… will carry on.

    I havent seen this movie, but I loathe it and it’s maker, now helping to hurt unions and public schools, with his kids in private schools and his glossy yuppie veneer. This sudden education “expert.”

    I hate this “reform” movement. I loathe faux Democrats who are pushing it. Neo liberals (as a poster above put it), is right. I despise democrats who throw unions under the bus and I hate union leaders who throw members under the bus – like Randi Weingarten did, by aiding and abetting Michelle Rhee’s triumphant contract. I loathe teachers, like those in DC, that voted for their own death, the death of their unions, as with such contracts.

  9. Melissa

    As an educator in an urban charter school, your review saddens me. One, because much of what you are saying is untrue and has no facts to back it up; but two, because this is one of the first strong attempts EVER to campaign for better education in our country. Regardless of how one goes about doing it, it needed to be done. Nevermind the content or repetition of facts. If you are not a part of bettering the education in our country, please do not write negative reviews of an attempt to reform it…

    • Galia hannah

      Why don’t you read the review. The reviewer does give evidence from the New York Times that charter schools aren’t any better than public schools. Check out Wikipedia charter schools which shows again and again charter schools do the same on testing as public schools but since charter schools have a cherry picked student body that means that statistically on the average charter schools do worse on tests than public schools.

      You are the one who doesn’t give any facts to back up your argument. Also, it’s not true that the charter schools et all are one of the first strong attempts to campaign for better education country. John Dewey et al campaigned for better education. The War on Poverty educational reforms such as Headstart of the 1960s as well as the curricular reforms of the 1960s/1970s were serious attempts to improve U.S. education–the right stopped curricular reforms dead in the water. Please give some facts to back up points–you neglect to do that.

  10. Lindax

    I am an educator and a parent. My child, now a senior in h.s. has attended public school in middle class neighborhoods the whole way. My husband and I have doctorates. The house is full of books and computers. etc etc. I have volunteered in classrooms and sat on district committees. I know the issues that make education a difficult operation.

    Nonetheless, in all her years of schooling, my child has had NO outstanding teachers, 2 or 3 really solid teachers, a whole lot of ‘do no harm’ mediocre teachers, and 4 or 5 so bad I’ve written to the principal about them. [Of course, there was also the year we had to write about the principal to the superintendent.)

    The problems in education are NOT largely due to poor facilities, not enough paper, bad parenting, or cultural disadvantage. Problems are found in schools that have none of those excuses to rely upon. Instead, I place the blame in three places. One, the failure of the profession to get its shit together and push back against the insanity of testing. Two, the failure of teacher credentialing programs to join the current century or to educate teachers who can make informed teaching decisions. Three, the failure of the profession (in part due to factors in government and public perception) to attract and hold subject matter experts who have genuine enthusiasm for and knowledge of their subject. To the extent that unions shape and maintain the profession, I put them in the hot seat.

    Imho, this movie is like someone lighting their hair on fire and running around the room to draw attention to the problem. Yes it is biased in some areas. Yes it is theatrically derivative. I don’t care. We need to impress the crisis nature of education on the general public. As long as this continues to be portrayed as an “inner city” problem or a resources problem or a family problem, it will not get solved. [And you can all ruminate on why that is.]

  11. Hope

    Inconvenient Truth has a black box warning on it because it didn’t tell the truth. I like that the reviewer above said that it is a one sided report; who can trust it.

    My daughter is a teacher but I guess another one of her duties is “parent” because she also is supposed to raise these children because parents are uninvolved in her school. Parent’s night is the quietest time of the year in the school hallways.

    Michelle Rhee is the new Al Gore and there probably is a bad book coming soon.

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  16. Melissa Westbrook

    I, too, saw the film at a film festival (Seattle). I totally concur with what Alastair wrote. I was appalled.

    A couple of things to note:
    1) not one good public school was shown, not a one
    2)I think the end was very cruel and manipulative and I can’t tell you how many parents say they would NEVER subject their child to sitting in a room while numbers were being drawn for their school.
    3) I got to ask the director a question (he was there after the film). I first comment that he left out one key thing: that regular public schools have to take ALL comers. Charters can write their charters to not include services like Special Ed and ELL. A much easier job educating students if you can narrow your population. He had no real reply to that and the former teacher on the panel said, yes that’s true.

    No one wants the status quo or having low-performing teachers in classrooms. Charters have their place but again, overall, don’t perform any better than regular public schools. My state, Washington, has turn them down 3 times at the polls. Not interested.

    I’m disappointed that so many well-meaning people (like Oprah) jumped on this bandwagon and don’t see that there are many things that need to be done to better public education in the U.S.,not just one.

    And speaking of Oprah, interesting how there are no good public schools mentioned in the film and yet the director and Geoffrey Canada fall all over themselves on Oprah to say “oh there are good and bad of all kinds of schools, it’s not about schools.” A little late to make that statement.

    • I definitely agree. There are a lot of schools out there in urban communities delivering quality educations, and the movie left a bleak impression.

      Schools That Can is a network of these schools all across the US, including charter, district, independent, and parochial schools.

      In cities across the country, there are initiatives to expand these schools that work to take on more students, most notably in Detroit, Cleveland, and Milwaukee.

      STC Milwaukee has an amazing initiative to grow seats of quality eduction to 20,000 students by 2020! That will mean that at least 20% of Milwaukee’s urban students will receive quality educations. That is outstanding progress that the movie failed to mention.

      I know Schools That Can is not even the only organization conquering the achievement gap, but please visit our website to learn more and stay tuned for reactions from school leaders about the movie:

      and you can follow us on Twitter at

  17. Jahaira

    I am a citizen that was not aware of the shocking state of our schools. I only have one question for you? Do you know of a documentary on this topic that is objective?

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  20. danyulengelke

    Great review!

    We’re linking to your article for Davis Guggenheim Thursday at

    Keep up the good work!

  21. Pingback: Davis Guggenheim Thursday – Watch: ‘Waiting for Superman’ (2010) | Seminal Cinema Outfit

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