Ira Shor, City University of New York
October 4, 2010, for NOT Waiting for Superman

Waiting for Superman is a painful movie to watch for public school advocates. Overall, it benefits the hedge-fund billionaires now bankrolling charter schools and conservative politicians who want to privatize the $500 billion/year school market. Teachers and schoolkids are on the verge of becoming a business bonanza. Recently, the public sector was plundered by Wall Street and its Bailout. But the transfer of public wealth to private hands will be even larger if school tax moneys can be funneled to private charter schools.

This transfer is already underway but it will accelerate if public opinion turns violently against public education and if teacher unions are destroyed. Waiting for Superman helps make that happen; it undermines public confidence in public education and it demonizes teacher unions.

With political stakes high, this film by Davis Guggenheim is an asset to those forces favoring privatization. Currently, public policy over-funds and under-regulates charter schools while under-funding and over-regulating public schools. Such an equation is corroding school systems around the country. But, film-maker Guggenheim shows little interest in exposing the long-term suffocation of public schools by deep budget cuts and by annual testing regimes. He conveniently ignores the policies which enforce decline on public education. Instead, he glamorizes charter schools but wisely does so through irresistible stories of adorable, deserving kids and their desperate parents who pin their hopes on lotteries for admission to charter schools.

The gorgeous kids and devoted parents searching for the golden ticket to a favored school are blameless. With no one to turn tono parent associations to reform their local schools and to lobby city hall, no teacher-activists to ally with, no community associations to defend their needs, no mass movements to bring their situation to a larger stage of politicsthey face the formidable school system alone. They are underdogs for whom Guggenheim easily provokes sympathy, so much so that the climactic lottery scene at the end is unbearable to watch because the odds are against the kids who all deserve better.

In the fateful lotteries, large rooms are packed with mostly low-income parents and kids who hold their breath as numbers are called off by officials onstage in imperial isolation from the families below them. Lotteries like these divide-and-conquer populations who need solidarity rather than a lottery ticket. In the film, the lower-income families compete against each other. A few will win, but most lose. To my mind, organizing such disappointment for kids is a form of child abuse. While most kids and parents suffer painful loss, the charter schools enhance their stature from such spectacles, because they are in demand by families with no other options. Guggenheims film makes the kids and parents sympathetic but he refuses to wrestle with the predatory power relations at work here, choosing instead the simplistic display of how desirable charter schools are.

Guggenheims manipulative story-telling is a very narrow view of American education. For example, he represents mostly one model of good teaching–the talking teacher at the front of the room. In a cartoon version, the teacher is actually represented as pouring knowledge directly into student heads by tilting open their skulls. A century ago John Dewey denounced this method of pouring in facts, favoring interactive, project-based, and problem-solving methods instead. Forty years ago, Paulo Freire denounced teacher-talk classrooms as the banking method that treats students as deficits. Weve known for 100 years how to enhance achievement with learning that is constructivist, student-centered, and problem-based, but this pedagogical knowledge appears in the Guggenheim film only once, practiced by a gifted inner-city math teacher from whom the charter-school founders of KIPP Academies get their inspiration. Guggenheims answer for why such smart strategies must migrate to charter schools for success: the power-mongering teacher unions and the implacable school bureaucracy. Unfortunate clips of AFT chief Randi Weingartens bellowing at union conferences and evading clear answers to direct questions on camera confirm the singular problem of union interference. But, long before unions were a force in public education, experimental teaching and learning worked for kids, according to the famous Eight-Year Study of the 1940s by scholar Ralph Tyler, and the public schools still turned away from such methods. In addition, we know that from the mid-70s to the late-80s, the black-white achievement gap narrowed significantly before plateauing in the 90s. Mass movements from the 1960s and 1970s helped produce such positive effects in public schools, but Guggenheim is unaware of such a landmark moment or else uninterested in telling this story.

Perhaps most damaging is that Guggenheim fails to portray the continual budget cuts imposed on public schooling which have undermined its capacity. He sees one primary enemythe teacher unions and the bad teachers protected by them. Guggenheim chose not to interview prominent education critics who could have provided an alternative point of view, people like Deborah Meier, Alfie Kohn, Jonathan Kozol, Jeannie Oakes, Monty Neill, David Berliner, Mike Rose, or Richard Rothstein. Even Diane Ravitch would have given him an earful on the effects of privatization and testing in the last 30 years. Guggenheims film is missing the substantial efforts underway to improve public education from the bottom up by activists in and out of the classroom. Waiting for Superman gives great screen-time to a figure like Geoffrey Canada while ignoring teacher, parent and community activists who advocate for children inside the public schools. Among them is Rethinking Schools, in the field now for 25 years. Organized community opposition is the only force that can challenge billionaires like Bill Gatess who are meddling with schooling. The public sector and its public schools are precious assets of democracy which no private unit can equal or replace.

Archived Comments

Julia Willebrand 05 October 2010,

Thank you for this great exposition of a propaganda doc playing on emotions to further a benighted cause; the chief purpose of which is to line Wall Street pockets.

Francesca Ochoa 05 October 2010,

What a great critical analysis of a manipulative film!

Arthur Getzel 05 October 2010, 16:11

If public education is destroyed, it will end another great experiment. The experiment is called the United States of America. Horace Mann advocated for public education to create a common political culture from Americas diverse immigrant experience. Public education creates a common culture that has been the fabric that has held our diverse society together. Ending public schools will fragment this society that is already beginning to become frayed by economic dislocations. These billionaires are smart. This movement causes those within a social class to fight each other instead of a common enemy. The common enemy is Americas wealthiest who wants to redistribute even more resources to themselves. We must form a united front against this dangerous fake reform.

Melissa Olson 05 October 2010, 17:23

I have to agree. Privatizing education? Why, and well no. My dad, a teacher, was the person who reminded me years back that it was men like my grandfather, also a teacher, who started to unionize teachers. Not to knock women in the profession, I am a woman, and a teacher, but the men who entered the profession felt that teaching was given less respect because people could so easily dismiss the concerns of women, and often times, women were not empowered amongst themselves to unionizefor better schools etc. I have also met some of the individuals interested in privatizing schools, namely consultants who stand to make a buck from consulting on charter schools, and they trade information on the well-being of schools. They share information on what schools will make it and which will fail, and they thus control what kind of money is invested where, and this is not something that should be up to middle men who want to make a buck.

Dale C. Beitzel 05 October 2010, 21:42

People, especially Educators, should be encouraged to boycott the movie. Read the reviews and donate the price of your ticket to a public school program. The message is simple, Charter Schools are the heroes and Teacher Unions are the Villians, oops I gave away the ending. How shallow was Guggenheims research Dont waste your time in the theater. Volunteer time in a school.

Lynne Immell 06 October 2010, 07:03

I am a public school teacher who works day, night and weekends to prepare for my students. My level of dedication goes above and beyond the expected, and I resent having teachers being bashed by those who have never worked in a classroom and/or been in public education. I have made my work the priority in my life and made myself very ill because of it. This reminds me of people who have never had children who know all the right things to do in parenting. Those who have never taught, do not have a clue.

David C. 06 October 2010, 14:11

I am a public school educator and intend to see this movie. Its better to be informed. Some of the positive changes and successes in the charter/private schools may help us find a better way in our public schools. I am currently reading about Ben Chavis success turning around the AIPCS charter school in Oakland. Its a great read! (Crazy Like a Fox)

michael mcnally 06 October 2010, 14:18

When teachers are empowered to make decisions for their school at the lowest possible level and the organizational structure moves from the industrial model of Henry Ford to the horizontal structure of any successful enterprize then will we see students be well served. Waiting for Superman does nothing to help improve the future of education and does everything to turn education over to the same folks who gave us the economic crises we face today.One should recall that unions have always advocated for public education and through Unions efforts will be the institutions responsible for saving and improving education.

Ann F. 06 October 2010, 17:23

I agree with Lynne I would never pretend to tell my surgeon how to operate, but anyone whos ever been in a classroom thinks they know education inside out. I was recently laid off due to a district financial crisis, but for almost 30 years I gave enormous amounts of expertise, time, energy and money to my job. My colleagues were people with whom I was proud to work.
The inconvenient truth of this movie is that Americans dont, as a nation, care about children, particularly children who live in poverty. Geoffrey Canada has that right if we gave every child in America the kind of cradle-to-college attention he provides (with generous private funding as well as public funds), and the level of parental involvement he requires, the face of our nation would be changed.

Mary K 07 October 2010, 16:26

Superman dose not help our children, nor does it help them with their education.i think we have better things to do the this!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Mrs. F 07 October 2010, 21:56

I think it is unfortunate how many teachers get the hackles up over this movie. If it is so over exaggerated then what is the truth? How do teachers explain a flat-lined education system that costs more and more money. The money goes up and the scores goNOWHERE! Encouraging other educators to boycott this movie is absurd. Watch it and decide how you can either prove it wrong or change it!
Personally, I think a government run education is as idiotic as welfare and government run health care.
@Arthur Getzel- I think you argued against public education when you said Public education creates a common culture that has been the fabric that has held our diverse society together. Hardly. It may create a common culture, but I would argue that is not a decent culture. At least since the Supreme Court decision in 1963 removed prayer and Bible reading from public schools. It has been a down hill cesspool ever since.

Ron Holland 07 October 2010, 22:13

I am appalled that this movie was made. I am a guidance counselor and had taught for a number of years. Charter Schools are the ruination of public education in America. The Stanford Study on charters basically said that 17% of charters actually outperform their public school counterparts. Most charters are highly segregated and exclude the most neediest kids. Oprah Winfrey is a sellout and I dont mean racially. I mean she comes off as an advocate of children everywhere but her shows on education in America featured Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee (who is touted in the film as hero-how disgusting and pathetic). I think we need to be organized as educators and make sure this privatization and corporate take over of schools is not allowed to happen. I think we must support our teacher unions and be united as one because public education in America is becoming an endangered species.

Patrick Gailey 08 October 2010, 11:28

The message is simple, Charter Schools are the heroes and Teacher Unions are the Villians, oops I gave away the ending.
I have heard this sentiment too many times to count and its a gross oversimplification of the film. How can you possibly say that the movie absolutely advocates for charters when the narrative obviously highlights the gaps of the charter system by showing kids it does not encompass. Here I feel the movie actual shows a desire to fix the system – wether or not you agree with Guggenheims ideas of how to fix that system you should take advantage of the stir it has created to push now, harder than ever, for real education reform that will benefit the entire system – not just charter schools. Get over your offended ego and take advantage of an opportunity.

C D Smith 08 October 2010, 11:40

Newark high school students walk out in protest of filthy, unsafe school environment

They say there are rats, mice, cockroaches, spiders, guns and fights in the hallways.

Thats why students say they walked out of a Newark high school today, to protest what they called a filthy school environment thats also not safe. They also called for the return of the schools former principal.

During the afternoon protest, students walked out of Barringer High School in staggered waves of 10 or 20. Some students said security guards blocked doors to prevent anyone from going outside.

A large crowd came outside when the fire alarm sounded, but soon went back in.

The demonstration came two weeks after authorities said a 15-year-old student was sexually assaulted inside a classroom at the Parker Street school. A 17-year-old student was arrested in connection with the Sept. 22 incident, police said.

Students got the word out about the protest on Facebook and said theyve had enough of feeling unsafe and learning in an unsanitary school.


Newark teen is charged with sex assault of 15-year-old student in school

Teen charged with theft of Newark police car after fight

Its like a jungle, said Ashley Martinez, a 17-year-old senior at the high school. The schools out of control and I dont feel safe.

Valerie Merritt, a spokeswoman for Newark schools, said the district has encountered insect and rodent problems over the years, but the systems facilities team regularly exterminates and conducts daily and weekly cleanings.

On several Facebook pages about the protest one had more than 300 members who said they would attend the event students said they need to see a dramatic change.

Tyree Thomas, also a 17-year-old senior, said he created a Facebook page about the protest because he feels like Barringer lacks structure. Thomas said he did not have a class schedule until the third week of school.

Merritt said some of Barringers students did not have their class schedules at the start of the school year, however the district worked with the school to ensure each student had a schedule and the matter has been rectified.

The high school, with grades 1012, has about 1,300 students.

Thomas also said he wants the district to hire back the schools former principal, Jose Aviles, who was transferred to another school. Aviles, who was principal at Barringer for two years, was vice principal at a city elementary school until he resigned shortly after the school year began to go to a local charter school.

The current principal is on medical leave, said Merritt.

Aviles said he was flattered by the call for his return. I miss them, he said of the students.

If somehow, someway, I could come back, I would, he said.

He also said students had the right to protest. But he said the protest should not have been during school hours.

Weve endured this from September 2 until now, said Thomas. Weve waited too long and were sick of the violence.

The children are not waiting anymore either. Now should a public school like this say open. I wonder if the author would send his children to this school.

Mrs. T 09 October 2010, 01:22

I think that many of the arguments against the movie are too focused on educational institutions. Education is about the children, not which side youre affiliated with. When it comes down to it, there are major problems with our education system, and schools like Canadas are making a huge difference in areas where it was often thought an impossible feat. I in no way support the destruction of public schools, but charter schools have the same essential goal as public institutions, they just dont have as many of the governmental catches. I agree that he didnt explicitly show examples of public schools that are making a difference, but he did mention them. I do not think his intention is to destroy public education, but to encourage people to stand up and make a difference. And, not to say that unions are the villains, but I found that the instances in DC where teachers were being paid to sit in an office and play cards, or where teachers were rehired and paid back pay after putting a childs head in a soiled toilet, is INSANE. There are amazing teachers out there that are subject to unjust conditions, but there are also some teachers out there that should be turning the critical eye on their own self.

Ira Shor is amazing. He gave a great free talk, Can critical teaching change the world? at the Alternative Education Resource Organizations conference a couple years ago thats free online:

Mary MacKay 24 October 2010, 18:20

The new Starbucks Digital Network is promoting the pseudo-documentary Waiting for Superman. This film trashes teachers & public schooling. As a career educator & frappuccino lover, I have a problem with that. So, I wrote Starbucks & reported that I would be boycotting, adding that I suspect a lot of public school teachers drink coffee. Every Starbucks has comment forms with prepaid postageā€Œ 11 October 2011, 08:50

Hello All,
I am a public high school educator in a district with about 30,000 kids. While I can agree with some points youve made I am not convinced that your criticisms of this documentary are entirely helpful/accurate. I think the idea that there are some pervasive problems in public education that comes from within is something worth considering. Ill even go so far as to say that some of it comes from teachers who point at everyone but themselves. I come from a long line of teachers and I am the only one who works in a large non-unionized school district. There are striking differences in our work places and I am perhaps the one with the most job satisfaction of them all. Our school district is high performing and no, there is no union to protect us. Sure we have some bad teachers (who are still extremely difficult to get rid of), but there is a different energy. I am not convinced that the teachers union is necessary to make education better and I beg for other teachers to candidly and seriously ask themselves what life would be like without a union. I can tell you first hand, life goes on and you are still a respected member of the teaching profession and human race. Politics are a big reason public education suffers to date and the CA Teachers Union is one of the biggest political institutions there is.

To find out more about the importance of protecting the public school system from privatization at Rethinking Schools