Waiting for “Superman” – The Indictment of the AFT and NEA

Waiting for “Superman” is an inspiring, if clunky, documentary about the problems of education in America.  The director, Davis Guggenheim, made two other popular documentaries, An Inconvenient Truth and It Might Get Loud.  I doubt Waiting for “Superman” will ignite the political firestorm that An Inconvenient Truth did, it doesn’t feature Al Gore, but it essentially convicts the AFT and NEA teacher unions for causing the failure of the American education system.  To be perfectly fair, all viewers of this film should read the AFT and NEA responses to this documentary.


I called Waiting for “Superman” clunky because it starts off slow.  My movie buddy left after five minutes to go find something else to watch at the theater, but I think she regrets it after I told her how much better the film got and the fact that she picked a dud of a Woody Allen film to sneak into.  The show is also clunky with old clips from the 1950s Superman television show, amateur undercover video, dull press conferences and most unfortunately, uneven interviews with five students and their parents that was the core of the narrative.  The featured real people were not always persuasive and some of the kids seemed bored by being subjects of a documentary.

To me, Waiting for “Superman” gets an A+ when it was presenting animated graphs.  The actual facts and figures about the failure of American schools are the real stars of this show – but I don’t know if they are accurate.  If you go see this documentary, don’t get sidetracked by the specific student stories Guggenheim tries to tell.  The five students and their families did generate a certain level of emotion with me, but sadly, they didn’t seem like particularly good sample cases.  Too much of the movie focuses on these kids trying to win school lotteries, time that could have been spent on sexier facts.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I believe everyone in America should see this film.  I work at a College of Education, but not as an academic, so I’ve spent over twenty years hanging around with educational professionals and heard a lot.  And the ones I’ve talked to consider Waiting for “Superman” misleading if not fraudulent.    I’ve read many books, articles and seen quite a few other documentaries on the same topic.  It’s a complex issue that no 102 minute documentary can cover fairly.   The important thing is to get involved with the problem.  Education in America is like Global Warming, a giant iceberg in our Titanic’s path – if we don’t change course we’re going to crash and sink.  I’m sorry, that’s really a bad metaphor.  In both cases we’ve already crashed into the iceberg, the real issue is how many people are going to make it to the lifeboats.

Hundreds of high schools in America have over fifty-percent failure rates, which Guggenheim and others call failure factories.  This is the heart of the story, and Waiting for “Superman” does a B+ job of explaining.  This topic deserves it’s own weekly PBS show, like NOVA.  We spend so much of our TV time on partisan political histrionics while ignoring the real issues.  The Democrats, Republicans and Tea Party candidates have zero content value when it comes to dealing with the real problems in America.  Waiting for “Superman” at least focuses on something real and meaty.  The subject deserves at least 52 hours – one hour a week of required watching for everyone in this country.  We waste countless hours each week on political bickering that leads nowhere.  Waiting for “Superman” gets an A+ for defining an important issue.

Not to spoil the movie, but Waiting for “Superman” makes the following hypothesis that needs to be tested:  If we change the system it is possible to teach kids from the worse economic environments to beat the average test scores now from the best economic environments.  This is the core of this film.  It says America is cruelly and inhumanly condemning millions of its citizens to educational starvation and stunted intellectual growth.  Waiting for “Superman” tries to express this graphically and emotional as a film, but I feel it only succeeds with a C- effort.

This is a heated subject, and Americans want to blame the students for not studying, the parents for not parenting, teachers for not teaching, and principals and superintendents for not leading.  They feel that taxes are being wasted on education in America, and many want to even abolish the U. S. Department of Education.  I give Waiting for “Superman” a B+ on explaining how such thinking is leading to national Hari-kari.

Waiting for “Superman” does have a prescription for educational success.  It suggests by showing the strengths of experimental schools that a longer school day, including Saturday classes, with a full-time school year, combined with  good school teachers that  we could have dramatic change.  To get good school teachers the film implies we need to do away with teacher tenure and allow school systems to fire poorly performing teachers.  Thus the burden of changes  comes from attacking the teacher unions, requiring them to give up job security and require working longer hours, and to work all year round.  That’s a lot to ask.

The film left out asking students and parents to do more.  I guess the filmmakers assume parents and students already want more for themselves and are willing to work harder, but I don’t think that’s true.  That’s where Waiting for “Superman” gets a big fat F.  It doesn’t show how kids and parents are failing the system.  Sadly, too many Americans are just plain ignorant when it comes to understanding the value of an education.  But we can only be a great nation if the average intelligence of our citizens is greater than the average intelligence of all the other national citizens we compete with on the world stage.

That’s why education is an issue that’s equal to global warming.  We could survive the worst scenarios of each, but who really wants to live in a Mad Max future.

JWH – 10/24/10

3 thoughts on “Waiting for “Superman” – The Indictment of the AFT and NEA”

  1. As stated from another commentary on this movie, “An answer to our nation’s situation seems to be “charter schools” – schools that receive public money but are not subject to the same rules and restrictions as regular public schools.” First, if charter schools are really the answer, then we simply need more of them so that more students and parents who want access will have it. Second, the big difference in determining the academic success of a student is not just the teachers, it’s also the parents. Involved and caring parents will make a huge difference. If only there was a way to get more parents engaged in their child’s education.

    1. The biggest complaint I hear from high school teachers is how poorly prepared the kids are by the time they get to them. That was touched on in Waiting for “Superman” but the film should have dealt with that issue more. The film said all students do about the same in the early grades but then things break down. Is that because of the students, the parents or the educational system? What if it’s not the educational system but a change in the kids themselves. Maybe modern kids are just more independent and willing to reject the canned programming we try to force on them. If that’s true, will Charter Schools work? Will anything?

  2. I listened to a fairly long NPR review/discussion of this film and it sounded fascinating. While I don’t plan to see it in the theater, it will be something I check out once it comes out on DVD.

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