Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Mixed Report Card for ‘Waiting for Superman’

• October 09, 2010 • 5:00 AM

New documentary on schools shines a spotlight on the plight of low-income and minority children, but the film flops when it comes to solutions.

Some of the best bits in Waiting for Superman, the new documentary by Davis Guggenheim on the failures of American education, especially for the poor, are the shots of presidents promising to do something about it.

“Now let us praise famous men,” the film as much as says, as it rolls out sequences of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush signing legislation and pontificating. There’s George W. Bush, too, with the slogan, “No Child Left Behind” in large letters on a banner behind him, rolling out the latest program to bolster America’s sagging scores.

In sharp contrast, we enter the lives of four poor black and Latino children who are languishing in lousy inner-city elementary schools, facing seemingly insurmountable odds of getting into college. They’ve pinned their hopes on public charter schools with track records of success, but so have hundreds of other kids, and admission is by lottery.

We get to know Daisy, a student so single-minded that she has already written to the college of her choice, requesting admission. She wants to be a doctor or a nurse or a veterinarian, but if she doesn’t win the charter lottery, we learn, she’s headed for a local middle school in Los Angeles where only 13 percent of students are proficient in math. At the local high school, one of the “drop-out factories” prevalent among high-poverty schools, only three out of every 100 students graduate with the classes necessary for admission to a four-year university.

[class name="dont_print_this"]

Moving Pictures

MOVING PICTURES
An occasional look at movies that matter.

[/class] Anthony, a solemn boy who recently lost his father to drugs, knows he’s gotten the short end of the stick. He goes to school in Washington, D.C., where only 12 percent of eighth-grade students are proficient in reading, the lowest rate in the country.

“I want my kid to have better than what I had,” he says.

The heartbreak in Waiting is palpable. In addition to the kids, we hear from the parents who can’t choose their schools through real estate because they’re poor. The story of a fifth student, Emily, a white girl living in a suburb of Redwood City, Calif., shows that middle-class parents often don’t have choices, either.

The film briskly and wittily presents the disgraceful evidence of educational failure, with clever animations of charts and line graphs, and old clips of school officials spewing bureaucratic drivel. Geoffrey Canada, the charismatic leader of the Harlem Children’s Zone,* which runs two charter schools in New York City, tells how, as a boy, he believed that Superman would show up “even in the depths of the ghetto” — and how he came to realize “there was no one coming with enough power to save us.”

But Guggenheim, who also directed An Inconvenient Truth, the Oscar-winning 2006 documentary about former Vice-President Al Gore’s efforts to educate the public about global warming, gets an “F” for his analysis of how to fix America’s failing schools.

[class name="dont_print_this"]

As a former public school teacher and union member – I taught junior high school in Los Angeles area in the 1980s – I was offended by the anti-union propaganda in this film. Guggenheim has a heyday with the abuses of the tenure system, and yes, it’s true there are many. We hear the slang that goes around about bad teachers who are shunted from school to school – “Pass the Trash” and “Dance of the Lemons.” We see a video of bad teachers in New York City’s now-closed “reassignment center,” awaiting endlessly delayed hearings, doing nothing all day long and getting paid for it. Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers, gets short shrift in the film, shown speaking over ominously throbbing music.

Yes, the worst teachers should be fired, and I could tell some horror stories of my own. But to suggest, as Waiting does, that unions are to blame for the plight of Daisy, Anthony, and Emily, is way off-track. Unions have fought to bring teachers into the middle class and keep them there. Without the guarantee of a decent salary and benefits, how many would choose to go into teaching in the first place?

Guggenheim reveals early on that he has placed his own children in private school. It’s obvious from the film that he thinks public charter schools are the next best option. But he hasn’t done his homework. According to a prominent Stanford University study on charter schools in 2009, nearly half of charter schools nationwide get no better results than local public schools, and 37 percent get worse results.

Successful charter schools such as Canada’s, which receive substantial private donations, cannot be duplicated on a large scale to solve the chronic problems of America’s high-poverty schools. Waiting sidesteps the glaring re-segregation of minority students in these schools. It does not mention, for example, the successes of urban-suburban transfer programs in Boston, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and St. Louis and other cities, where poor students are being integrated into affluent schools with good results, across district lines.

“I don’t care what I have to do, I don’t care how many jobs I have to obtain,” says the mother of Bianca, one of the five children whose stories are told in Waiting. “She is going to go to college. You don’t get a job, you get a career. There’s a difference.”

Waiting pulls the heartstrings but fails to offer Bianca and her mother much hope. But if it gets people talking about fairness in education, that’s a good start.

*This story originally identified Geoffrey Canada with the Harlem Success Academy.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Melinda Burns
Former Miller-McCune staff writer Melinda Burns was previously a senior writer for the Santa Barbara News-Press, covering immigration, urban planning, science, and the environment.

More From Melinda Burns

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.