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 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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