Eric D. Snider

Waiting for 'Superman' (documentary)

Movie Review

Waiting for 'Superman' (documentary)

by Eric D. Snider

Grade: B

Released: September 24, 2010


Directed by:

For his latest documentary, "Waiting for 'Superman,'" director Davis Guggenheim has chosen a subject far less controversial than that of his last major work, which was "An Inconvenient Truth." There is much disagreement on the topic of global warming. (Or, rather, there is a little disagreement, but it is very loud.) This time, the premise is virtually inarguable: the U.S. public school system is screwed up; our students have fallen behind their counterparts in most other developed countries; and kids in poor neighborhoods are getting the worst of it.

You can't say with a straight face that there isn't a problem. The controversy, of course, is in deciding how to solve it. Guggenheim's compelling documentary, a potent mixture of facts and figures and heart-tugging stories, spotlights some education reformers who have succeeded, thereby giving a glimmer of hope in what is otherwise a bleak situation. And viewers who are skeptical of Guggenheim because he's the one who pointed the camera at Al Gore for "An Inconvenient Truth" may be surprised at how conservative "Waiting for 'Superman'" is.

In 1999, Guggenheim made a TV documentary called "The First Year" that showed his admiration for teachers and public education. Narrating the new film (which he co-wrote with Billy Kimball), he comes back to the subject. "Each morning, wanting to believe in our schools, we take a leap of faith." If we live in the suburbs, there's only a so-so chance of our faith being rewarded and our children getting a decent public education. If we live in a metropolitan area or an economically depressed neighborhood, the odds are even worse.

Guggenheim presents the statistics with minimal flair (a "Simpsons" clip here, some stock footage there), but they're sobering. The amount of money spent per pupil has doubled since 1971 (and that's adjusting for inflation), yet our students' test scores have fallen from the top almost to the very bottom compared to other first-world nations. We do worse than nearly everyone. We excel in confidence, though: most American students believe they get better test scores than other kids, even though they don't.

The film focuses on a handful of students who are shining examples of youthful optimism, all good kids, mostly in impoverished neighborhoods: Anthony in D.C., Daisy in Los Angeles, Francisco in the Bronx, Bianca in Harlem. (Incongruously, there's also Emily, who's a little older and a lot whiter than the other subjects and lives in an affluent part of California.) The students want to succeed and have parental support, but the deck is stacked against them. At the high school Daisy will attend, for example, only 3 percent of students graduate with the credits required to enroll at a university.

Private schools are out of the question. Public-funded charter schools are an option, but only one in five of those is doing "awesome" according to Guggenheim (whatever "awesome" means), and students have to hope to win a random drawing to secure a spot at one.

We meet a few administrators who have had luck improving the schools where they are. Their stories, coupled with the kids' case studies, are inspiring. The film's suggestion seems to be that we should try doing what these administrators have done.

Teachers' unions are the villains of the piece, and Guggenheim makes no effort to present their side of it. He acknowledges that they were originally needed because teachers were being taken advantage of -- but what happened to turn them from a blessing into a burden? "Tenure," which allows even awful teachers to keep their jobs, is partly to blame. One in 60 doctors loses his or her license, one in 100 lawyers is disbarred -- but only one in 2,500 teachers ever has his or her credentials revoked. Surely that shouldn't be. But the film would be improved if Guggenheim had taken a few minutes to report the unions' perspective on the subject, even if he disagrees with it.

He also glosses over the crucial fact that it's good teachers -- not good administrators or good systems but good teachers -- who really help the kids. How can we attract a greater number of quality teachers? That seems like the real question.

Still, if "Waiting for 'Superman'" is a flawed call to action, it is nonetheless a rousing one. Its human stories stir the emotions, and its number-crunching produces outrage. I hope it will spark discussion, so that one day soon our children is more learned better.

Grade: B

Rated PG, a little very mild profanity and thematic material

1 hr., 42 min.

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This item has 6 comments

  1. travis says:

    the problem is, teachers don't generate revenue. they are cost centers, and as such, will always be paid poorly until individual teachers are allowed to break free from the unions and be individually rewarded.

    It's currently a fairly easy paycheck with little danger of losing the job. Perfect for slackers.

  2. Steve says:

    From the review: "'s good teachers -- not good administrators or good systems but good teachers -- who really help the kids. How can we attract a greater number of quality teachers?"

    You say that the film maker glosses over this point, but it seems to me from your review that he has actually addressed this point directly, as the answer is contained in your own statement: Good systems and good administrators attract a greater number of quality teachers. He says that unions and tenure perpetuate the problems. These problems, as you rightly state, boil down to the quality of the teachers. The logical conclusion (from his point of view) would be that eliminating unions and tenure (causes of the problems) would be the first major step to solving the problems and attracting a greater number of quality teachers.

    After all, if you can't fire the lousy teacher because he has tenure, then you don't have an open slot for the good teacher who's looking for a job. And if union rules prohibit you from firing a teacher based on lousy performance, you are again unable to hire good teachers to replace the lousy ones.

  3. Steve S. says:

    I am a special education teacher in California and Travis, teaching is NOT an easy paycheck. Teachers are professionals, like doctors, lawyers, dentists, etc. and they are the lowest-paid professionals. Getting my teaching credential wasn't cheap (it took 4 years after getting my BA to finish my credential program), so I addition to trying to support myself and my family I'm also paying off student loans. This is my fourth year teaching and the first year that I've actually been represented by a union. The first three years of my career I was teaching at a non-public school (it's like a private school, but the costs are paid from public funds) at a group home for teenagers going through drug rehab. The salary I was initially offered at my previous school was nice, but without union representation my pay (and that of all the other teachers at that school) was cut 6% each of the next two years. That and the increase in the premiums for health insurance made it so that my salary no longer covered living expenses and my loan payments. I was lucky and was able to find a position in a public school. My salary almost doubled, I got a health insurance package that was actually usable, and I am much happier at my new school.

    Even though I am making more it will not make me rich, but I didn't going into the teaching field expecting to get rich. I don't agree with everything my union does, but having taught both with and without a union I can say that conditions still exist that teachers will be taken advantage of without union representation. (If I had asked for a raise at the previous school I would have found myself unemployed very quickly.) If a teacher is really incompetent they will be fired, tenure or not.

    Now, as to improving the quality of education in the US, yes, good teachers will improve the quality of education, however it doesn't matter how good a teacher is if there is minimal support from the students' homes. It's very difficult to teach someone who tells you to f- off when you give them an assignment. Where did students learn that it is ok to talk to teachers that way I wonder? I'm not saying that all, or even most students are like that, but all it takes is one student acting up to disrupt a whole class. Another way to improve education is to change our school schedules. Students forget a lot of what they learned over a three month summer break and we're not in an agrarian society anymore, students don't need to go home to help with the harvest. Schools should take that long summer break and spread it out over the year, maybe even add a few more days to the length of the school year and students will retain more of what they learned.

    So, yes, there are some problems with teacher unions, but there would be more problems without them. I have only ever met one teacher who really should not have had a credential and the school ended her contract as soon as it was able. Teaching is not an easy profession, is not an easy paycheck, and if you are a slacker as a teacher you will never be able to earn tenure to begin with.

  4. Jymn says:

    The question isn't how to "attract" good teachers. There aren't a bunch of great teachers sitting around unemployed waiting for shools to start offering free donuts in the lounge.

    We need to teach teachers how to teach better. Some teachers are slackers who should be fired immediately, but many burnt-out, misguided, and mediocre teachers could become great teachers if they had better training and better school systems to work with.

  5. Joe Shmoe says:

    Steve S - give me a break. Teachers work 30hrs a week for 8 months of the year. I know dozens of kids that I went to school with who became teachers and they were easily the most worthless kids in class. In fact most kids that I went to college with who bacame teachers, did so because they couldn't get into any other programs.

  6. Eric D. Snider says:

    Of course, when "Joe" says 8 months he means 9 months, and when he says 30 hours he means more like 50. But otherwise, yes, teachers are stupid and lazy and "Joe's" points are excellent.

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