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Waiting for Superman Reviews

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Students Caught in the School Squeeze

September 23, 2010
Movie Review | 'Waiting for Superman'
Students Caught in the School Squeeze

"One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me ‘Superman' did not exist," the educational reformer Geoffrey Canada recalls in the opening moments of "Waiting for ‘Superman,' " a powerful and alarming documentary about America's failing public school system. "She thought I was crying because it's like Santa Claus is not real. I was crying because no one was coming with enough power to save us."

If Mr. Canada, who was born in the South Bronx and grew up to be one of the country's most charismatic and inspiring educators, is not Superman, he must be a close relative. Those who have read Paul Tough's book, "Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America," will know that the 97-block Harlem Children's Zone, which he founded and runs, is no miracle. The zone is astoundingly successful at getting children through high school and into college. But that success, largely dependent on private money, is a costly product of laborious trial and error.

Mr. Canada and Michelle A. Rhee, the chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system since 2007 (she is the seventh superintendent in 10 years), are the principal heroes of the film, directed and narrated by Davis Guggenheim ("An Inconvenient Truth"), who wrote it with Billy Kimball.

Ms. Rhee, who has stridently challenged Washington's educational status quo, has closed ineffective schools and has stood up to the unions that have made it nearly impossible to fire a teacher, no matter how incompetent, once tenure has been granted. But the Washington Teachers' Union refused to vote on a measure under which teachers would give up tenure in exchange for higher salaries based on merit. (Ms. Rhee's status is now in jeopardy after one of her chief supporters, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, lost the Democratic primary election to Vincent C. Gray, the chairman of the City Council. Ms. Rhee and Mr. Gray, who have sparred in recent years, met on Thursday.)

"Waiting for ‘Superman' " is filled with disturbing statistics. In Illinois, where one in 57 doctors loses his medical license and one in 97 lawyers loses his law license, only one in 2,500 teachers loses his credentials, because of union rules. The film briefly visits a "rubber room" in New York City where idle teachers accused of misconduct wait months and sometimes years for hearings while drawing full salaries at an annual cost of $65 million.

The resistance to change is personified by Randi Weingarten, the fiery and articulate former head of the United Federation of Teachers, who now runs the American Federation of Teachers. Ms. Weingarten, who is somewhat demonized by the film, is the first to admit that public education is in crisis, but she represents thousands of teachers who depend on tenure.

Caught in the squeeze are students. The film's most emotional moments revolve around five children whose futures depend on winning a lottery to a charter school. Anthony, a Washington fifth grader raised by his grandmother in a bad neighborhood, is among 64 applicants for 24 spots at the Seed School, a public charter school from which 9 out of 10 students go on to college. Francisco, a Bronx first grader, is among 792 applicants for 40 spots at the Harlem Success Academy. Applying to the same school, Bianca, a kindergartner, is one of 767 children competing for 35 spots. Daisy, a fifth grader in East Los Angeles who dreams of being doctor, is among 135 applicants for 10 spots at Kipp LA Prep.

Finally, there is Emily, an eighth grader in Silicon Valley, whose problems with math will place her on a lower academic track if she remains at the same high school in her affluent community. Her best hope is to be accepted at an even better charter school nearby where students aren't placed in such tracks.

In his low-key narration, Mr. Guggenheim acknowledges that charter schools have had mixed success in elevating academic standards and preparing children for college. But in the Harlem Children's Zone, the schools become involved with all aspects of the students' lives from a very young age.

Mr. Guggenheim calls dysfunctional schools "dropout factories." For children growing up in poor neighborhoods where parents lack the resources to send them to private schools, the consequences can be dire, not to mention economically wasteful.

Consider the following statistics cited in the film: the annual cost of prison for an inmate is more than double what is spent on an individual public school student. Eight years after Congress passed the No Child Left Behind act, with the goal of 100 percent proficiency in math and reading, most states hovered between 20 and 30 percent proficiency, and 70 percent of eighth graders could not read at grade level. By 2020, only an estimated 50 million Americans will be qualified to fill 123 million highly skilled, highly paid jobs. Among 30 developed countries, the United States ranks 25th in math and 21st in science.

"Waiting for ‘Superman' " doesn't explore the deeper changes in American society that have led to this crisis: the widening gap between rich and poor, the loosening of the social contract, the coarsening of the culture and the despair of the underclass. By showing how fiercely dedicated idealists are making a difference, it is a call to arms.

The movie's happy-sad ending observes the moment of decision as the five children wait to learn if they have won the lotteries. It is sad that the direction of a young life depends on the dropping of a numbered ball from plexiglass box.

"Waiting for ‘Superman' " is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). It has mild language and incidental smoking.


Directed by Davis Guggenheim; written by Mr. Guggenheim and Billy Kimball; director of photography, Erich Roland and Bob Richman; edited by Greg Finton, Jay Cassidy and Kim Roberts; original song "Shine" by John Legend; produced by Lesley Chilcott; released by Para- mount Vantage. Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes.


Waiting for 'Superman': Are Teachers the Problem?

Submitted By: Richard Corliss

Wednesday, Sep. 29, 2010 Waiting for 'Superman': Are Teachers the Problem?
By Richard Corliss

In an episode of the 1950s TV show Superman, a school bus full of kids is threatened with disaster as it nearly topples over a cliff, when - whoosh - the Man of Steel flies in and pushes the bus to safety. That was the fantasy that Geoffrey Canada, the South Bronx-bred boy who became a Harvard-trained education entrepreneur, hoped for as a child. All it would take to save schoolkids was muscle and a miracle. (See photos of the evolution of the college dorm.)

But America can't exist on muscle anymore. With manufacturing jobs a sliver of what they once were, and field-level farming jobs largely stocked with immigrant labor, the coming generation of middle-class and working-class Americans needs not strong backs but educated minds. The titans and geniuses, the Warren Buffetts and Mark Zuckerbergs, will still propel themselves from privilege to power. What we need are people to work behind the counter at Southwest, to keep a million offices purring efficiently, to oil the machinery of civil service. A blue-collar economy is yesterday; a white-collar one is today and tomorrow. (See TIME's special report "What Makes a School Great.")

Americans also can't afford the fantasy that we have the world's best educational system. The U.S. is near the bottom of advanced countries in math and reading scores. We may not pass sleepless nights worrying about Finland, but that country's kids get a world-class public-school education, and ours don't. Our problems are bigger and more systemic: that, in the world's richest nation, a seventh of our citizens live in poverty; that the majority of African Americans form a near perpetual underclass; that the nuclear family has detonated into pieces, leaving many children with only one parent, if that, to love, instruct and keep an eye on them; that the culture of instant gratification convinces kids that studying is a bore, while the infinitesimal chance of making millions as a pro athlete or a rap star is worth pursuing. Surely the young deserve full-time parents, more realistic goals and inspiring teachers. But maybe that too is a fantasy.

Waiting for "Superman," Davis Guggenheim's edifying and heartbreaking new documentary, says that our future depends on good teachers - and that the coddling of bad teachers by their powerful unions virtually ensures mediocrity, at best, in both teachers and the students in their care. The movie's major villains are the National Education Association, the country's largest union, and the American Federation of Teachers. Posed against them are the film's heroes: Canada, whose Harlem Children's Zone schools give kids an intense, comprehensive intellectual and social education, and Michelle Rhee, another Harvard grad who as chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public-school system enacted stringent reforms, including firing many principals she thought were substandard. Canada is like the gifted proselytizer who sells a great idea, and Rhee is like the tough sheriff brought in to clean up a bad town. (Video: Can Michelle Rhee save our schools?)

Guggenheim, who won an Oscar for the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth, might not have made his new film if, while taking his own children to their private school in Los Angeles each morning, he hadn't had to drive past several public schools that he and his wife had decided wouldn't suitably prepare their kids. What he found in his two years of researching Waiting for "Superman" (with co-producer Lesley Chilcott) was that a lot of schools aren't right for any kids - neither the dull ones who need gentle prods to move competently from K to 12, nor the underprivileged bright ones who could be the Geoffrey Canadas of the future, if only a good charter school had enough slots to accept them all.

The movie concentrates on five of these children: Bianca, in kindergarten, and Francisco, a first-grader, both applying to the Harlem Success Academy; two fifth-graders, Anthony in Washington and Daisy in East Los Angeles; and the lone white child, Emily, an eighth-grader in Silicon Valley. Because the schools they hope to enter choose their new enrollees not by testing but by lottery, the futures of these and hundreds of thousands of other kids - their careers, income levels, social standing - depend on which ball falls into the hole. Pure chance will determine whether the answer is Bingo! or the abyss.

Guggenheim may load his case by concentrating on children who are already passionate about their education; surely the vaster challenge is to enlighten the kids who think school is not paradise but a prison. And charter schools, which are promoted here as the enlightened alternative to the public-school system, have a record more mixed than the film suggests. So it's no surprise that Guggenheim has been the recipient of teachers' dirty looks. (Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has written about the flaws she finds in the film's generalizations.) But a documentary movie is not a dry treatise; certainly this one isn't. Guggenheim wants to start conversations, debates, elevated arguments - to get people thinking about a crucial problem whose solution has eluded Presidents and parents for the past half-century.

Waiting for "Superman" stirs that discussion, and perhaps moves it to the front of our national concerns, because it is so smartly and feelingly constructed. The five climactic lotteries lend the film a mood of desperate suspense; the five children, especially Bianca and Daisy, give it dollops of heart. This is more than an Important Documentary: it is engaging and, finally, enraging - as captivating as any Superman movie, and as poignant as a child's plea for help.


Not Waiting for Superman

Submitted By: American Federation of Teachers

It's hard not to be moved by "Waiting for 'Superman.'" It's an emotional film about families seeking good schools for their children. But good storytelling is no substitute for an honest and accurate look at how we can really improve our public schools so they offer all children access to a great education.

The film's central themes-that all public school teachers are bad, that all charter schools are good and that teachers' unions are to blame for failing schools-are incomplete and inaccurate, and they do a disservice to the millions of good teachers in our schools who work their hearts out every day. The film relies on a few highly sensational and isolated examples in an attempt to paint all public school teachers as bad. Had the filmmaker visited some good public schools, he would have found that no good teacher supports tolerating bad teachers who are failing in the classroom.

But "Waiting for 'Superman'" doesn't show many of the great public schools across the country where AFT members work. And it makes no mention of many productive labor-management efforts that have turned the collective bargaining process into a powerful tool to improve schools. And it ignores the work of local unions across the nation, supported by the AFT Innovation Fund, to take the lead in improving teaching and learning.


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