“Waiting for Superman” – A Review

I had to opportunity to see a really interesting documentary this past week. Although I’m in the minority of people who are involved in the education industry (and most of us don’t have children yet) I still think that young professionals can gleam some positive insight from watching the film. Below is a review that I wrote for “Waiting for Superman”.

Documentary films are probably one of the most difficult things to produce effectively. The filmmaker obviously has an agenda and wants to persuade his or her audience toward his side of whatever argument is at hand, and doing so without bias is next to impossible. On top of that, any “facts” that are introduced are going to be attacked for being skewed to meet the filmmaker’s beliefs, and will almost always exude some kind of political agenda, even if it is unintentional. While Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman”, which analyzes the apparent failing of the American public education system, is no exception, its heart is most definitely in the right place and should be seen by anyone in the education field for its sheer motivational purposes.

The film follows several different students from varying age groups, ethnicities and social environments who are all very bright with high aspirations for the future. One student is from the inner city where many of the schools are known as “dropout factories”; one student is from the suburbs; two others are from single-parent families. All of the students are interviewed throughout the film, and the viewer can’t help but feel their heart strings tugged as the pathos appeal is quite apparent throughout. The parents are also interviewed, and it’s obvious that each one wants the best for their child.

Most of the movie documents the progression that each of these students take as they attempt to enroll in charter schools, which the film is proposing as a solution to the education problem in America. These primary and secondary schools still receive public aid, but are not subject to the same rules and regulations as other public schools; the trade-off is that they must achieve certain levels of academic performance from their students in order to stay in force.
According to the filmmaker, the biggest advantage to this formula is the exclusion of teacher unions, which Guggenheim suggests are the real problem with public education, as once teachers reach tenure it is virtually impossible to fire them. He explains that many teachers have no incentive to work as hard after achieving this status, which causes a decrease in quality teachers.

Guggenheim also interviewed and documented the press coverage of Michelle Rhee, who served as superintendent of Washington D.C.’s public schools. Rhee was appointed her position by Mayor Adrian Fenty in 2007, and took great steps to shake things up with one of the worst education districts in the country (according to the film). Rhee not only closed 24 schools and fired several incompetent teachers, but she also negotiated a new structure of payment for teachers, which included offering salaries upwards of $140,000 per year if the teacher gave up their tenure. The teacher unions strongly opposed this proposal and refused to even vote on the subject.

As a student studying to be an educator, I was fascinated and moved by this film, despite the fact that I have no clue how accurate the information was. In my opinion, the filmmaker has the right intentions at heart, and hopes that his work will help to motivate educators across the country to focus on what’s important: educating young minds for the future.

A statement by Michelle Rhee really stood out to me more than any other in the film. She said something to the effect of “It’s become all about the adults instead of the students.” This really made me think, and I’ve since resolved to always do what’s best for my students (once I become a teacher), and put even my own personal feelings and desires next in line. In my opinion, nothing else should matter to an educator than empowering the minds of the youth, and I plan to protect my future job by not being an expendable employee instead of relying on the protection of tenure or a teacher’s union. I will have such a positive impact on my students that I will be at the bottom of the list of those to be considered for termination. It’s a simple fact of business that has been forgotten in the education system for some reason.

There is one matter of the film that truly bothered me; be warned that the information I’m about to give might be considered a “spoiler” of the outcome. Towards the end of the film, the students who are being followed by the film crew are all at individual charter schools attempting to be accepted. Since there are so many more applicants than available spots, the law requires that a lottery be held to determine which students will be placed in the schools. All but one of the students followed was a minority. The lone suburban white girl, who wasn’t at the top of her class like the other students were, was the only student out of the group who was accepted at her charter school. Whether or not it was intentional, this feels very convenient to me. The portrayal is that the not-so-smart white kid will have a better chance of succeeding than an incredibly intelligent minority child. There is a moment where right after the while girl learns that she is accepted, the shot changes to a close-up of one of the minority child’s parents who is sadly weeping. This feels very much like the filmmaker is saying “The white man will always succeed over the minorities, even though they aren’t the most able.” Granted, there is a happy ending (which I won’t spoil), but this still bothered me a great deal.

The only other thing that I felt was misrepresented was the fact that this handful of aspiring students and their parents is somehow supposed to mirror the rest of the nation’s families. It’s sad to say, but not nearly enough parents care enough about their children’s education, and many students just aren’t motivated enough to succeed academically. I think the bigger issue, an idea that motivated me a great deal, is discovering the secret to getting children and their parents to care as much as they did in this film.
Therefore, the film was a success for me personally. It has given me the determination to not only finish my degree and get my teaching certificate, but also to be the best educator I possibly can. My only hope is that more educators out there get a chance to see this film without being offended. I encourage anyone in the industry to view this film as soon as possible, and I even encourage any parent to give it a view. Whether or not the facts are 100% accurate, it struck a chord with me, and any one with any child’s best interest at heart would have a hard time not feeling the same.


~ by Scott L. Clark on November 15, 2010.

One Response to ““Waiting for Superman” – A Review”

  1. It’s really great to see you so enthusiastic about teaching, Scott 🙂 The nation’s education system is broken (like government, healthcare, you name it), but there are people trying to give our kids’ a brighter future. I hope you keep your enthusiasm forever 🙂

    One of my brothers and his wife are high school teachers. Both went into teaching and coaching to inspire kids like some of their teachers did to them. I went into local gov’t with the goal of “making a difference.” Word of warning: bureaucracy will suck out your soul – if you let it. My advice when you’re teaching – learn the system and find the bright spots and manipulate them into good for your students. Otherwise, the enthusiasm fades and one day you wake up as the person you swore you’d never be. That’s what happened to me before I came to Machesney Park, but I’ve found the right fit here and I have dreams again.

    Good luck! 🙂

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