AEI Report Takes Fresh Look at ‘Waiting for ‘Superman’’

By Mark Walsh — June 11, 2014 3 min read
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Four years after its release, “Waiting for ‘Superman’” remains the most-debated education documentary of recent times. In a new report for the American Enterprise Institute, the education blogger Alexander Russo re-examines the impact of the film.

“The 2010 film was also much more controversial than [director Davis] Guggenheim’s other efforts, previous or since,” Russo writes. “Those skeptical of charter schools and school reform strategies believed that it was a grotesquely misleading and manipulative film that—ineffectively—blamed teachers and unions for education’s woes.”

“Another set of critics, including many school reformers likely to be sympathetic to the film’s underlying message, believed that ‘Superman’ was a massive disappointment that polarized viewers and didn’t seem to have changed the way many Americans thought about education, much less how they behaved,” he writes.

Russo is the author of the highly opinionated “This Week in Education” blog, which frequently covers media and education issues, among many others. So Russo’s bottom line conclusion seems a bit, um, mild.

“A careful re-examination of the making of the film and the social action campaign that accompanied it—as well as a review of two independent studies of the film’s impacts that have not been widely discussed before now—suggests that ‘Superman’ was neither an overwhelming success nor an abject failure-and that its long-term impact is not yet fully understood,” Russo writes in the AEI report, “How ‘Waiting for “Superman”’ (Almost) Changed the World.”

But the report itself is an interesting discussion of how some education groups are turning to the documentary medium to advance their public-policy goals, as well as the story of how “Superman” came about.

Guggenheim, of course, had directed 1999’s “The First Year,” a documentary about teachers in their rookie year; and the highly successful (by documentary standards) film about the environment, “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Guggenheim got free rein from Participant Media for “Superman,” and he met with education groups and even hired a comedy writer to make sure there would be some light moments in the film, Russo says.

Guggenheim soon settled on the dramatic potential of charter school admissions lotteries, and “Superman” ended up focusing much of its time on charters. One storyline focused on the broken education system, in which teachers and the teachers’ unions came in for much criticism, while the other focused on families trying to navigate their way to better schools.

The finished product received massive media attention, though Guggenheim was disappointed that it was snubbed by the Oscars, Russo writes.

A pushback, led by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, soon enveloped the film. “I was shocked by the way it demonizes teachers,” Weingarten said at the time.

“‘Waiting for ‘Superman”’ was a fairy tale, based on half-truths, exaggerations, and misrepresentations,” education historian and author Diane Ravitch wrote.

In his report, Russo writes that “flawed as it may have been, the film still packed a strong emotional punch.” Some $2 million of ticket sales went to classroom donations, and partnerships with philanthropies led to more, he says.

He says that the film’s producers exaggerated some effects by claiming at least partial credit for such things as the elimination of the New York City school system’s “rubber rooms” for educators under investigation (which were already on their way out) and the creation of Michelle Rhee’s advocacy group, Students First.

Russo discusses a couple of foundation and academic studies of the film’s effects, but both of those seemed to me to be trying to quantify the unquantifiable.

As Guggenheim himself tells Russo: “The impact of a movie is hard to measure, and may never be completely measured.”

Russo concludes that “Superman” has “thus far failed to galvanize any widespread, concrete actions or long-term changes in public beliefs or behaviors that we know of, and served as a call to action for school reform critics opposed to efforts being undertaken by the Obama administration and several major education philanthropies.”

“However,” he adds, “the documentary also brought enormous, if short-lived, popular attention to the challenges facing public education, including especially the lack of enough good schools for parents to send their kids to; reinforced the notion that at least some students could overcome social disadvantages; and generated a small but notable set of real-world impacts.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.