Education Opinion

The Power of Film: Waiting for Superman

By Patrick Ledesma — October 04, 2010 4 min read
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Sunday Morning, October 3: While most normal people are gearing up for football games and not thinking about anything work related, I invite my wife, who teaches high school math, to a movie.

“Wow, a date! Are we watching a romantic movie?”

“No, we’re watching Waiting for Superman. It’s about education, but we’ll have lunch out afterwards and I promise that you can choose our next movie... Even if it’s one of those chic flicks or foreign films that I ‘really really’ like.”

With that kind of promise, who could resist? Normal couples are going to watch football. We’re an educational couple watching a teaching movie on a Sunday morning. We’re not normal.

Waiting for Superman follows the journey of four families as they learn if their child gets into a charter school through a lottery system. The charter schools are portrayed as the children’s only hope for the future. As the movie reaches its dramatic ending as children learn their fate in the lottery, some of the other movie goers in the audience are crying. This is a powerful movie.

Then, I have a revelation.... Waiting for Superman reminds me of the movie Titanic.

“What do you think of the movie?” my wife asks. I turn to her and say,

“I’m not Leonardo DiCaprio.... You know.... Leonardo DiCaprio’s character from the movie Titanic.”


The Titanic analogy is always used in education. Drowning and the Titanic is mentioned in the Waiting for Supermantrailer. When I first learned about charter schools in the 1990’s, the criticism was that charter schools were a “life boat strategy” that only saves a few while others drown. We are all familiar with the expression of doing something futile as “like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”

I think that the most memorable scene in the Titanic is when Leonardo DiCaprio climbs to the stern of the Titanic as the ship is sinking. From his viewpoint illustrated through millions of dollars in special effects the audience visualizes what it might have been like for those trapped on a sinking ship with no life boats.

Waiting for Superman has no special effects. Instead, this documentary style film captures the perspective of the families who feel trapped by their lack of educational choices. Through their stories and interviews we learn about their desperation for a good education to escape their life circumstances.

We feel their sense of hopelessness.

I understand the many valid criticisms of how education issues are simplistically portrayed in the film. These insightful criticisms are well articulated by John Merrowand fellow Teacher Leaders Network colleague Dan Brown, who teaches at the SEED Charter School portrayed in the movie.

But this is a movie. Just as movies made from books can never capture the entire story and depth of characters, a film cannot capture all the complex challenges to close the achievement gap.

What this film does exceptionally well is encapsulate the emotional desperation of families ill served by their broken public school systems.

The film maximizes these dramatic moments to humanize these issues. One cannot underestimate the power of video stories of real people. Film moves people in ways that no other media can. As a former special education teacher, I still remember the stories from the award winning documentary of the Willowbrook Institution and the plight of people with intellectual disabilities in institutions. The images are haunting.

Stories of real people on film motivate people to action, compelling us to move forward even if the destinations are unclear because staying where we are seems unethical. That’s the power of this movie.

So, in this controversy, I’ll remain centered on the plight of these families in unraveling the complexities and ambiguities of helping these students succeed.

In areas where traditional public schools are broken, other solutions need to be given a chance. I’ll be open to policies that support an open educational environment where ideas for innovative solutions can be tried, even if some may fail.

Because in the successful examples such as the Harlem Children Zone, KIPP, and the SEED Charter school, we will expand our knowledge of what it takes to close the achievement gap. We may realize that saving some motivated students in low income areas may require taking them out of their neighborhoods, keeping them in dormitories, and surrounding them in a college bound culture. We will learnfrom those teachers.

We will learn from KIPP’s results that other students may require longer school days, extended school year, and a rigorous culture where parents and students commit to their requirements. Some interventions will be effective for some, others may require something different.

Maybe improved and fully supported public schools will be the better solution. We need to find out.

As teachers, we entered the education profession to find solutions for students and their families. We should not be afraid of ideas that challenge us to re-examine our organizational structures and professional traditions. Sometimes these conversations will be difficult and uncomfortable.

We owe it to these families to innovate. Let us focus on constructive dialogue and discussions to be part of those solutions.

I’m open to all ideas that center around what these families need. Because at the core underneath all the polarization from recent debates around this film, I really don’t know what it’s like to be one of those children or families in the movie. I don’t know what it’s like to experience that sense of desperation. I live and work in a district with excellent public schools. I have opportunities. Those families and children lack options.

That’s why Waiting for Superman reminds me of the movie Titanic and Leonardo DiCaprio.

I’m not Leonardo. I’m not on the Titanic, sinking into the ocean, desperate for a lifeboat, knowing that help won’t come, and about to lose all hopes for the future.

And if you’re reading this blog post, chances are, neither are you.

The opinions expressed in Leading From the Classroom are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.