The Wait for ‘Superman’ Brings Hope, Controversy

By Dakarai I. Aarons — August 30, 2010 4 min read
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So much to say, so little space!

That’s every word nerd’s lament about the amount of printed space for just about any story we write. The cast of characters who appear in my fresh-off-the-presses storyon the new edu-documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman’ ” had much more to say about the movie, so here’s a bit more about what the film’s creator and a few others had to say.

The film, which opens Sept. 24 in Los Angeles and New York City, will expand to selected cities through Oct. 15.

The film’s release date is still three weeks away, and yet few films have gotten nearly as much buzz as this one.

Davis Guggenheim, the film’s director, said he applied lessons he learned while making his Oscar-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” to the making of “ ‘Superman’,” namely the weaving of compelling people with factoids to tell a larger story.

“We had Al Gore’s slide show and the case he made but there was no personal story to it. I knew [‘An Inconvenient Truth’] needed a personal angle,” Guggenheim told me in an interview last week.

That lesson in hand, he set out make “Waiting For ‘Superman’ ” with both the data and the personal touch.

“I guess other filmmakers have told the stories of families and kids in the system. Others have tried to tell the story of the policy and history of education. I haven’t seen a movie do both. There is some power when you see how the nation is doing and what the proficiency scores are across the country and then you cut to little Anthony reading a book in his house in D.C.”

John I. Wilson, the National Education Association’s executive director made an interesting observation about the five kids featured in the film. Each of the kids had parents who were really invested in their education, a form of what he called strong “social capital.” But many students floundering in our nation’s lowest-performing schools don’t have such advocates.

The children in the movie “had adults in their life who cared about them and valued education and were willing to do things for that. I’m sure a lot of those same kids do well in public schools,” Wilson said.

“Where the challenge is for students who don’t have that social capital. The schools have to do that. It can be overwhelming when you have segregated a bunch of poor students into one school. Providing that social capital is time consuming and yet necessary,” he said.

When I reviewed the film after an April screening, I noted that several of the D.C. media-types in the audience had qualms about the way American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten appeared in her brief sections of the film. I asked her if she thought she was portrayed fairly.

The union chief answered in true New Yorker fashion: “It’s not for me to say. I would have liked to have had more than a two- second sound byte,” she said. “Having said that, I’m a big girl. It’s not about me. It’s about ensuring that kids get a decent education. And that great schools have a moment in the sun.”

Weingarten disliked that the film doesn’t show the resolution to the protracted D.C. teacher contract negotiations, or that the infamous “rubber rooms” in New York City’s school system are now closed. But she, along with a number of education leaders, participated in a companion book for “Waiting for ‘Superman’ ” that helps dive deeper into the education issues seen in the film.

“We will take every opportunity and platform to use it to try and advocate for what we really need to fix public education as it ought to be for all kids,” she said. “At the end of the day, we want there to be great schools for every kid.”

Jeanne Allen, who leads the the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based school-choice advocacy group, wants to see the marketing for the film go further in pushing school choice and other reforms, even if it offends some of the more traditional members of the education policy community.

“Davis [Guggenheim] clearly and simply explains how power and money operate in public education. Those two notions, power and money, are what are at the heart of the battle of all of the reform efforts,” she said. " If you don’t understand how money is spent, you cannot even begin to appreciate why school choice is important.”

Guggenheim starts off the documentary with an opening narration saying he’s part of the problem with the education system. He drives past a number of public schools in his California neighborhood to send his kids to private school. I asked him how, beyond making the film, he was planning to have a tangible and personal impact on public education.

The director said he and his wife went to visit their local school again this spring, and while they didn’t think it was a fit for their kids just yet, they’ve decided to get involved.

“It’s also not enough to say our local school isn’t working, let’s take care of ourselves. We have developed a relationship with the principal of our local school and are talking about how we can help as neighbors. My wife and I are helping,” Guggenheim told me.

“I think there are a lot of people like myself who have influence and have taken care of their own kids and taken them to private school. Over time, that erodes the [public school] system.”

His hope is that the possibility he’s heard and seen while promoting this movie translates to a larger audience.

“I wanted this movie to appeal to an audience who aren’t experts and make it a primer for where we are. And why we are in the situation we are,” Guggenheim said. “I don’t like documentaries that harden people’s hearts or that make people even more bitter and angry. I want a movie that brings people to the table and does some good.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.