School & District Management

‘Superman’ Documentary Draws Praise, Controversy

By Dakarai I. Aarons — August 30, 2010 7 min read
In “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” Daisy, an East Los Angeles 5th grader who dreams of being a doctor, lives in a neighborhood where an average of six in 10 students don’t graduate from high school.
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Well in advance of its official release, the education film “Waiting For ‘Superman’” has attracted a level of attention that could make it one of the year’s most-watched documentaries—and one of the most controversial among educators, some of whom question its depictions of the American school system and how to improve it.

Made by director Davis Guggenheim, who won a 2006 Academy Award for “An Inconvenient Truth,” and producer Lesley Chilcott, it follows five students and their families on a quest for a better education.

“Waiting For ‘Superman’” has built up an extraordinary buzz since its world premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was the first film to be picked up by a distributor, Paramount Vantage, and won the festival’s Audience Award for a documentary.

After months of special screenings that have stoked anticipation and sparked advance commentary, the film is scheduled to open in limited release in Los Angeles and New York City on Sept. 24 and expand to selected cities through Oct. 15.

Mr. Guggenheim is forthright in saying he wants the film to have an impact on the national discussion of education comparable to that of “An Inconvenient Truth” on the issue of climate change.

“I’ve had the experience of seeing a documentary changing the conversation around an issue—global warming,” Mr. Guggenheim said in an interview last week, referring to his film chronicling former Vice President Al Gore’s campaign to raise public awareness about that subject.

“I’m hoping that will happen with this,” he added of his education documentary. “It’s less about advocating a specific policy, but [more about] bringing people to the table.”

But others see the film as cheerleading for charter schools and putting teachers’ unions in an unfairly negative light. Its descriptions of teacher tenure have been criticized by teacher bloggers and others, as has the fact the students featured are looking toward nontraditional public schools as the cure for their education ills.

“This is an emotional film, and it paints an urgency that we embrace, but what I’m concerned about is it doesn’t tell the real story about public schools or offer real long-term solutions,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers, who appears in the film.

Coming Attractions

“Waiting For ‘Superman’” is one of several documentary-style films on aspects of American schooling that are being released this year. Among the others are:

‘The Lottery’

The film follows four families from the Bronx and Harlem sections of New York City who have entered their children in a lottery for slots in local charter schools. Education experts and politicians, including New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, appear in interviews to discuss challenges faced in public education. The movie, released last spring, is available via on-demand starting Sept. 1 through major cable and satellite providers.

‘Race to Nowhere’

Parent Vicki Abeles, inspired by her 12-year-old daughter’s diagnosis with a stress-induced condition, tries to understand what she calls the “relentless pressure to perform” faced by school-age children. The film also tries to discern whether the pressure is leading to higher rates of depression, dropping out of high school, and in some cases, suicide. The movie is due to be released Sept. 10 in theaters in New York City and Los Angeles.

‘The Rubber Room’

This film looks at New York City’s so-called “rubber rooms,” where teachers who had been removed from the classroom and were awaiting a decision on their fates were sent to spend their days on administrative leave together. The school district and the United Federation of Teachers, the local teachers’ union, reached an agreement earlier this year that led to the rooms’ closing in June. Principal editing on the film was completed earlier this year, and it awaits a release date.

—Dakarai I. Aarons

Library Director Kathryn Dorko also contributed to this report.

“It leaves people with a sense of despair, rather than a sense of hope,” she added.

Mr. Guggenheim rejects any notion that his film is anti-union or promotes charters as a silver bullet. He said he believes that unions are “essential,” and that there are many great mainstream public schools.

School Lotteries

The students featured in “Waiting For ‘Superman’” live in the District of Columbia, New York City’s Bronx and Harlem sections, Los Angeles, and Redwood City, Calif., and come from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. For each of the five students, the opportunity to get launched on a new, potentially better educational trajectory comes in the form of chance: Each student has entered a lottery to get a spot in a charter or other nontraditional school.

Many stars of the education world appear in the film discussing the challenges of the nation’s schools, including District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, the model for President Barack Obama’s Promise Neighborhoods initiative.

To Mr. Guggenheim, the film shows not only the pitfalls of American public education, but also its promise.

“It affects everyone, not just the kids on the other side of the tracks,” he said of the state of the education system. Its failings are “not only morally wrong, but economically unsustainable,” he said.

“I also want people to know there is a glimmer of hope,” he said. “There are people now who have cracked the code—not that the formula for success is easy. It is possible to go into even the toughest neighborhoods and move the needle and give kids a great education.”

In the film “Waiting For ‘Superman,’” Maria helps her son, Francisco, with homework. He is vying for one of 40 open spots in a Harlem charter school.

John I. Wilson, the executive director of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, said that “when you give the impression that charter schools are the panacea for allowing kids to escape from public schools, I think that’s unfair.”

Mr. Wilson said he was “inspired,” though, by the movie’s potential as a call to arms for people to help make schools better for all children. “It is time to stop waiting for someone else to do it,” he said. “There is not going to be a Superman for us in public schools. We are who we have been waiting for.”

Social-Action Blitz

The buzz that “Waiting For ‘Superman’” has generated in education and mainstream circles is no accident. Participant Media, a film and entertainment company which financed and produced the film with Mr. Guggenheim and Ms. Chilcott, has launched a social-action campaign so that viewers have a tangible way to become personally and politically engaged.

“We offer resources and tools that allow people to engage at whatever level they’re comfortable, from simply getting information about the issue, to personal actions such as volunteering, donating, and mentoring, to advocating for political and policy changes,” said Jim Berk, the chief executive officer of Participant Media, based in Beverly Hills, Calif. As of last week, more than 45,000 people had taken an online pledge to see the film, which has been promoted using social-media networks such as Twitter and Facebook and through text-message alerts to those who signed up for updates on the film’s release.

Companies such as Office Depot and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and organizations like Donors Choose and First Book, are donating products and services to education-related causes with each milestone reached. The online pledge meter’s top goal is 250,000 pledges.

Some education advocates hope to use the visibility the film brings to education issues to emphasize their own messages.

The Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and Education Reform Now, in New York City, are teaming up to build a parallel campaign called “We Are Superman.”

In addition to building a website to house their efforts, the two groups are mobilizing teams of education activists in several cities to arm people with information on how they can improve education in their communities.

Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, looks on as students tackle math problems in one of his charter schools, which have been praised for their efforts to close achievement gaps

The Washington-based Center for Education Reform, a leading proponent of charters and other forms of school choice, is also launching an education effort tied to the film, with plans to release a guide explaining how to get involved.

How Much Impact?

Education activists and analysts are intrigued—and, in some cases, skeptical—about the film’s potential for engaging a wider public in school issues.

Jonathan Schorr, a San Francisco-based partner of the NewSchools Venture Fund, said the documentary’s approach will draw people into the education reform conversation in a way a seminar wouldn’t.

“‘An Inconvenient Truth’ was an achievement in itself because climate change is really hard to touch and feel,” he said. “The experience of kids who are denied a good educational option is something anybody who has been a parent, or anyone who has gone to school, can directly relate to. I think this [film] will get a much wider viewership.”

Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, agreed. “I think it has the huge potential to communicate with a huge crop of people who don’t know there’s an issue or problem,” she said.

Others, however, are not so convinced the film, and others on education due to be released this year, will make a big impact.

“I think it’s naive to imagine a single movie or book is going to change permanently what the public is concerned about or how it thinks about an issue,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies for the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute.

“People are busy. They have jobs and kids,” he said. “They are supposed to be worried about national security and highway safety and Internet stalkers and any number of things. Even if they walk out of the movie fired up, there’s lots of other causes and demands.”

Any lasting effects of “Waiting For ‘Superman’” will be determined by the success of the engagement activities connected to it, said Mr. Hess, who has been part of the running online discussion of the film in the blog he writes for Education Week’s website. “What happens next is what matters. Is there a strategy to linking those people into the issue in an ongoing way?”

As for Mr. Guggenheim, he sought last week to dispel perceptions that he is claiming to have a few clear remedies for troubled schools, even as he acknowledged his desire to stir others to action.

“I’m very careful not to present myself as an expert,” he said. “My point of view is as an observer and a parent who has kids. I don’t want to come off as someone who himself offers answers.”

“I want people to start to care about other people’s children and fight for other people’s children as much as they fight for their own,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 2010 edition of Education Week as Anticipation and Controversy Surround ‘Superman’ Release


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