Thursday, September 23, 2010

Reviewing Waiting for Superman: A Real Reformer Stands Up

The following review was written by a teacher with a decade of experience teaching special ed who got to see an advance screening of "Waiting for Superman" the other night. The teacher is one of the GEM people working on the response: The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman. See the trailer at:

Still Waiting
by RR (Real Reformer)
Sept. 22, 2010
I had the opportunity to attend an advanced screening of “Waiting for Superman” tonight.  I fully expected to be nauseated by what I perceived to be corporate-backed propaganda, with the predictable message of teacher unions as the villain and so-called reformers as heroes.  The film’s premise and claims are uninformed and drastically miss the boat in terms of creating a narrative regarding the real issues our public school system faces.  Further, the film completely neglects to engage in any meaningful discussion of the real reforms needed to improve educational opportunity for our children. 
Some highlights (or lowlights if you will)… 

Claims vs. Truth 

Claim:  “We know that it is possible to give every child a great education,” (based on the success of charter schools).   

Truth: Charters in general, and in particular the ones featured in this film, sort and select students, serve far less ELL students, students receiving special education services, and students who qualify for reduced and free lunch compared with their neighboring public schools.  The truth is, charters do not outperform public schools, even with every advantage, including smaller student to teacher ratios, the ability to discharge students at will, and increased autonomy.

Claim:  “There is usually only one mainstream school in every school district in America that is above average.”   

Truth:  I do not presume to know the stats on this, but the claim is completely unsupported in the film and would venture to say untrue.  As a perfect example, District 15 in Brooklyn has many schools that are above average.

Claim:  “If you don’t go to college, you are screwed in America.”   

Truth:  One of the purveyors of this claim in the film is Bill Gates who says we cannot have American innovation without our kids going to college.  This from one of the most significant innovators of our time, who, that’s right, didn’t get a college degree.

Claim:  “KIPP schools are better schools because they won’t let kids fail.”  “You can’t argue with KIPP’s data.” 

Truth:  KIPP students and parents sign a “Contract for Excellence” and if the contract is not followed, they can be dismissed from the school.

Claim: “Even progressive educators believed that the achievement gaps in our education system could not be closed.”   

Truth:  As a progressive educator, I am horrified by this claim made as a general and factual statement, and can personally attest that it is untrue.

Claim:  “Kids that go to charter schools (featured in this film I believe is the context) do not just do better than poor kids, they do better than everyone.” 

Truth:  Some charter schools do better than public schools, some do worse, the majority, do the same.

Claim:  “If we replace bad teachers with average teachers we can catch up to Finland in just a few years.” “Unions are a menace and an impediment to reform.”  “Teacher union contracts say you can’t fire them.” “Good teachers teach 150% of curriculum in a year, bad teachers only teach 50% of curriculum in a year.” “Teachers get tenure if they just breathe.”  “It should be simple, put teachers in a school house where they fill children’s heads with knowledge, but we have made it more complicated.” 

Truth:  The simple blame game, painting teachers and teacher unions as villains is a completely unsupported claim.  Virginia, a right to work state, has some of the worst educational outcomes in the country.  Finland, touted with some of the best educational outcomes in the film, is a pro-union system.  Teachers do matter, but their tenure is not decided by them, it is decided by principals.  Teachers do matter, but we do not write the standards, curriculum, and tests.  Teachers do matter, but we live in a climate of extreme external pressure that prevents us from actually teaching.  Teachers do matter, but so do parents, principals, education officials, economic opportunity, school and community programs. The list goes on and on.  The fact is, the vast majority of teachers are good teachers, who work hard, and whose ability to speak out with parents and advocate for children is protected only by their tenure. Imagine a system where teachers could not advocate with parents for children!
There are many more claims I could refute in the film, but this has already served as a spoiler for anyone who actually wants to see the film, and frankly, I’m tired.   
I taught all day, met after school with parents and educators working on an initiative for our school, and then went and saw a film that basically said:  ‘Teachers and their unions bad.  Charters good.’  I’ve had enough for one day!
 I will end this with one final note…
One of the children in the movie, the story I found to be most touching and compelling, lived with his grandparents, never really knew his mother, and his father died at a young age because of drugs.  The tenderness of this child, the wisdom he shared well beyond his years, and the hopes he has for his time at SEED ( he dramatically finds out he has been accepted at the very end of the film after being on a waiting list), quite literally moved me to tears.  One of the last scenes in the film is him on his bunk bed at SEED; he leans over, and tacks up a picture of him with his father from years ago.
I have known countless children who share his story, I have had the privilege to teach many, to love them all, and one of them, who I’ll call Junior (who is now nineteen), came to visit me last week.  At first he talked about how he was looking for a college to go to. He clearly wanted me to be proud of him. But then put his head in his hands and said, “I can’t lie to you, you was my best teacher, I dropped out of school before I finished.”  
My heart sank. All of the deformer attacks on teachers rushed through my mind.  Does this make me a bad teacher?   Through my tear filled eyes, I asked him why.  He told me that his parents had been in and out of jail, on and off drugs, and in and out of shelters from the time he left me in fifth grade.  He explained that it became too difficult to keep up. He said he had been waiting for a transfer from a high school in the Bronx. He waited for the DOE to take care of his paperwork for two months, and eventually he gave up.  I checked with a few contacts, found him a program that will support him with getting his GED and job training, and reminded him, as I do with all of my students, that I am always here, whenever and if ever you need me. 
I have worked in one of the neediest communities in Brooklyn for over ten years as a teacher of children with learning differences.  I have students in jail.  Students I have never heard from again.  Students who come to see me regularly.  Students who got scholarships to private schools.  Students who scored high on tests.  Students who scored low.  Students who are tickled with their job pushing shopping carts at a local store.  Students who shed their special education label and navigate or navigated their way through general education programs. 
What is the measure of my success as an educator?  Is my worth narrowly tied to student outcomes like test scores and graduation rates?  Is an educator only successful, if his/her students are successful?  What is the definition of successful?  Junior may not be a success in the so-called reformers eyes, but given the insurmountable odds he has faced and the countless adults who have disappointed him in his life, the fact that he found me again after all of this years and felt safe enough to tell me the truth, to make himself vulnerable, and to ask for help to improve his life highlights the narrow lens with which this film, and we as a people, view education in our society.   
It’s complicated.  There are no easy answers.  Charters are not a panacea.  Teachers and their unions are not villains, nor are we superheroes.   It is true Junior is a “drop-out”, but I do not consider him to be a failure, nor do I consider myself to be a failure.  As a teacher, there are many factors I cannot control.  While I cannot be superman, my students have shown me year after year that to the vast majority of them I am their hero, and they are mine.  That is all the ‘data’ I need.
If we want to begin to have a real dialogue about real reform, we must address the economic benefits for some that come by excluding large portions of our population from economic access via equitable educational opportunities.   If I believed for one second that the current reform agenda held the promise of equalizing educational opportunities for all, I would embrace it, and would be the first standing on the front lines fighting for it.  Instead I find myself firmly planted on the other side; the side of real reform with the belief that we can have great community public schools for ALL children if only we stopped waiting and started taking authentic action.  We allocate on average $33,000 a year per prison inmate while we allocate an average of $9,000 a year per pupil in our public schools.  Something is gravely wrong with these numbers.  If we can hold teachers accountable to data, shouldn’t we hold our policy makers to the same standard?  It is time to take the long view.  Will the Real Reformers please stand up?


  1. This is the finest review of the film that I have read so far, and I've read many. Your points are beautifully put and I can't wait to see what happens when ALL of the Real Reformers stand up!

  2. Thank You... my fellow caper!

  3. Will you research your comments better than you accuse the movie of? Charters almost always serve a greater proportion of free and reduced lunch kids than their host district averages.
    Also KIPP can't dismiss students even if they or parents don't even *sign* the contract for excellence, let alone follow it.

  4. Perhaps it is YOU who needs to review data. The facts stated in this article are 100% correct.

    Charters schools, including KIPP, can and do displace, or "counsel out" students at will. The information about the Contract for Excellence is on KIPP's on site and it is a well documented fact. Lastly, you folks love numbers, they don't lie... charters serve LESS students who recieve reduced and free lunch compared to the public schools in the same neighborhood.

  5. I just wanted to give my input. I am currently doing a little research on my own regarding equal education for ALL; and I can tell you I would NOT want my son to be tracked and labelled in a public or private school!! He will be home schooled for as long as I can keep it up and I am comfortable with (I have up to a masters level and can more than teach my son what he needs to know up to his middle school years and even some of high school).

    But what I really wanted to say is that REAL school reform would need to start with the the people first who can stomp out & eradicate racism, and all other forms of discrimination from the US society first, the government second, and all government run institutions third. Reform starts with us and has to spread like a wildfire. Teachers cannot do it on their own; nor can parents. We ALL have to give a little. And when schools want to, but cannot find ways to truly give ALL students an equitable education, what should do they do? Gather the only very few who truly believe they can be great advocates and voice their opinions just to be ignored because thy are so few in numbers? Or, do they stand up and take action the best way they see fit in order to see some kind of change TODAY for the students who need help NOW instead of waiting on the people of this country to get a clue and do their part; and the government to wake the heck up and be more responsible with the future of our country. I know it is better to have tried something new now than to sit back and complain hoping someone else will do something in the distant future!!! I comment them all for seeking ways to solving this education problem in their own creative ways. Yes they are laying it heavy on the BAD teachers, and the crappy school unions; but there are definitely other stakeholders who are not doing their jobs as well. We all need to take responsibility; but I say again...I will NOT fault them for saying enough is enough...I will try to fix this my way!!!!

  6. LOL... I meant to say, "I COMMEND them all for seeking ways to solving this education problem.."

  7. After reading this review, I find myself thinking about two things.

    1) You clearly state that you find neither you nor Junior as failures. I can sympathize with this feeling. But is the system a failure when kid after kid like Junior faces the same fate? This is movie is not a personal attack on one teacher or even all teachers, it is an attack on the system, which teacher unions have had a very strong hand in molding. If there are other s who should be brought to task, then I am all for it.

    2) I find it interesting that so many teachers advocate that what this country needs are strong neighborhood schools. Isn't it pretty to think so. Unfortunately, it will not happen overnight and will not happen everywhere.

    Why then do we condemn people (with initiative or deep seeding willingness to whatever it takes for their children to succeed) to attend the bad neighborhood schools? Everyone says that if we allow these children to leave their bad neighborhood schools that the schools will deteriorate faster and have no chance of improving. What we are really saying is that if you are rich enough to afford private education you can leave, but if you are not, we as a country will try (unsuccessfully) to reform that bad school on the backs of these children and their families. Shouldn't they have a choice? For me, the issue isn't whether charters work or not (after working in one, I believe they can and often do), it is whether we believe that parents and children should be given some control of their future. It seems to be that more choice would be better for people, At least this is what I would want for my family.

  8. What I find sad in the extreme is that many teacher leaders are taking a position in opposition to parents and students. Teachers organizations may look at the problems as systemic and set goals for improvement that span years, but look at it from the viewpoint of a parent who sees no hope for their individual child at any school in their school district.

    I've had principals claim cheerfully that all their teachers are excellent, when my child had teacher after teacher who didn't care enough to do anything other than pass out worksheets, assign number grades and record the grades. Maybe the teacher was working hard on the weekends to do this, but it sure didn't have much impact on my child or most of his classmates. My child's principal scolded my child for not "stepping up to the plate" to eradicate his own dyslexia, and the teachers passively went along with this, giving feedback to my child only grudgingly when asked by me after much back and forth discussion with my trying to convince them why feedback would help my child and was worth their effort.

    Responsible teacher leaders would not slide over this reality so quickly. Improving teacher and principal quality is something that teachers and principals could actually do on their own without being forced to do so by the federal government or requiring parents to form charters.

  9. Great review!

    We're linking to your article for Davis Guggenheim Thursday at

    Keep up the good work!


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