Movie Review: ‘Waiting for Superman’

Jo Ann Skousen Contributor
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“Waiting for Superman” (2010). Davis Guggenheim, director. Paramount/Vantage, 102 minutes.  Documentary.

“Waiting for Superman” created a sensation at the Sundance Film Festival this year, and is creating an even greater sensation since its limited opening in a few major cities this week. Its premise is the failure of what Geoffrey Canada, president of Harlem Children’s Zone, calls “our implicit promise to students: that the idea of public school could work.” Public schools did work for the first 50 years, but they are failing now. This film explores the causes and solutions as it follows the experiences of half a dozen young students trying to get a better education than the one offered by their local public school.

As the film begins, Canada tells the story of learning from his mother that Superman was not a real person. He began to cry, he tells us, not because he compared Superman to Santa Claus, but because it meant that “no one was coming with enough power to save us.” Even as a young child, he could see the problems of poverty, crime, and unemployment in his neighborhood. He needed a hero with power. As an adult, he realized the super power that comes from education.

The documentary focuses largely on minority kids attending inner city schools in neighborhoods that are in shambles. As one bright young boy, Anthony, leaves for school, his grandmother calls out, “Be careful.” Not “Have a good day” or “Behave yourself” or “See you this afternoon,” but “Be careful.” These are rough neighborhoods where education is not a priority for the majority of young people.

But the filmmakers also visit Redwood City, CA, a well-to-do neighborhood near San Francisco, where the percentage of students moving on to college is also dismally low. Here the problem is not poverty but “tracking,” the practice of determining which students should be sent along a college track and which should be sent on a vocational track. The problem is, once a student starts down a lower track, it becomes increasingly difficult for him to move up to the college track. As the filmmakers point out, this system was designed 50 years ago, when only 20 percent of students went to college and the rest provided a pool of labor for the robust post-WWII economy. Today, the kinds of factory jobs available to the Baby Boomers have been mechanized out of existence or sent overseas. Everyone needs a college education today. But not everyone is being prepared for it.

Dropout rates are high throughout the country, not just in the South or the inner cities. One school administrator admits that a freshman class normally numbers 1,200 or so, but by its sophomore year the number has dropped to 300-400, an astounding loss of 75 percent! Over 2,000 schools are failing nationwide, causing many of them to be called “Dropout Factories” instead of high schools. Most are in poor urban neighborhoods, where the majority of young adults end up either dead or in prison. But the filmmakers ask a provocative question: Do failing neighborhoods produce failing schools, as conventional wisdom suggests, or do failing schools produce failing neighborhoods?

The real enemy, according to this film, is not the parents or the neighborhoods, but the teachers’ union that controls the supply and demands of teachers. Union bosses mandate uniform pay, uniform benefits, and a system of tenure that makes it virtually impossible to fire a bad teacher. Instead, the worst teachers are shuffled from school to school in what is derisively called “the turkey trot” or the “lemon dance.” In Manhattan, teachers awaiting disciplinary hearings cannot be fired, so they are sent to the infamous “Rubber Room” where they receive full pay for sitting all day, some of them for as many as seven years. The hope, of course, is that they will become so bored that they will quit and find a job doing something else, but most stick it out. After all, they get paid whether they work or not. Manhattan pays these teachers a shocking $100 million a year not to teach.

Under union rules, good teachers and bad teachers are paid the same wage. It is illegal in most states to give merit pay for a job well done. So why try harder? Teachers have been heard saying, “I get paid whether you learn or not” as they read newspapers or play games on the computer while students goof off. Try doing that in any other job or profession, and see how long you would last.

Schools have also become bloated with administrators and bureaucrats. In Washington, DC, school superintendent Michelle Rhee was able to bring back music teachers, art teachers, P.E. teachers, librarians and nurses on every campus by firing bureaucrats, eliminating some principals, and closing failed schools. When she offered to double teachers’ salaries if they gave up their tenure, many teachers seemed interested. But the union would not even let it come to a vote. That’s how frightened the unions are of competition.

They are also frightened of losing their control over Congress. The documentary claims that teachers’ unions are the largest contributors to political campaigns, giving around $55 million per year to various politicians. About 90% of that money goes to Democratic candidates. This has successfully kept teachers’ unions off the table when politicians discuss education policy. As Rhee comments sadly, “It’s all about the adults.”

So what’s the solution? According to this documentary, charter schools provide the best hope for improving education. Charter schools are not private schools; they are public schools, funded by public money, but run independently. Some charter schools have particular themes, like science or performing arts. But many are dedicated simply to teaching students the basics and preparing them for college. Admittedly, not all of these schools are effective, but the top charter schools are sending an impressive 90% of their students to college.

Some argue that the success of these schools is related to cherry picking the students. However, charter schools are mandated to select students randomly, by lottery, so every student who applies has an equal chance of getting in, regardless of aptitude. Students apply for these schools knowing that there are often 30 or more applicants for each opening. Most have no choice but to return to their local public school.

Others argue that the success of these charter schools is personality driven — that they rely on the unusual talents of a few charismatic teachers who would be just as successful if they were teaching in public schools. Can their success be replicated? critics ask.

The answer seems to be yes. The KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Schools, for example, started by Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, now have nearly a hundred schools nationwide, all producing successful, college-bound students. The KIPP schools are closing the achievement gap, with longer school days, shorter summer vacations, Saturday classes, and even inner city boarding schools. Other charter schools have the opposite approach; for a while my daughter attended a charter school designed for serious figure skaters, where classroom work took up very little of the day. The point is, charter schools give parents and their children the opportunity to choose what is best for them.

Why does this matter to those of us whose children have already graduated from college? Why should we care about improving education? The answer is obvious. This is our workforce for the future. As Bill Gates says in the film, “We can’t sustain a system of continued growth without an educated work force.” If they can’t get jobs, they’ll be living on welfare. This matters to all of us.

Although teachers’ unions are seen as the villains in “Waiting for Superman,” teachers themselves are portrayed as heroes. They are the Supermen and -women for whom too many students are waiting. The film ends with this paean to teachers: “A great teacher is like a great athlete or a great musician. Teaching is a work of art.”

Unfortunately, for too many students, such great teaching is out of reach. Schools need flexibility, accountability, and competition in order to improve. I’m not sure that this documentary provides all the answers or that it sees all the causes of the problems. Certainly a difficult home environment contributes to the failure of many students. But I like Guggenheim’s notion that failing schools create failing neighborhoods, and not the other way around. Without a doubt we have perpetuated several generations of failure.

Moreover, Guggenheim’s assessment of the stagnating effect of unions and the tenure system are sound. Give teachers the risk of failure, the incentive of merit pay, and the freedom to innovate, and let’s see how quickly the best teachers rise to the top. Other teachers will soon follow, as they see that greater effort will garner greater pay. As this documentary makes it abundantly clear, it’s time to end the stifling system of tenure and unions in public education. Those who teach well have nothing to fear. Those who can’t teach effectively should go find another profession.

Jo Ann Skousen teaches English literature at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York, and has served as entertainment editor of Liberty Magazine since 2005. She is the founder and producer of Anthem Film Festival, which will premiere at Freedom Fest in Las Vegas next summer.