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"Waiting for Superman" Conveniently Omits Information, Takes Advantage of Viewers

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Mayor John Peyton speaks about the education reform movement in Jacksonville before Waiting for Superman begins.
(Image by Jacksonville Public Education Fund)
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Mayor John Peyton speaks about the education reform movement in Jacksonville before Waiting for Superman begins. by Jacksonville Public Education Fund

Director Davis Guggenheim's documentary film, Waiting for Superman, rightfully presents how disadvantaged children in America have, for at least the past decade, suffered tremendously because of the perils and pratfalls of America's ailing public education system. Unfortunately, Guggenheim conveniently omits information about public education and politics to allow for a simple solution to be presented to a complex problem--a simple solution that may work but may come at an expense to teachers and the principles and philosophy of public education in America.

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At least two thousand public schools in America are revealed to be "dropout factories" or "failure factories." Tenure, bureaucracy, the big teachers' unions, overcrowding in schools, and, to an extent, the culture or environment in schools become part of the film's presentation for why children are not getting the education they deserve.

Ostentatiously, the documentary opens with an animated representation of "Superman." Geoffrey Canada, education reformer, appears on screen calling for a "leap of faith" in believing in our schools as the director establishes that there currently is no "Superman" coming to save our nation's children.

Guggenheim provides an account of his motivation for making the documentary, explaining that he made a documentary, The First Year, and believed teachers embodied the hope that public school could work. When it came time to send his children to a public school, he enrolled his kid in a private school instead of one of the three public schools in his area.

From that point on, the audience is introduced to five different students who are being impacted by the failures of America's public education system. The introductions come with on-screen interviews with the young students who demonstrate how they have the potential to turn into great contributing members of society, if they can only get to college. For example, Daisy says to-camera she wants to be a nurse, doctor or veterinarian and would "like to help somebody in need" and that she got that idea from reading books in the library.

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Along with the students, the audience hears from parents or guardians of the children. Each one happens to be the ideal parent a student would like to have when going through school. For example, Nakia, Bianca's mother, demonstrates a willingness to do whatever necessary, even if it means taking two and three jobs, so that her daughter can go to college because she believes going to college means you get a degree and you don't just get a job but a career.

Many of the parents happen to be people who didn't fare well in high school. They didn't move on to college or they dropped out to help family get by. Or, they dropped out because they gave up and wanted a job instead. In any case, it is evident that they realize a mistake was made--they didn't truly understand the value of education. The parents or guardians on screen hope their children will go through school and regard it differently. And, they hope the children will have a reason to appreciate school, which is why each of the parents or guardians chooses to enter their children into lotteries to get into charter schools.

The personal stories are down right heart wrenching, but when Guggenheim departs from simply putting a human face on the impact of failing public education in America, he diagnoses the root of the problem, puts the focus on market-based solutions, and conveniently omits details about education that leave one thinking if the problems of teachers and government are tackled children will no longer suffer.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the compromise bill on education that President Bush and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy worked together on, is held up as a measure that was going to ensure a supreme superpower in the world fixed education. That NCLB was to measure every student and require every student be 100% proficient in math and reading is highlighted. Statistics are shown to indicate that across the country, in most states, less than 50% percent are proficient in math and 20-35% are proficient in reading.

Upon revealing this information, Guggenheim moves on with the film never returning to discuss the effects or impact of standardized or high-stakes testing on students. Except for a mentioning that NCLB was not funded properly, Guggenheim never suggests that a culture of teaching to the test in public schools is devaluing education. He, instead, advances the movie onward and eventually tells the story of acting Chancellor of D.C. Schools, Michelle Rhee, a 37-year-old who had never run a school district but happened to be a multitasking, corporate rabble-rouser that found a way to turn D.C. Schools around.

Guggenheim consciously chooses to get into the subjects of tenure, teachers' unions and the general bureaucracy in public education that makes education reform nearly impossible before sharing how Rhee fired more than thirty principals and closed over twenty-three schools to achieve whatever success she has achieved.

There's something terribly disingenuous about the way with which Guggenheim tells Michelle Rhee's story. The presentation of her confrontation with the teachers union in D.C. makes it seem like she is up against a villainous hive of individuals. Their disinterest in going along with a process of evaluations that has fraudulent aspects to it is seen as out-of-touch with reality.

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What part of unions doesn't Guggenheim understand?

Teachers unionized for better wages, establishment of grievance processes, reduced workloads, and more funding for public education. Unions like the National Education Association have a history of fighting for the rights of all people to education--the NEA and the AFT both had roles in advancing measures of desegregation in education and labor unions.

Jonathan Alter of Newsweek appears on screen to attack the unions and call them a "menace." The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) are singled out as the largest campaign contributors to President Obama's campaign, a fact that is likely a triangulation of sorts because the finance industry's contributions were at least as large if not larger. And, the Democratic Party is said to be a "wholly owned subsidiary of AFT and the NEA."

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Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure." He was an editor for

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