“Waiting for Superman” movie worth seeing, acting on


Despite its critics, the new movie “Waiting for Superman”  (WFS) is well worth seeing and acting on.

For me, the movie, which I have seen twice, is about part of what’s most right and what’s most wrong about American public education.  The title comes from Geoffrey Canada,  a New York school reformer who is interviewed in the movie. When he was a youngster, growing up poor in New York City, he believed  in Superman.  But then his mother told him that there was no Superman.  He cried, because as he recalls “…there was no one coming with enough power to save us.”

That’s one of the central messages of the movie:  no single person can solve problems of public education.  Seems obvious – why so much criticism?

It’s extremely rare for a documentary movie about improving schools to be praised and challenged in newspaper stories and columns throughout the country, including intense criticism from Education Minnesota and a Minnesota teacher preparation professor.

Some critics, insist, as did a headline in the October, 2010 Minnesota Educator, published by the Education Minnesota, the statewide teacher union that the movie “portrays teachers, unions as villains.”  The accompanying article insists that the film “does not include any scenes from a good public school…” A Carleton College education professor wrote a column for the Star Tribune insisting that the movie “at its heart is “anti-teacher and anti-public school.”

Nope.  The movie celebrates and honors accomplishments of students, teachers and administrators at several outstanding (charter) public schools. Throughout the movie, there are references to research and examples of the enormous good that teachers can do.  Saying the movie is “anti teacher” is bizarre.

So the movie DOES honor the work of some public school teachers and some public schools. It says we need many more excellent public schools. It’s disappointing that some people who see themselves as public school advocates still won’t acknowledge, 18 years after the first charter law passed in Minnesota, that charters are part of public education. 

The movie also says that not all charters are excellent.  In fact, it says only 20% are very high performing.  Bill Gates is quoted urging expansion of excellent, high quality charters, not just more charters.

Would the movie have been better if it had described some excellent district public schools?  Yes, absolutely.   That’s incidentally, what the Minnesota Business Partnership, the heads of the state’s largest companies, and the U.S. Department of Education have done over the last several years.  They have identified and honored outstanding district and charter public schools. 

The movie also would have been better if it had featured some teacher union initiatives to improve public schools. It includes a brief conversation, but does not mention that the NY City Federation of Teachers has created two charters.    Union efforts to improve public schools do exist, including the site governed school efforts of the Minneapolis and St Paul Federation of Teachers.

Having worked at the local, state and national level, I have found some unions are very supportive of improvements (like the Cincinnati reforms that helped increase graduation rates by more than 25 points, and eliminated the graduation gap between white and African American students.  I’ve also seen unions vigorously oppose reforms, such as their attempt to block or gut Minnesota’s highly popular, effective Post-Secondary Enrollment Options.

But even if “WFS” had included some outstanding district public schools and examples of union backed reforms, many critics would not have been satisfied.  That’s because the movie comes down on one side of a fundamental debate:  “Yes,” “WFS” says, public schools can  dramatically reduce or eliminate achievement gaps between low and upper income students, and between students of different races. The movie is right.

The movie features several youngsters hoping to “win the lottery” and hoping to enter an outstanding (charter) public school with long waiting lists. This is very emotional.  It’s designed to encourage viewers to take some action.  The movie’s creators have worked with various groups to create a website describing ways to help improve public schools. http://www.waitingforsuperman.com/action/city/minneapolis   This includes mentoring , volunteering, donating, etc.

No movie is perfect.  But this one encourages us not to “Wait…”,  but to help improve public schools.

Joe Nathan,  a former district public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change at Macalester College. He welcomes reactions, jnathan@macalester.edu  All reactions, positive or negative, will be posted on the Center for School Change, with the permission of the person sending in the reaction.