“Superman” critics speak out

January 2, 2011 / Comments (0)


If you want to know how to make a public school great, ask a teacher, not Hollywood.”

Dennis Van Roekel, President, NEA


Across the nation, educators and others are pointing out the foibles in the film Waiting for “Superman.” Here are some examples:

Montana responses

A pre-screening of Waiting for “Superman” took place November 4 in Helena just before the first showing of the film in Montana. Nearly 100 parents, school trustees, educators, and community members attended. Afterward, a panel responded to the film and took questions from the audience. Below are a few of the panelists’ and audience members’ remarks:


MEA-MFT President Feaver: “The way the film portrays the issue of tenure is completely erroneous. In Montana tenure is statutory, not contractual. No teacher falls asleep, as the movie suggests, on the day they are granted tenure.”


“Charter schools are allowed in Montana. It takes place through the local school boards. But there’s no lottery [as depicted in the film]; it’s open enrollment. If charter schools are good for some, they should be good for everyone. Our goal should not be to have charter schools but to make every school a quality school.”


Rick Hays, parent, former president of Qwest and active community member: “The film is obviously slanted to achieve some results. The movie does a real disservice to the role parents play. It glosses over parents’ role. I’ve always believed parents really drive this process. They can influence trustees, legislators, parents.”


“I’ve lived in other places where they had charter schools. Not everybody likes charter schools. I’ve had friends who took their kids out of charter schools.”


Dennis Parman, deputy superintendent of public instruction: “I have a difficult time characterizing this as a documentary. It’s provocative, certainly. I struggled with the cavalier use of data. This is my 30th year in public education in Montana, and I have never seen in Montana what we’re seeing here. There are some parallels – children of color in high levels of poverty are at greatest risk. In Montana, they’re in our seven Indian reservations.” Parman then referred to Superintendent Denise Juneau’s Schools of Promise program, which will be similar to one of the charter schools featured in the film.


Jon Runnalls, 2003 Montana Teacher of the Year, science teacher at the Helena School District’s “Starbase” project – one of the district’s many innovations. “As a classroom teacher, I was really offended by the film. Schools reflect their communities. If we find there’s suddenly a rise in cavities, do we blame the dentists? That’s what this film does with teachers.”


“No Child Left Behind is touted as a great thing in the movie. But teachers have lost the ability to teach kids on individual levels under NCLB.”


“I work with heroes. I see miracles happen every day.  Every educator in our system is aware of the dropout rate and wants to improve it. Even one dropout is too many.”


“If you ask a teacher what will improve education, they will say smaller class sizes, food for kids – a lot of them come to school not knowing where their next meal is coming from, and adequate resources.”


On the film’s embrace of high-stakes testing as a silver bullet solution: “Good teachers know you can’t measure everything with one test.”


Lisa Cordingly, local parent, director of Helena Education Foundation: On the film’s emotional ending, where the five children hoping to get into charter schools await the results of lotteries determining who gets in: “Each of the children’s faces we watched had a caring adult in their lives. Those charter schools are filled with children of parents who care. Public schools don’t just take kids whose parents care – we take all children. This movie convinced me that public education is still the best option. I see people in the system all the time looking for ways they can do better & do more.”

Helena School Board member Don Jones ““There are things we can do to make education better in Montana, but the programs they suggest aren’t cheap. It’s not a matter of taking the monies we have and repackaging it and have better results.”

“Can we come up with a way to convince our state to pay? I’d be all for it. Give me $30,000 a kid and we’ll graduate them and get the vast majority in college.”

National responses

Arthur A. Benson II, Kansas City school board member (from Kansas City Star)
“As a little-disguised paean for charter schools, it (Waiting for “Superman”) amounts to little more than propaganda. [A]round the country…charter schools mostly fail in comparison to their public school neighbors. … The schools in Finland are lavishly praised in this movie but without mention that they are all highly unionized. In Kansas City as elsewhere, the union knows that its future and the jobs of its members are tied to the success of public schools.”


Diane Ravitch, former education advisor to the George H.W. Bush Administration and former charter school proponent (“The Myth of Charter Schools,” New York Review of Books)
Waiting for ‘Superman’ and the other films appeal to a broad apprehension that the nation is falling behind in global competition. If the economy is a shambles, if poverty persists…if American kids are not as serious about their studies as their peers in other nations, the schools must be to blame. At least we have the culprit on which we can pin our anger…. It is not globalization or deindustrialization or poverty…or predatory financial practices that bear responsibility: it’s the public schools, their teachers, and their unions.”


Harold Meyerson, columnist, The Washington Post: “In the world of Waiting for “Superman,” every public school is a disaster, every charter school is a rigorous (but nurturing) little Harvard or Oxford, and the blame for the plight of public schools and the paucity of charter schools can be laid entirely on the unions’ doorsteps. You’d never know from the film that charter schools produce test results that aren’t any better than those of public schools, or that the teachers at a number of charter schools — including charter schools that do produce high test results — are, horror of horrors, unionized.”


Gail Collins, syndicated columnist (The New York Times): “The movie seems to suggest that what’s needed is more charter schools, which get taxpayer dollars but are run outside the regular system, unencumbered by central bureaucracy or, in most cases, unions. … In fact, a study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that only 17 percent of charter schools did a better job than the comparable local public school, while more than a third did “significantly worse.”


Leonie Haimson, executive director, Class Size Matters, (Huffington Post): “Given the recent recession and the resulting anger at Wall Street elites, it would be hard to find any other field of public policy in which a few billionaires have so easily controlled the dominant narrative, convinced most of the politicians in both parties and the mainstream media that they know what’s best for our children.”


Rick Hess, education commentator at the American Enterprise Institute and proponent of charter schools: “Movies that sell charter schools as a salvation are peddling a simple-minded remedy that takes us back to the worst charter puffery of a decade ago, is at odds with the evidence, and can blind viewers to what it takes to launch and grow truly great charters.


These flicks accelerate the troubling trend of turning every good idea into a morale crusade, so that retooling K-12 becomes a question of moral rectitude in which we choose sides and “reformers” are supposed to smother questions about policy or practice. They also wildly romanticize charters, charter school teachers, and the kids and families, making it harder to speak honestly or bluntly. (Hess’s complete article can be found at:  http://blog.american.com/?author=25)


Darren Allen, Vermont Education Assoc.: “This film is another in a long-line of simplistic, emotion-driven ‘reform’ manifestos that really don’t help our nation’s public schools, but certainly do help sell films (and boost business for charter school operators).”


Randi Weingarten, president, American Federation of Teachers: “Movies like this grip us to the core. They may even call much-needed attention to the challenges confronting many students and schools. But the attention will be misplaced if it centers on off-base solutions and has the effect of denigrating good teachers. It’s these sorts of sensational portrayals that sap the morale of dedicated teachers while doing nothing to address the actual struggling confronting our students and schools.”


Gene Carter, executive director, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: “Moreover, simplistically dividing a profession of 5 million people into ‘good teachers’ and ‘bad teachers’ misses an important opportunity to show how all educators must continue to learn, develop, and grow throughout their careers. Would we ask a proficient doctor to stop learning new technologies or strategies that may help save a life? No. Our most effective teachers are the ones who pursue professional development not only to sustain student achievement, but also to help teach other educators.”

Dennis Pierce, eschoolnews.com: “Yes, we can do better—we must do better—but given the daunting nature of these challenges, it’s a wonder our schools are doing as well as they are. If you’re a teacher, you know these challenges all too well: Children coming to school malnourished, or not ready to learn … Kids who have learning disabilities, or who don’t even speak English … Classrooms packed with 30 or more students, yet lacking the fundamental resources necessary to give all children the individual attention they deserve … Parents who don’t make their children do homework, or who excuse their poor behavior … Overloaded schedules that leave far too little time to plan engaging lessons, collaborate with colleagues, or advance one’s own learning … the list goes on. It’s too bad filmmaker Davis Guggenheim fails to grasp any of these challenges.”


Dennis Van Roekel, President, National Education Assoc. “Nowhere in the film or its discussion have teachers’ voices been heard. The producers of Waiting for “Superman” missed an opportunity to engage in a constructive and collaborative dialogue with educators about how to truly transform public education. They missed an opportunity to focus on how educators—the real superheroes—are, on a daily basis, turning hope into action in the nation’s schools, one student at a time, one school at a time, one community at a time. If you want to know how to make a public school great, ask a teacher, not Hollywood.”

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