There’s much to admire about Waiting for Superman, Davis Guggenheim’s new film about public education. He and his colleagues know how to tell a story, the graphics are sensational, and some of the characters—notably Geoff Canada—just jump off the screen. I hope it does well at the box office, because that would demonstrate that a significant number of us care enough about education to spend a few bucks to see a documentary about it.
That said, the film strikes me as a mishmash of contradictions and unsupportable generalizations—even half-truths. And while it may make for a box office splash, its message is oversimplified to the point of being insulting.
I realize that I am swimming against the stream on this, given that the movie was glowingly reviewed by Tom Friedman in The New York Times and others, but please hear me out. The message of the movie can be reduced to a couple of aphorisms: charter schools are good, unions are bad, and great teachers are good.
Take the last point, one that no one can disagree with. Unfortunately, Waiting for Superman never takes the time to explore what makes a teacher great, although, if memory serves, almost all of the teachers who were on the screen when "goodness" and "greatness" were being talked about were young and white.
The movie demonizes Randi Weingarten and her union, the American Federation of Teachers, without giving her much of an opportunity to defend herself. Left off the hook completely are school boards (which signed and approved all those awful contracts!) and the larger National Education Association, a union that is more deeply entrenched in defending the status quo.
Charter schools are another confusing topic in the movie. Although there’s a throwaway line that says something to the effect that only one out of five charter schools is outstanding, the message of the movie is that charter schools represent education’s salvation. If only a small percentage of charters are great, shouldn’t we find out what makes the great ones great (besides "great teachers," whatever they are)? If you miss that one line—and I suspect most in the audience will—then the message is simply wrong. Is that intentional, or merely careless, on the part of Guggenheim and his colleagues?
The largest contradiction, however, involves the film’s star, Geoff Canada. His intelligence, energy and commitment are palpable, and he gets more "face time" than anyone else (or so it would seem—I didn’t clock it). But Canada’s prescription for saving youngsters is radical—his Harlem Children’s Zone provides free, comprehensive services for children (from birth) and their parents—and the movie pointedly does not endorse that approach. That makes no sense, and it seems to me that the moviemakers are capitalizing on Mr. Canada’s charisma to advance their own feel-good agenda of great teachers, weak unions and charter schools.
Canada is even responsible for the movie’s title, which comes from a story he tells. The filmmakers play off that story brilliantly, using footage from the black-and-white Superman TV series with humor and to great effect. I was told that Guggenheim’s working title for the movie was “Other People’s Children” until he heard Canada’s anecdote. That seems very plausible.
The children are appealing—as are their parents—and their stories of trying to get into decent schools are heart-wrenching. I won’t spoil the ending by revealing the results of the various lotteries, but I can’t help but wonder about the “too good to be true” ending. As my Dad used to say, “If something seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t.”
Let me end by urging you to see Waiting for Superman yourself, so you can make up your own mind. I’d like to see public support for films about education, even if my own title for this particular movie would something more like: "Waiting for Superficial Man."
John Merrow is the president of the nonprofit production company Learning Matters. This post originally appeared on Merrow's blog, Taking Note.