This past Friday was a half day at my school for Professional Development. As a nice surprise, our CEO took the entire staff to see Waiting for Superman at a movie theater downtown. It was a very thoughtful (and exciting) outing.

As I sat in the theater before the movie started, I realized that I was going into the movie with a lot preconceptions and I already had a sick feeling in my stomach.

As the movie progressed, I realized that there was very little in the movie that I didn’t know already. I recognized Geoffrey Canada’s voice before I even saw him. I had learned about the Rubber Room in NYC 2 years ago when This American Life dedicated part of a show on them with interviews with actual Rubber Room teachers. Most people in the theater, including my colleagues, were learning about a lot of things for the first time. The other thing the movie failed to mention? Mayor Bloomberg and the union have agreed to do away with rubber rooms altogether.

Throughout the movie I was frantically typing notes into my iPhone, and trying really hard not to be a curmudgeon. I’ll be honest, I did yell out a comment or two, but I tried to control myself.

Who are the Real Superheroes?
To me, the real heroes in this movie are not the teachers or the education ‘reformers,’ but the families and parents of the children the movie follows. We watch parents who have struggled themselves but have made a conscious decision to put their children first. We see a parent who takes a 45 minute subway ride just to visit a school that her child has a tiny chance of getting into. These parents are empowered in that they seem to know what their options are, they see the value of education for their child and they are willing to do whatever it takes to give their child the best education they can.

To me, the shameful thing is that while this movie shows the dedication and love of these parents, it chooses not to celebrate these engaged and caring parents. Instead, it chooses to demonize teachers and unions and lift up a small group of ‘experts’ as the true heroes of education reform.


Public Schools are Evil
At one point, the movie states that these poor performing schools are doing damage to the neighborhoods in which they exist. I can’t argue that fewer graduates means more youth on the streets and higher crime rates, but what the movie doesn’t discuss is the deeper issues that influence students outside of school. If you know more people who have been to prison that have gone to college (a statistic from the movie) a school has a huge hurdle in helping you understand the importance of school. This hurdle is magnified by uninvolved or neglectful parents.

What really saddens me is that what the movie doesn’t discuss is the fact that many of these low-performing schools in high-poverty neighborhoods are teaching scripted programs, have cut out art, music and other creative arts and teach primarily to the test. Of course a student in a school like this would find no value in education. Worst of all, the teachers have little say in the introduction and implementation of these programs. This is NOT a generalization. I taught for 5 years in a school like this. We were nearly at the bottom of the list of state test scores.

What IS evil about public schools?

The wall in my old classroom.

Yes, there are a number of poor-performing or novice teachers (though for some reason if you’re a Teach for a American teacher this stigma doesn’t apply to you) and yes, it does require a series of paperwork to ‘get rid’ of a poor-performing teacher. However, the true evil is many traditional public schools are over-enrolled, under-staffed, under-funded and in many cases, the buildings themselves are falling apart.

The world Jonathan Kozol described in 1991 in his book Savage Inequalities has not changed much. In fact, Camden, which sits a stones throw across the river from Philadelphia, is, I believe, still one of the lowest performing districts in the country.

Teachers Unions are Evil
One of the most disturbing parts of this movie is the way it depicts teachers’ unions. There was ominous music playing when AFT president, Randi Weingarten appeared on screen and many in the audience, including those in my staff may as well have booed at her.

Throughout the movie, the Guggenheim refers to the fact that the education reformers always find that ‘the union gets in the way.’ At one point, Jonathan Alter, a Newsweek writer, actually used the term “menace” when referring to unions. This from a man who writes about the economy and from a magazine who wrote the ‘brilliant’ cover story: The Key to Saving America’s Education or Why We Must Fire Bad Teachers. (To which I responded: Shame on You, Newsweek)

I have my own issues with unions, and I’m not a gung-ho union supporter. That said, I understand their importance and their place in education.

It a complete and utter myth that union teachers are lazy and do the bare minimum because they can. Some of the best articles I have read about education have come from American Educator, a publication of the AFT.  The union and its members is dedicated to celebrating good teachers and good teaching.

The movie describes what some districts call the ‘lemon dance.’ This is a process by which administrators agree to shuffle around their poor-performing teachers to share the burden rather than fire them (wait, we should blame that on the teachers?).

This process happens constantly in the School District of Philadelphia with administrators. A strong administrator will be pulled out of his or her school to go ‘fix’ a school with a poor-performing administrator. This poor-performing administrator is then either shuffled to a new school or put behind a desk at the central offices. Principals have a union, too.

For the 7 years I taught in the unionized School District of Philadelphia I met teachers from all ends of the spectrum. 90% of them were talented, hard-working and dynamic. They had classes of anywhere from 25-30 students with no aid. They weathered fights and lock downs, they taught students were neglected, malnourished, students with a variety of learning difficulties, and they did this often in a building with a broken heating system, no air conditioning, peeling paint, broken stairwells and a schoolyard that looked like a prison yard.

The other 10% were like the 10% in any other profession.

So why did they still have jobs? Yes, partially it was because of due process. Not tenure, as some would call it, but what I would like to call ‘due process.’ (Thanks to Ken Shelton for reminding me of that distinction.)  Some of these teachers were receiving extra support and had already been disciplined. Some had not been disciplined, but were offered extra support by school coaches.

Others? Lord knows. In some cases, everyone in the school knew they were a poor teacher, but nothing was ever done about it. In my opinion, it may have been too much of an effort to go through the discipline process. Or, maybe certain steps had been gone through, but then the administrator never pushed further.

Why, you ask, have due process at all? Why make it so difficult? It may seem simple enough. Do away with due process and you can get rid of these poor performing teachers more easily.

Here’s why.

Many administrators here in Philadelphia solve the paperwork conundrum by just writing teachers out of the budget. However, they usually don’t write out the poor teachers. Instead, they write out the people who speak their mind, the people who stand up for themselves. The people who won’t accept the status quo.

Without due process, without a union, these people would essentially be out of a job just because they stood up for what they believed in. I am not speaking hypothetically here. I personally know of two people who were written out of the budget for these reasons.

So why else are unions important?

In a large, urban district, a lot goes on in any given day. A teacher may be dealing with a dangerous child who has destroyed a room 2 or 3 times without repercussion. They may be publicly teased or harassed by a co-worker, an administrator or a student. A union is there to help them out.

The current system of tenure (due process) does get a few things wrong.

I was granted tenure by the School District after 3 years and a day as any employee is. However, I had not received the necessary official observations required of a non-tenured teacher. Despite that fact, I was granted tenure automatically.

That system is inherently flawed. No one really knew what was going on in my classroom.

I wonder, as a side note, how Michelle Rhee herself kept her job after applying masking tape to her students’ mouths during her first year as a Teach for America teacher.  I’ll tell you one thing, though. Her union would not have been able to do much if she asked them for help.

However, focusing the conversation on tenure is a waste of breath. It is, in my opinion, the least of our worries at this point.

Divide and Conquer
What I feel that this movie has done is successfully pit ‘us’ against ‘them.’ Charter versus traditional public, union versus non-union.

I see this in my day to day conversations and it breaks my heart. Recently, on Facebook, a friend told me that I was part of the “Charter school movement.” I had no idea, first of all, that there was such a thing. This statement just reaffirmed my beliefs that we are moving away from the real issue, which is educating children.

My response has become my personal mantra:

I’m a part of the educating kids movement. Charter, regular public, whatever works ;) I think all schools should be free to do what they think is right for kids. So do most of my union buddies.

Why the Movie Appeals to Us

One thing that Guggenheim does to reel the audience in is to use scenes that depict school the way it looked when ‘we’ went to school. The desks are in rows. The kids are using pencil and paper. They are taking tests. There is some carpet time with a story. He also intersperses some school scenes from the 1950s and 60s. There is a warm sense of familiarity to the scenes that helps pluck our heartstrings.

The problem?

from Wikimedia Commons

None of the scenes depict a truly innovative or progressive school. School just doesn’t look like that anymore. To see what progressive and innovative education actually looks like just see George Lucas’ response to the movie and watch the videos at the bottom of the post.

What is it That Teachers Do?
If you were hoping to get that answer from this movie, be prepared to be let down. There is little insight, aside from the clip of a teacher whose use of rap songs to teach the alphabet and other concepts inspired KIPP founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin. Other than that, it’s all similar to stock footage. One can also assume that the teachers they filmed were at the charter schools and not a local public school where pretty much the same kind of teaching probably goes on.

What you will see, however, are images of kids heads opening like a door with a teacher pouring knowledge into their brains. Because we all know THAT’S how teachers do their best teaching.

Some Surprises
There were a few comments about the profession that really amazed me. One came from Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone. In describing his path to teaching and his experiences, he stated that he became a Master teacher in his 5th year of teaching.

I was floored.  I am in my 6th year of teaching and I am hardly a master. In fact, I believe that there is no such thing as a Master teacher. If you call yourself a Master, it implies that you have no more to learn, that you have mastered everything you need to know. Anyone who has ever taught before knows that, as a teacher, you can never master everything you need to know about teaching. Becoming a teacher means dedicating yourself to a life of learning new things.

The second surprising comment came from Michelle Rhee, who stated that she came into her job as Chancellor of schools in Washington, DC, knowing that she’d be a one-term chancellor. She is also a TFA graduate. What does it say about her motives or dedication to students and families to come into such an important, powerful job with that mindset?

What it Gets Right
As I went into the movie trying very hard not to be a curmudgeon, I made a point of finding parts of it that I agreed with.

The first statement I agreed with was actually by Michelle Rhee. She stated that after all of the trials and tribulations she had been through that in the end, it’s “always about the adults.” While we may not agree on why that is or which adults we are speaking about, it is entirely true that in the discussion and implementation of school reform, it is most often the students who are thought of last.

The movie also makes an important case for the detrimental effects of tracking students. However, it is not necessary to attend a charter school to avoid tracking. Many schools have done away with it. It’s a shame that the one featured has not yet.

I also agree with the movie’s statement that we have an obligation to other people’s children.  Now who ‘we’ are in the movie I’m not sure, but I would agree that we are in this together.  I would also agree with Guggenheim’s statement that “schools haven’t changed, but the world around them has.” This indeed, is one of the roots of the problem. Too bad he didn’t take the time to show schools who are changing with the times and it’s a shame that he says that almost at the end of the movie.

Final Thoughts
All in all, Guggenheim has produced a film that is heart wrenching and has a clear message. It provides a solid jumping-off place for dialogue to happen.

Let’s just hope that the dialogue happens and that people learn to read between the lines of a well-produced and well-funded movie.

I hope that others will join me in my mantra.

I’m a part of the educating kids movement. Charter, regular public, whatever works ;) I think all schools should be free to do what they think is right for kids.

Other posts about the movie:


Abandoning Superman - John T Spencer
Seeing Waiting for Superman – Kirsten Olson
We’re Not Waiting for Superman, We’re Empowering Superheroes — Diana Rhoten
Larry Ferlazzo’s list of posts about Waiting for Superman 

An excellent description and explanation of Charter Schools:


The Toll– Chad Sansing


Superman image from Xurble on Flickr

  24 Responses to “Reflections on Waiting for Superman”

  1. This was just a great post MB. I'm going to be seeing the movie and intended to write a post, but it sounds like you nailed it. I agree with you when you wrote about being a part of the educating kids movement. I became a teacher to teach kids. I want to inspire and that is what I try to do every day. I can't wait to see the movie this week and see what you have written about. Again, excellent post.

  2. To echo Michelle Rhee, it has been too often about the adults. The movie, the press events, the communication on blogs and Twitter have been so wrapped up in "teachers are bad/don't demonize us" arguments that students are not getting the attention they deserve.

    There is a need to speak out to the attacks on our profession, we just need to make sure the price we pay isn't our students' education.

  3. I totally agree, William. We need to keep stressing that the reason we are speaking out against the attacks is because we are working hard to do whatever we can to reach our students and provide them with a quality, modern-day education that prepares them for more than just a test.

    Now that I've vented about the movie, I will now be focusing on doing just that. The rhetoric is just tiring and self-deprecating at times. I think we, as a whole, need to take the reins and shift the conversation to 'what works.'

  4. Thanks for the thoughts. I don't think I want to see the movie because I've heard enough about it and feel I'd get very frustrated. It's frustrating enough reading about it. You did a nice job with the positives and negatives of the movie.

  5. A charter CEO takes his staff to see Waiting for Superman is no surprise.. Kind of like Adolf taking his stormtroopers to watch Triumpoh of the Will. It's obviously nothing to do with teaching, but more to do with your CEO's mindset toward teachers. Was there a discussion afterwards as to how one-sided the film is?

  6. Rheewards,

    I'm not sure how your comments help us move forward and it feeds right into my statement that we are divided when we need to be united. How you equate my CEO, who cares deeply about her students and staff to a monster who facilitated the slaughter of millions is beyond me.

    In addition, when leaving such scathing remarks it helps to use your real name and not hide behind an anonymous name. It keeps the conversation 'real.'

    As for a discussion, no there wasn't one, and I do wish there had been, but honestly there was not much time left in the day after the movie to have such a discussion. I have made my opinions fairly clear with most of my colleagues, and I believe there needs to be more education on both sides (traditional public and charter) to help understand how we are being divided by outside forces.

    Oh, and SHE took us to see the movie.

    • Hi, I am a student in my freshman year of college. I watched this film in my writing class, and I must say It was heart-wrenching. I wish I knew all the answers, and I am sure we all do. As you stated before it is important for teachers to unite. I am sure that people do not go to college to be a teacher just to be call a “bad teacher.”
      I am aware that there are some, but I think to make this film in obvious efforts to bash our educators is offensive, and I am sure has caused conflicts in more than one way. I hope that these problems are corrected, and soon. We have children growing up without an education, and their not listed as a main priority. I agree to your opinions, and appreciate that you took the time to observe both sides of the spectrum.
      I am just another student with another comment, but to those teachers who do their best I just want to say thank you! I know teaching is not an easy job. Keep your heads up! To the teachers that have poor performance, Get it right, these kids are our future!

      I apologize for any grammar or punctuation errors in my message. I am still learning. :)

  7. THANK YOU!!! Perfectly stated! Could not agree with you more!

  8. Excellent take on this and I think your post is spot on. If nothing else, the movie should continue the discussion…

  9. Mary Beth,

    This is one of the most complete and thorough reviews of the film I've read yet, and that includes in nationally published newspapers.

    My name is Jonathan and I'm a Regional Manager at Participant Media for the Waiting For "Superman" campaign. I've been connecting with organizations and bloggers in Philadelphia to keep the push for education reform alive. Our goal is not to support a particular policy, but to continue the discussion.

    I'd love to talk with you more about our campaign and keeping the dialogue alive. Write me: jharris@participantmedia.com.

    Hope to hear from you soon.

  10. Great post. I appreciate the point to edutopia. What really surprises me is that George Lucas has been worikng in education reform for 20 years and everyone in the world wants to jump on the Rhee, Gates, Canada bandwagon.
    Perhpas Mr. Lucas should produce a movie about what is right in education.

  11. It has nothing to do with what Hitler did compared to your CEO, but the use of propaganda. Do you think your CEO would have taken you to the film if it had portrayed charter schools the way public school teachers are portrayed in Waiting for Superman? I do apologize for associating your CEO with Adolf, that was not my intent to suggest that she was into mass murder. My intent was to draw a parallel between how propaganda was used in Germany and in America today. The demonizing of teachers by the charter industry is not unlike Hitler's portrayal of the Jews. Maybe McCarthyism would be a better analogy. Why not suggest that next professional development you discuss the film? That would probably be more of an educational experience than actually viewing the film.

    As for using my name I wish I could, but due to having been targeted for whistleblowing several times I cannot afford that luxury as yet. I still work in public school and know those who want to silence any dissent read everything. The only charters I support will be the ones run by teachers (who came up with the idea to begin with).

  12. A few members of my staff have discussed the idea of proposing a discussion about the movie so we can understand everyone's viewpoint. As for propaganda, I agree the movie is propaganda, but it is not the reason we were taken to see it.

    As for the name, you are the only person who has ever commented anonymously on my blog. I have been a public school teacher here in Philly for 7 years and I am open about how I think and what I believe. As for whistleblowing, perhaps your tone is what gets you targeted. I don't know you personally, of course, but your comment was very harsh and it led me to believe that you merely read the first paragraph and scrolled down to leave a scathing comment.

    I would love to know your thoughts on other aspects of my post.

    That said, I do appreciate you taking the time to visit my blog.

  13. Just watched the movie yesterday with Becky and one of our friends, both of whom are Chicago Public School teachers. It was illuminating to listen to how they picked it apart while we were watching it, while still noting a lot of things that they agreed with. They too pointed out that it was like an advertisement for KIPP and Charter schools, without actually noting the failure rates of Charters and some of the glaring problems inherent in endorsing charter schools. Thank you for this post, MB. I liked the movie because I thought it spotlighted some issues that need to be fixed, that a lot of people might not be aware of. I also found it incredibly depressing…because I listen to Becky come home every day and tell me about some of the incompetent people she has to deal with who are entrenched in their positions, and can't seem to be removed. What a complicated set of problems…sigh… I am grateful to know righteous souls like you & Becky and all her friends who are fighting the good fight, regardless of the propaganda circulating about your profession… Props & best wishes, and thank you for what you do…

  14. Thanks, Fuad. I wonder if you and Becky have heard of this movie, Race to Nowhere: http://www.racetonowhere.com. It's on my list to watch. It's a different side of the story, though albeit depressing too, I'm sure.

    As for the entrenched incompetent people, someone down the line gave them enough satisfactory ratings that they have slipped through the system. We need better systems for evaluating not just students, but teachers, too.

    I'm glad to know that Becky is keeping things real out there in Chi-town. Lord knows they need here there!

  15. I sort a agree with this your blog because those parents would do anything to get their kids into one of those good schools. They would go to the end of the world if it meant to that their kid was going to get the perfect education. The one mom went on a forty five minute train ride across town just to check out a school for her kid. She even knew that her child didn’t have a good chance of getting in, but she still went. One mom struggled to take her child to a private school she tries to make her payments so her child can go to the private school. The families are very strong and want their kids to have a good education. I envy that because I can’t even say that I would try to take my kid across town to get a better education. One grandma even let her grandson go to a boarding school. She said she didn’t want to let him go, but she knew that it was the best for him. He was like in sixth grade. That shows that she really cared about him getting a good education.
    The other superheroes are some of the teachers. They went out on limb and made sure their students were getting their homework done, and staying on top of their education to make sure their test scores got higher each time. Those teachers don’t care who you are they are going to help you, whether you are black, white, poor or rich and that’s amazing. This world is filled with people that don’t care and judge you if you don’t have the right amount of money you are not that smart. She is right on one thing public schools are evil, there are tons of teachers that don’t care if their students pass or not because they get a pay check. For those teachers that come out and help to make sure their students are pushed I tip my hat to them because they are heroes. If there were more teachers like that in every school there would be no more waiting for Superman. . .

  16. I’m a student from a small town in Nebraska. This reflection of Waiting for Superman opened my eyes about the documentary. I think students shouldn’t have to compete for their education or be chanced into a lottery to determine their educational future. Every student should have the equal opportunity to receive a diploma and go to a college to ensure their financial stability as adults. Whether a public school or a private school, I believe that ineffective teachers should be taken out so effective teachers can be placed to help students. I don’t think a teacher should boast about how well their teaching methods are in the classroom because they aren’t the ones who can tell. If a teacher’s students have good testing scores and are being productive workers, then it may be from the student’s work ethic. If students don’t want to be in school or don’t want to learn, then it doesn’t matter how great of a teacher one may be, their hard-headed students aren’t going to try to be productive.

  17. I am a student from western Nebraska. When I watched Waiting for Superman, I had a lot of different thoughts running through my head. You made a good point about when they showed the 50’s-60’s classrooms; it made me realize how much schooling has changed. Back then it seems like education meant more to the students and the teachers both. Now-a-days it’s hard to remember just how important our education is; we take it for granted. I believe everyone needs to find the value again. Everybody is so absorbed in their own little world that they forget what’s really important. Who knows, maybe once everyone gets back on the same track we can start to learn again. Until that day I think the school systems are going to keep falling apart and failing students who need the education more then they know. There really is no one to blame. I believe the schools are doing their hardest to keep students on track, and the students are trying to keep concentrated on school work (as concentrated as kids can, at least). As for the teachers union, I don’t really know much about it, but I don’t think it’s an evil corporation. You can tell they want what they think is best for the children, just like everyone else.

  18. I am a student in Nebraska and recently watched Waiting for Superman. I thought it was very informing on how some schools work. When you talked about how the movie doesn't discuss the fact that many of these low-performing schools in high-poverty neighborhoods are teaching scripted programs, have cut out art, music and other creative arts and teach primarily to the test, you made a great point. That is a big part of why students don’t feel as eager to attend. Many schools may only teach students the basics in order to try and make test scores better. Although the movie talks a lot about teachers, they forget to talk about some of the students. I am a teenager who has gotten into some trouble with the law but finally noticed the importance of education. Some students like me went to school just because their parents told them to. Troubled students make many of the problems in the class and it cannot be just the teachers fault. If you ask some of my teachers in my high school what kind of student I am, they would probably say I was a trouble maker and did not work to my full potential. Once I saw people getting kicked out of school and noticed how much a diploma meant, I started to try my best to graduate. I know there is still some teachers as well that don’t do their work to their full potential. If most teachers worked their best they would make schools somewhat better.

  19. This article has a great over look on the movie, but kind of has a little too much biased opinions. The writer did touch on some key issues like how public schools could be” evil” and also how the parents in the movie realize that education is the key element to success in this day of age. I like how the writer gave the parents credit for going out of their way to try to give their kids a better chance at life. Public schools in some areas can be very horrible and poor, and the studies that the teachers cover could have a great deal of influence. This is where tracking comes in to play; tracking is a horrible way to organize students. If a student that can do a lot better in their studies and are in a group that is a little bit slower the student that has the potential would work harder, and vice versa with a student that is struggling in a group that is a head of them. I think this another great response to how to open the eyes of Americans to let them now the problems of the education system in this country.

  20. I believe that this blog really shows the problems in the school system. It tells about how the school buildings themselves are falling apart. That just shows that the school is not going to give any money up to fix up the school. It would rather give that money to the teachers that are failing their students. The teachers fail the kids and the school does nothing to help solve the issue. The school teaches kids the same thing year after year like a “scripted program”. It would help solve the issue if the school would fire some of the bad teachers because wouldn’t the school like to spend the same amount of money on a good teacher rather than a bad one? The administrators that do the “lemon dance” are wasting there time. Every time that they switch teachers the teacher that they will receive will still be bad, that's why the first principal got rid of that person.

  21. I like your blog. I really think that most of what you are saying true. But when you where talking about evil public schools! I just think that maybe if we as a country would put more money into these school instead of things like war then maybe kids wouldn’t need to go to a private school to get a good education. Or in regards to what you where saying about tenure Maybe we shouldn't have tenure. If they are good teachers they wont get fired and it would make them keep working to make themselves better, so if teachers are good then they will stay, and if they are bad then you should replace asap. My final point is that sometimes if just not always the school. It could be bad teachers or just students that don’t care.

  22. Over all, I am impressed to see such a push for education reform considering how many people have viewed and commented on this blog. I greatly agree with idea that the heroes in this documentary are the parents striving for a better education for their children. I feel that no matter how much we reform US education, there is always going to be the small few that slip through the cracks. This is not to say that having a small few slip through the cracks would be bad in comparison to the millions of dollars being used to house prison inmates instead of fund higher schooling. We as a nation need to reconsider the importance of education. Reform should come from all angles, not just in having better teachers or better opportunities, but also in attendance enforcement, and coarse completion.
    I have a lot of disdain for school funding in American. The fact that we are spending so much money on uneducated people, on people in prison, on unemployment proves that while education is expensive, the cost of ignorance is much greater.

  23. Hello my name is Justin I'm a student in high school. After reading the article "The Myth Of Charter Schools" and, watching the video "Waiting for superman" Basically, I was astounded with all the information that I took in. My response to this was yes, I agree with the fact of the demand of well trained certified teachers is definitely a plus, for Charter Schools but, these teachers need to quit thinking of themselves and there pay rate and do there job which is educate their students as if they were their students were their own.
    The parents think that by sending their children to these private schools gives a guaranteed successful future. That may be true in some case, but that's not always true it's up the child or student on how much they are willing to achieve. It is also a responsibility of the parents to involve themselves into the child's life. I think that honestly some of these teachers are over paid for their services.

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