Reporter’s Notebook: ‘Waiting for Superman’ and American education reform

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In his previous Oscar-winning documentary, filmmaker Davis Guggenheim handled Al Gore, manmade climate change and imminent global peril.

This time, he’s really grabbing something hot: education reform.

In “Waiting for Superman,” which opens Sept. 24 in Los Angeles and New York City, Guggenheim vies to do for education reform what “An Inconvenient Truth” did for global warming: raise awareness, make people care and push toward a solution. But this latest docu-editorial will divide some of his biggest fans.

With the global-warming film, carbon dioxide and its producers made convenient, relatively non-controversial targets for the film’s core audience and among the director’s Democratic Party friends. This time, the pervasive, harmful force he depicts is teacher unions, which have driven Democratic education policy for decades.


This idea is succinctly expressed in the movie by Newsweek commentator Jonathan Alter.

“It’s very, very important to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time,” Alter says in the film. “Teachers are great, a national treasure. Teachers’ unions are, generally speaking, a menace and an impediment to reform.”

The quality of public education has become a charged topic of late and, in various iterations, Alter’s point is sounded in other education documentaries released this year, including “The Cartel,” written and directed by Bob Bowdon, and “The Lottery,” by director Madeleine Sackler and cinematographer Wolfgang Held.

Paramount Pictures’ “Waiting for Superman” portrays five students from around the country, including Los Angeles, and their parents’ efforts to gain admission into a charter school: Four are minority students seeking to flee or avoid lousy, traditional, urban public schools; one white girl wants to escape a mediocre suburban high school that isn’t adequately preparing her for college.

Over ahi tuna salads at a downtown L.A. cafe, an earnest Guggenheim said his goal is to spread responsibility among “all the adults” for pervasive problems in education. He includes himself, a parent who drives past three public schools on the way to his children’s private school.

“I’m tough on the Democratic Party,” he said. “I’m tough on the centralized system of bureaucrats. And the lip service you get from all politicians. And I’m tough on the unions.”

He also concedes: “The union thing … screams the loudest in the movie.”

With solid writing, strong storytelling, persuasive graphics and clever animation, Guggenheim portrays how difficult it is to fire a bad teacher, how resistant unions are to reforms and how the “dance of the lemons” allows ineffective teachers to move from school to school.


He portrays Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, as a bulwark against reform, an interesting choice given that some union stalwarts worry that Weingarten has given away the store to anti-union reformers. Weingarten has worked with both Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York City and the Obama administration. She’s also encouraged her locals to make standardized test scores part of teacher evaluations, something unthinkable for a union leader not long ago.

In public forums, Weingarten has characterized the film as a powerful, well-intentioned narrative that ultimately misleads in myriad ways. For one thing, she said, it overlooks research suggesting that charters, some of which have substantial philanthropic support, are performing no better than traditional schools overall.

(All the players in the education reform wars tend to cite research that aligns with their views.)

In an interview, Weingarten said she wonders why every desirable school in the film is a charter school. Charters are publicly funded free schools, but privately owned and independently operated. Most are non-union.

Guggenheim responded that he tried unsuccessfully to film at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, a well-regarded magnet school. There are competing versions — from the movie team and L.A. Unified — regarding why this didn’t happen. Guggenheim did film at five other L.A. Unified sites.

Charters worked especially well for Guggenheim because the most popular ones are oversubscribed and select students through public lotteries, which become the film’s dramatic climax.


“All the good schools are charter schools not because I think all good schools are charter schools, but because those are the ones that have a lottery, and I knew the lottery was a central metaphor,” Guggenheim said.

A lottery has but a few winners and Guggenheim said he wants to push his audience to demand excellent schools for everyone, not just a lucky few. Lotteries also are the symbolic touchstones in “The Cartel” and, not surprisingly, “The Lottery.”

“Superman’s” adult heroine is Michelle Rhee, the 40-year-old schools superintendent in Washington, D.C., who, in the film, describes her district’s schools as “crappy.” Rhee is shown cleaning house: firing bad teachers and bad principals alike. At one point the union outmaneuvers a Rhee reform and an almost tearful Rhee rides into the night to a sadly dramatic score. But the film makes clear she won’t succumb to the forces battling her.

Perhaps the film’s most newsworthy moment is the brief screen time of Bill Gates, whose foundation spent $2 billion for a number of reforms that spurred a nationwide push toward smaller high schools. Then his researchers decided small schools weren’t the surest way forward after all.

In the film, Gates extols the best charter schools for sending more than 90% of their students to colleges. But his words are either too imprecise or simply mistaken. The actual stat is that some of the best charters get at least 90% of their seniors accepted to college. For the most part, there is no tracking of how many of a charter’s fifth graders, or even ninth graders, will graduate high school, let alone attend college.

What the best charters seem to do well is take students who were formerly below grade level and create an environment in which they can thrive academically. That’s a substantial accomplishment, but one that doesn’t necessarily translate readily to traditional schools for reasons more complex than union intransigence.


Right or wrong, Gates’ words of today are likely to be the nation’s path tomorrow, as he proved with his small schools initiative.

With his latest, Guggenheim has once again tapped into a crucial issue with a building consensus. He’s found Republicans and Democrats, academics and the Obama administration saying remarkably similar things about how relentless effort along with high academic standards and expectations can finally crack the code for students held back by poverty and other social forces. And a fundamental component of their formula is breaking the perceived stranglehold of unions over work rules that frustrate reform and job protections that sustain bad teachers.

Teacher unions had better get ready to adapt — or else they’d better start making their own films.