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Movie review: ‘Waiting for Superman’

waitingforsuperman102410_optDocumentary has ability to unite liberals and conservatives around need for education reform

BY JOE TYRRELL
NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM
MOVIE REVIEW

With its ability to unite limousine liberals and divine-right conservatives, Davis Guggenheim's education documentary "Waiting for Superman" is particularly timely for New Jersey.

The movie's version of a heroine, Michelle Rhee, is doing an elaborate dance with Gov. Chris Christie, who needs a high-profile replacement for his ousted education Commissioner Bret Schundler.

Having just taken a high dive out the window of her former job as chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools, Rhee is available. She already has Oprah Winfrey's endorsement for Newark school superintendent, but news reports say Rhee is uninterested in a merely lateral move.

Rhee's sudden arrival on the scene in Washington, and her heads-must-roll interactions with teachers and parents, are one of the plots running through Guggenheim's look at the state of education in the United States.

If the name sounds familiar, it was Guggenheim who turned Al Gore's powerpoint presentation into the Oscar-winning "An Inconvenient Truth." He has a high-minded agenda here as well: education in America is in dire straights and needs saving.

Guggenheim knows that because, as he illustrates at the beginning of "Waiting for Superman, he daily drives past three public schools to safely deliver his own kids to a private school.

waitingforsupermanp102410_opt"Waiting for Superman" tracks photogenic youngsters of several racial and ethnic backgrounds, plus their hard-working parents or grandparents, through challenges at schools in primarily poor, urban neighborhoods.

The title comes from Harlem educator and activist Geoffrey Canada's childhood dream that "Superman would come and rescue us." All of the youngsters are compelling, and most face difficult personal circumstances, from a father dead from drugs to a mother falling behind on tuition for a parochial school.

In political circles, "Waiting for Superman" has inspired adulation and outrage for its sotte voce suggestion that superheroes have arrived in the persons of Rhee and Canada, and for its more blatant attack on teachers' unions.

This movie's Lex Luthor is Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, shown rallying her members because no footage was available of her tying children to railroad tracks.

But all that is beside the point. As "Waiting for Superman" plays out, its politics — a sprinkling of selected data stirred into a healthy dose of agit-prop — become steadily less convincing. Instead, the children lead the way.

Yes, the AFT's D.C. branch initially rejected Rhee's plan to do away with teacher tenure. She's shown looking dismayed at a fractious meeting. Not shown: the union subsequently accepted a contract eliminating tenure for one year, leading to widespread firings, and then to reshape the process.

Also not shown, Rhee's predecessor in Washington, Clifford Janney, removed even more teachers, creating more openings than the district could easily fill. Janney is Newark's current lame-duck superintendent, getting the boot from the Christie-Booker-Zuckerberg regime.

Yes, Rhee fired a number of principals, "including the principal of her own children's school," as the movie trumpets. Not mentioned, principal Marta Guzman had turned Oyster-Adams Bilingual Elementary into one of the district's top performers, a National Blue-Ribbon School. The genesis of her firing apparently was a private dinner party Rhee attended at the home of white parents.

A broader spectrum of parents, and even city council members, had no luck finding out how such decisions were made. "I'm not going to pretend to solicit your advice so you'll feel involved, because that's just fake," Rhee told Time magazine.

Although it's certainly not his intention, Guggenheim's camera makes it obvious that the problems facing the kids and their neighborhoods go beyond the schools.

Daisy, a fifth-grader, lives with her immigrant parents in a poor section of Los Angeles. Her father is unemployed. Her mother, who speaks only Spanish, is a hospital janitor. Yet Daisy tells Guggenheim she wants to be a doctor, a nurse or a veterinarian.

When he asks how she made those choices, Daisy says she learned about them by "reading books in the library." That's bad news for kids in Newark and other places where municipal and school libraries are being cut.

One thing Daisy has not heard about, until Guggenheim mentions it, is the lottery to get into a highly regarded charter school. The last reel takes us to some of those public lotteries, where numerous children and parents anxiously await to see if the bouncing balls will give them one of the too-few spots.

Ostensibly a way to ensure the process is open, such lotteries are more of a marketing tool, ratcheting up the hype for charter operators and providing great visuals for documentarians. As for the downtrodden communities, they also ensure that majorities will see their hopes publicly deflated while a handful celebrate. So what else is new?

The problem is that charter schools need help just as much as traditional schools. In general, charter operators have made a laudable effort, with a high proportion serving those poor urban areas that need help. But compared to traditional public schools, more charters fall short than do better.

Some charters succeed, like the Knowledge is Power Program institutions referenced in the movie. Many do not. Many in urban areas cherry-pick students, enrolling fewer classified, poor or children with disabilities than their neighborhood schools.

Last year's report by Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes, covering 16 states, found that among black and Hispanic students, those in charters do "significantly worse" than those in traditional schools.

Meanwhile, miffed that D.C. voters had the temerity to vote against her similarly high-handed patron, Mayor Adrian Fenty, Rhee quickly bailed on her job there. She's doubtless looking for another autocratic sponsor who will encourage her to impose "reforms" without transparency or accountability.

While the adults are unreliable, the children remain ready and willing. If "Waiting for Superman" sparks more interest in actual students like smart, determined Daisy and her classmates, it could prepare the way for a more serious analysis of what works for American schoolchildren. No one has all the answers, but as the movie shows, the children are worthy of the questions.

Joe Tyrrell may be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

 
Comments (7)
7 Friday, 18 March 2011 15:06
Dogman
Wait all you want. Continuously pouring money into something that will ALWAYS be flawed and imperfect will ALWAYS be a waste. Sure it may improve for a while, but as parents, families, or guardians continue to decline into more irresponsible behaviors and values, so also will the success of their children decline. Some of you know exactly what I'm talking about because you take responsibility for your child's education. Even if they attend below average schools, they find a way to succeed, just as kids who attend ABOVE average schools find a way to fail. Get a grip people! You don't even need a school if you teach and raise your child at home like you are supposed to do. Expecting the old government handout from an always corrupted system to GIVE your child a better education, without stepping up to the plate, is unrealistic, irresponsible, and incompetent. The common denominator of success is the home unit that cares enough to do what it takes to make their child succeed, regardless of the circumstances. And guess what?! The common denominator for failure is the home unit that waits for someone else to fix their problems. No school will ever have the ability to raise children in place of a responsible home unit. Education begins there, at home. Without that, you are a classic recipe for failure and you have no one else to blame but yourself.
6 Wednesday, 16 March 2011 09:10
Charles P
This movie is a work of fiction.
Unions are NOT THE ONLY PROBLEM!
Teachers are NOT THE ONLY PROBLEM!
NO ONE EVER BLAMES THE BOSSES-SCHOOL ADMINISTRATORS!!! I Personally have HEARD them BRAG OF THEIR HAVING THEIR OWN SCHOOL MAFIA (crooked run school administration, with teacher/goons to secretly do whatever scams they are told to do)!!!
And let us NOT forget the parents who INTENTIONALLY TELL THEIR KIDS TO CAUSE TROUBLES IN SCHOOL!! Or kids who are taught by parents to INTENTIONALLY BREAK THE LAWS/CHEAT/LIE AND MANIPULATE THEIR WAY THROUGH LIFE!
The WIDESPREAD CORRUPTION in the USA/WORLD CLEARLY AFFECTS OUR SOCIETY, and thus our schools!
And NEW YORK TEACHER UNIONS DID NOT ASK FOR ROOMS TO HOLD TEACHERS WHO ARE ACCUSED OF CRIMES IN THE SCHOOLS!
In the 1970's, they could not find enough teachers to fill all the low paying/dangerous teaching jobs in New York city schools.
School administrators created a special program to put NON CERTIFIED PEOPLE IN THE CLASSES AS TEACHERS!
A LARGE NUMBER GOT CAUGHT DOING BAD THINGS, and OTHERS QUIT BECAUSE OF THE DANGERS/HARD WORK/UNGRATEFUL KIDS/ETC.
SChool administrators WANTED TO FAKE THE NUMBERS, TO PRETEND THAT THEIR SPECIAL TEACHER PROGRAM HAD BEEN A SUCCESS, so they first tried giving these POSSIBLE CRIMINALS CLERICAL/OFFICE JOBS. This was NOT FAIR TO THE REAL TEACHERS, who did NOTHING WRONG AND WERE STILL FORCED TO FACE THE DANGEROUS HOODLUMS WHO WERE THEIR STUDENTS, so they COMPLAINED!
ADMINISTRATORS were NOT GOING TO BE CAUGHT BEING FAILURES, so they CREATED THE HOLDING AREA ROOMS, for accused teachers, SO THEY COULD AGAIN FALSELY CLAIM THAT THESE SPECIAL PROGRAM PEOPLE WERE STILL ON THE JOB (when in the past, they would have been suspended WITHOUT PAY)!!!
Once the administrators claimed their success, and padded their resumes with FAKE CLAIMS OF SUCCESS, the program continued, as NO ONE HAD THE GUTS TO OUT THE LIARS WHO CREATED THE SCAM PROGRAM!!!
5 Tuesday, 26 October 2010 10:34
karenrz
As a prior poster mentioned, the best thing for parents to do is PARENT and monitor what your child is up to in the classroom. Additionally, volunteer at the school if you have the time - be the class parent. Talk to the teacher and other parents of the children in your child's class. Have your child read books and, if they must watch TV, watch educational shows - there are lots of interesting shows on History Channel, National Geographic Channel, etc. - It's not just PBS. And advocate for your child - if he/she is having a problem in math or reading, get them help!
4 Sunday, 24 October 2010 10:58
Former Teacher
I used to be a teacher - in both public and private schools. Are there bad teachers in public school? Yes! Are there bad teachers in private school? Yes! The difference is that parents in private schools will not let ANYTHING stand in the way of their childrens' success. They demand achievement from their children no matter how good or bad their teacher is. They tell them that in college they will encounter horrible professors and they have to learn to deal with it. So when the focus of this educational discussion become parenting, then we will see some change. How do you think that Asian parents produce very successful children no matter what the setting? They push them and the help them and they monitor them. The demand that they succeed.

As a teacher, I had 160 kids to teach. Teach, not raise, I refuse to follow any child home from school and raise them. I have my own kids for whom I am responsible!
3 Sunday, 24 October 2010 09:11
truthfulparent
Where is the "accountability" for...
/> the CIA and other corrupt
govt. & Wall Street-affiliated players
being involved with international drug smuggling
& distribution for decades (!)
-- deliberately inundating
communities & specific neighborhoods with heroin,
cocaine, meth, pills (MDMA/ecstacy), etc.
It is a documented fact that the CIA
& corrupt elements of the U.S. govt.
& freemasons have been involved in large-scale
heroin distribution operations and also
involved in the deliberately induced
crack cocaine epidemic targeting black neighborhoods (for the purposes of social undermining & political-economic control).

Where is the "accountability" for...
/> The 'entertainment' industry
flooding our youth with heinously toxic
& cognitively poisonous VIOLENT VIDEO GAMES
and GANGSTER-THUG GLORIFYING music/videos
that promote
crime, substance abuse, disgusting conduct,
mistreatment & violence against women,
anti-educational achievement,
anti-positive values, anti-professional careers,
anti-healthy, responsible behaviors !

Where is the "accountability" for
self-proclaimed edu-profiteer BILL GATES & MICROSOFT
in producing and promoting VIOLENT, PATHOLOGICAL VIDEO GAMES,
including first-person shooter games, such as HALO !!!??? --
which, unfortunately,
too many of our country's
children, our country's students
heinously waste too much time messing
around with, messing themselves up with --
instead of healthfully, smartly & beneficially using that time
for...
productive experiences, studying, exploring/learning,
participating in sports, teamwork, creative arts & music,
outdoor activities & nature, significant time
with friends & family, or engaging in community service !!!

Where is the accountability for VIACOM
& other media corporations
(eg. instead of the "BET" channel
being utilized for positive,
inspirational, educational or meaningful programming -- it has mostly
broadcast the worst sociopathic, demeaning,
undermining junk -- promoting
gangsterism & exploiting our vulnerable youth
with pernicious mind-killing crap.

FACT! --
Where is the "accountability" for Wall Street
& elite financiers,
such as MERRILL LYNCH and OPPENHEIMER,
previously the MAIN INVESTORS & SHAREHOLDERS
owning majority stock in the company
("Take Two Interactive, Inc.")
that produced the 'GRAND THEFT AUTO' video game
as its main product !!!

Also, what about the corporate soda-pop
& junk food pushers targeting children ?!

- - - - - - -

The reality is that ethical, caring, and dedicated
public school teachers have been the
'good samaritans' courageously
teaching with tremendous effort daily
to educate & constructively help chidren --
to transcend, overcome hardship,
to cultivate wellbeing & achievement --
despite the grotesque obstacles
& destruction foisted on us by
irresponsible, unscrupulous, rapacious and
duplicitous corporate execs. & financial elites,
(societally-sabotaging/damaging,
corrupt oligarchs, such as GOLDMAN SACHS,
J.P. MORGAN (ROTHSCHILD) scamsters, et. al.
who've caused millions of chidren & families to be homeless.

- - - - - - -

The vile HYPOCRISY of..... MICROSOFT,
VIACOM, Kaplan Testing/Test prep. corp.,
Rupert Murdoch,
WALL STREET BANKSTERS,
Hedge Fund scamsters
(these wannabe edu-privateers
lusting for corporate welfare $$$ from taxpayers)
STINKS !!!


===============================
2 Sunday, 24 October 2010 08:38
John R.
I am a Republican and live in an affluent suburb where my three daughters have all enjoyed a first-class public education. When I was a child, I went to small town schools in Ohio and Florida where I lived with my lower-middle class family and also got a good education for which I am grateful. Like Guggenheim, I feel guilty that there are many kids today who have no chance for a good education...this is not excusable. When I look at the politics, I get very frustrated. The Democrats support education by protecting the unions, and the Republicans, whose children generally have good public schools, ignore the problem. This problem belongs to all of us, and if a movie like this can generate some passion for action, then it is a terrific piece of work.
1 Saturday, 23 October 2010 21:50
larry
I came away from this movie with sincerely mixed emotions. Whatever Mr Canada is doing ,for God's sake let him keep doing it, and get more people to help him do it. Spread his message across America. As far as Michelle Rhee is concerned she appears to have more courage than all our so called leaders in Government. After watching the segment on the teachers waiting for their cases to be heard while they sleep, read the paper, or whatever and do this while collecting their salaries and benefits is beyond outrageous. It's convincing me the inmates truly are running the asylum. Are we becoming the dinosaurs of our own time? If this country doesn't start seriously investing in the education of children from whatever social strata they come from, we are going to be left in the dust of the technological world. Pray this country is wise and courageous enough to rid America of the Edsel's of education and allow the forward thinking young minds to take over.My skeptical nature tells me it may be too late. For the sake of those kids, and the millions more not seen in this movie, I hope I am wrong.

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