ASBJ editor’s review: “Waiting for Superman” oversimplifies education reform

So was it worth the wait?

The highly anticipated documentary “Waiting for Superman” opened today in New York and Los Angeles, boosted by unanimous raves, an hour-long Oprah special, and buzz by film critics nationwide. Davis Guggenheim’s new film, which rolls out nationwide in October, also is expected to get another bump from NBC’s “Education Nation” summit next week.

The theater was almost full at a 10:55 a.m. showing in one of the two New York theatres playing the film, and the 7:30 p.m. showing already was sold out at the Lowes Lincoln Square 13. Interest was so high, in fact, that a second theater was added during the early showing.

From an entertainment standpoint, and thanks to an almost unparalleled marketing campaign, Guggenheim has ramped up the debate about our nation’s public schools in a way that the best films do. He hitches the narrative to sympathetic, interesting characters and draws them into a sort of good vs. evil battle with the highest stakes of all — the education of our children. But in doing so, he also misses the mark.

By casting teachers, and more specifically, teachers unions as the film’s villains, Guggenheim goes for an easy target. Examples of school boards and traditional administrators are shown in films made in the 1950s and ’60s. And while the brush is not quite broad enough to paint charter schools as the be-all, end-all for public education — only 17 percent of charters perform significantly better than their traditional public counterparts — the only success stories shown in the film are charters.

Guggenheim’s case is boosted by five adorable children — all with loving, sincere parents who are seeking admission to high-performing charter schools via a lottery. Innovative, charismatic reformers — Geoffrey Canada, who provides the source of the title, and Michelle Rhee, the controversial Washington, D.C., chancellor — are without question upheld as the heroes.

You can’t help but feel for these families as the lottery balls drop, and knowing the outcome in advance — I won’t spoil it for you here, but needless to say it’s not a fairy tale — makes the inevitable ending all the more heartbreaking.

As the credits roll, Guggenheim notes that, “The problem is complex but the steps are simple.” And that’s my biggest beef with his movie. By failing to properly outline the complexities found in our public schools, he also has done a disservice to viewers who are being called into action. In the end, nuance is all but lost in the interest of drama.

Given the publicity tsunami behind “Waiting for Superman,” you can’t help but wonder whether it will resonate with the vast populace. A $40 million gross for a documentary is considered huge, compared to the $100 million that fictional films must make to be considered as blockbusters.

If anything, one hopes that all of the coordinated publicity around public education will result in some significant conversations about what can be done to improve our nation’s schools.

-Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief, American School Board Journal

Joetta Sack-Min|September 25th, 2010|Categories: School Board News, School Reform|Tags: |


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