Film Review: The Inconvenient Truths of ‘Waiting for Superman’

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BY PATRICK B. MCGUIGANBack in the day, at The Oklahoman, a certain prominent Democratic politician took his children each day to the same Catholic school the McGuigan children attended. Once, a fellow commentator wanted to accuse that leader of hypocrisy for putting his children in a private school. I defended him, telling colleagues, “He is not a hypocrite. He is a father.”

And yet, it’s hard to disagree with the straight-forward argument that the poor deserve the same level of choice as the well-to-do. There are available many models, public and private, of effective urban education.

The powerful and emotional motion picture documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” is full of inconvenient truths. The documentary was developed by none-other-than Davis Guggenheim, who made the Oscar-winning film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” with former President Al Gore.


This time, Guggenheim’s message is not the formulaic of global warming, but the fundamental flaws that afflict modern American public education. The film demonstrates that many (and in some cities, most) urban public schools are “dropout factories” from which few students escape with dreams alive and/or with adequate skills for the modern workforce, let alone for contemporary higher education.

As Guggenheim admits with blunt integrity early in this story he tells so brilliantly, he decided to produce “Superman” after reaching the conclusion that the only good Los Angeles school for his children near where he lived was private.

If Guggenheim is the unseen narrative adult hero of this “Superman,” the on-screen center of gravity is Geoffrey Canada, the revolutionary (and often self-deprecating) educator who has developed a cluster of effective charter schools in Harlem. Yes, Canada’s face “looks” like Harlem.

It is Canada whose poignant childhood memories of Superman provide the basis for the title, and for Guggenheim’s deft use of a cultural touchstone, in the form of a brief segment lifted from the original television series about the classic superhero.

The film’s adult heroine is Michelle Rhee, a brave Asian-American who labored mightily, in the face of vitriol and spite, to reform public education in Washington, D.C.

The villains? Well, the national president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) makes a pretty good one in this film. With bracing and bold humor, Guggenheim illustrates and documents the annual “dance of the lemons” in which public school administrators pass from one school to the next the worst teachers who, due to union rules, cannot be fired.

What makes this all so sad is an inconvenient truth not quite explicitly made clear in the film: The National Education Association is a much greater impediment to quality and needed transformation than the AFT.

The victims in the story? Without a doubt, they are the children and parents whose heartache and near-despair propels the narration, who move mountains and beseech Heaven for an affordable and rational school in which to build a better future. These victims become, before our eyes, heroes through simple and magnificent perseverance.

It’s not said or written as often as in days of yore, but in this case the old  mantra fits: If you don’t see any other film this year, make it “Waiting for Superman.” It may be the most important American film thus far produced in the Twenty-First Century. It holds forth the possibility that American education can be refashioned based on models that work, and through teachers who teach.

The National Chamber Foundation, an arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is on a 12-city tour of the United States. The group is sponsoring a showing of “Waiting for Superman” this Thursday (November 18) at 2:30 p.m. at the film’s Oklahoma City “home,” the AMC Quail Springs (2501 W. Memorial Road).

A panel discussion after the showing will feature the incoming state Superintendent of Public Instruction, Janet Barresi, a founder of two charter schools in Oklahoma City. Also on the panel will be Tracy McDaniel of KIPP Academy, Bill Price of the Oklahoma School Choice Coalition, Ed Allen of the city chapter of the American Federation of Teachers (AFL-CIO), David Blatt of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, and Phyllis Hudecki of the Oklahoma Business and Education Coalition.

The panel will be moderated by the State Chamber’s Fred Morgan. Co-sponsors of the showing include the Business and Education Coalition, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and Blatt’s group, OK Policy.

Rep. Jabar Shumate of Tulsa observed at a forum last month, sponsored by Inasmuch Foundation and the Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools, that one of the heroine’s of the “Superman” film, Michelle Rhee, no longer is working as superintendent of schools in Washington, D.C.

Shumate, a black Democrat who has emerged as a fearless advocate of the kind of reforms advanced in the “Superman” film, says real reforms in Oklahoma will require “an all hands on deck approach.”

Ed Allen said at that panel last month “the union took hits in this film, and deservedly so.” He pledged his local would “be part of the solution, not the problem.” He said, “We will do what it takes.” Allen was involved in historic negotiations at U.S. Grant High School that led to the departure of roughly half the failing school’s teacher pool.

Another speaker at that Inasmuch forum was Carol Kelley, the principal at Harding Charter High School, one of the institutions Barresi guided.

After that panel, Shumate reflected: “There is no Superman. He’s not coming to save the day. But the people in this room are Supermen. They have to do what’s right.”

“The Lottery” documentary, shown at the Oklahoma Museum of Art last month, shows the true stories of several minority children and their families who, desperate for better education, work and study hard at highly-challenged regular public schools or, in one case, a private school. They pin all their hopes on admission to the Harlem Success Academy.

In “The Lottery,” only one child initially makes it to a good school, although a second youngster gets a later shot at a better experience. 
At the art museum, Price stressed the need to get rid of tenure and “trial de novo” for dismissed teachers, a reform the local union says is under consideration. Dr. Barresi recounted Harding Charter’s “no excuses” themes.

You get the idea: “Waiting for Superman” is no game of chance. Along with a handful of other powerful cultural currents, it carries ideas whose time has come.

At least in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, the atmosphere for broader choice is here, with advocacy of new charters and more elements of full-scale access to quality, including private schools. If such reform is not forthcoming, it would be no surprise if charter schools start to look like a comparatively moderate approach to public school problems.

Writing this week for The Wall Street Journal online, David Feith predicts charter schools, merit pay and other issues of the day are just the beginning. He contends a new fault line is the “parent trigger.”

As he reports, “The average student in Los Angeles has only a 50% chance of graduating high school and a 10% chance of attending college.” A liberal group called “Parent Revolution” asserts that’s a crisis. They want, in the words of activist Ben Austin, “an unabashed and unapologetic transfer of raw power from the defenders of the status quo”— education officials and teachers unions — “to the parents.” Remember, that comes from a self-identified liberal.

The parent trigger passed into law in sunny California in January, and will allow parents to form new charter schools if 51% of the parents in a failing public school petition for forcible transformation.

Unions, led by the California Federation of Teachers, call this a “lynch mob provision.” A similar not-quite-as-radical law has passed in Connecticut, and legislators in five states — Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey and West Virginia — told Feith they planned to unveil similar measures soon.

Feith reflects, “The growing popularity of parent trigger challenges the common assertion that schools fail primarily because they serve apathetic families. Like charter-school lotteries bursting with thousands of parents and students, trigger drives demonstrate that legions of parents actively reject their children’s failing schools. The national spread of parent trigger will also demonstrate how the campaign for choice in education — once a predominantly conservative and Republican interest — has gone bipartisan.”

One national activist for the parent trigger put it this way:  “We can wait for Superman, or recognize that Superman is us.”

In 1994, after a rough couple of years as president, some people wanted to write Bill Clinton’s political obituary when Republicans seized control of the U.S. House for the first time in nearly a half-century. Then, Clinton reinvented himself, embracing ideas he had once eschewed, including welfare reform.

The rest is history. Not only was Clinton re-elected, he went on, despite his personal problems, to highlight welfare reform as one of his presidency’s most notable achievements.

Clinton’s advocacy of welfare reform might have been cynical, but there does not seem to be cynicism in Obama’s embrace of a few strong education reform ideas. He wants to increase the number of charter schools, for starters.

Recently, he has spent time with the children and parents portrayed so powerfully and compassionately in “Waiting for Superman.” Maybe the president was planning for the future. Maybe he was just being nice. Time will tell.

Obama will be looking for ways to assure his own relevancy in a national political environment in which his harshest critics prevailed, at least for now. If he’s serious about that bipartisanship he touted in 2008, but which seemed to drop into the memory hole in a race to the Left in 2009-10, it’s hard to imagine a better place to start than with school choice.

This is the one substantive policy area where he and most Republicans pretty much agree, yet where he has a respectable Democratic base scattered around America.

Make no mistake: The future will bring broader choice and an insistence on proven strategies in public schools. Reform will not again be denied. Obama can jump to the head of the parade, or stay on the sidelines.

It’s up to him.  School choice could save the Obama presidency. Call it another inconvenient truth.

About the Author: Patrick B. McGuigan is the editor of CapitolBeatOK, an online news service, and senior editor at The City Sentinel, a weekly newspaper in Oklahoma City. He is a certified school teacher, and taught two years at Justice Alma Wilson Seeworth Academy, a public charter alternative school based in east Oklahoma City. He is the author of several hundred news articles and commentaries on American education.