New doc Waiting for "Superman" opens a fierce debate about public education 

Lessons of Darkness

Lessons of Darkness

Is the highly touted, heavily publicized documentary Waiting for "Superman" an urgent wake-up call designed to encourage community participation in a public education system needing widespread systematic reform? Or is it a one-sided propaganda piece that casts public schools as disasters, charter schools as rescuers, teachers' unions as impediments to progress, and tenure as the stumbling block to real improvement?

That debate seems likely to play out in cities across the country throughout the fall. It's already stirring some talk in Nashville, where the movie opens this Friday after a series of invitation-only screenings. A full-house premiere at Green Hills Monday night, sponsored by the grass-roots organization Stand for Children, drew Mayor Karl Dean and Metro school board members Michael Hayes, Cheryl Mayes and Kay Simmons — though an impeccably tailored phalanx of representatives from the movie's supporter Microsoft (there to announce an education initiative at the Table 3 afterparty) vastly outnumbered the Metro Council members who even responded to the invitation.

"Every educator needs to see it," says Greg Hutchings, principal of West End Middle School, who attended the screening. "It was unbelievable. I had so many different feelings, from anger to happiness to frustration to concern. I couldn't stop talking about it when I got home."

Nor could Erick Huth, president of the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association — but not for the same reasons. "I think the film is so noxious to the average schoolteacher that they will not see it," says Huth, who saw the film last month at an advance screening and calls it "absolute poppycock."

But Stand for Children's Emily Ogden, who emceed the screening Monday, hopes the film will start a needed discussion on what is and isn't working in public schools, from the use of data in evaluating teachers to the recruitment of dynamic instructors and principals. Embrace it or hate it, the movie may force open a forum on long-simmering facets of the education quagmire, either by inclusion (the effectiveness of charters) or omission (discipline, youth violence).

Directed by Davis Guggenheim, who won an Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for "Superman" intends to do for public education what the Al Gore film did for climate change: provoke a national dialogue about the issue, in hopes of mobilizing public sentiment and activism. It also seems as likely to polarize, if early reaction here is any indication. Lamenting that he betrayed his ideals by sending his kids to private schools — while driving every morning past the public schools he rejected — director Guggenheim profiles children in some of the nation's most catastrophic school systems.

There's Anthony, who lost his daddy to drugs and stands to lose even more given the dismal odds of success in the Washington, D.C., public school system. There's Daisy, smart and driven, who's already inquiring about college admission — but first she'll have to make it through the gauntlet of Los Angeles middle and high schools, where the chances of graduation decline dramatically with each grade. Francisco, in the Bronx, can't even get a parent conference out of his teacher.

The movie takes its title from Harlem educator and reformer Geoffrey Canada, who describes feeling crushed as a child to learn that Superman wouldn't magically swoop in to save everybody in real life. Guggenheim musters every device from cornball educational films to animated maps (whose flags for underperforming "dropout factories" turn the South into a pincushion) to show how students are being failed. There's no less dependable savior in Guggenheim's film than the lottery system, which subjects kids to the ruthless luck of the draw.

To some, such as Huth, the movie furthers the insulting notion that the only good public schools are lottery schools. To others, such as Hutchings, the lure of lottery schools is the part of the movie that rings most painfully true in Nashville.

"I thought about people waiting to get into our school," says Hutchings, whose stewardship of public West End Middle is credited by many with stopping (and even reversing) an exodus of neighborhood kids to private schools. Due to demand, this is West End Middle's first year as a lottery school, Hutchings says, and the school received 450 applicants. It had only 10 slots. As much as anything, he says, he left the movie picturing "the despair and depression on people's faces when their numbers were not called."

The movie has drawn the angriest criticism from teachers' groups, who say Guggenheim uses them as the scapegoat for slipping grades and declining schools. They've got a right to complain. At its attack-ad snarkiest, the movie greets Washington, D.C., reformer Michelle Rhee with the pealing chords of Blondie's "Dreaming" and photographs her like a rock star. Meanwhile, the director evidently couldn't find a single frame that didn't make American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten look like a refugee from the last days of the Nixon White House.

There's little to counteract Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter's contention that "teachers' unions are a menace and an impediment to reform." Instead of showing the countless sacrifices and contributions public school teachers make every day, Huth says — such as spending their own money on supplies or struggling to reach kids in overcrowded classrooms — the movie portrays them as "bumbling fools" while glossing over the actual stats of charter-school success.

Still, Hutchings says, he felt emboldened by the glimpses of successfully functioning charter schools. "Maybe we can try to implement some of those practices," he says. No one at Monday's screening testified more to their effectiveness than Tyriq Langston, a seventh-grader at Nashville charter school LEAD Academy working the event staff.

"It's different from any other of the schools I went to," says Tyriq, who especially loved a recent day where a local chef demonstrated healthy meals. "I like it better because they'll make sure I get it."

If the movie has any real value, school board member Kay Simmons says, it's in raising a needed discussion about America's educational standing in the world — maybe the segment of the film that drew the loudest gasps from Monday's audience. (The U.S. may rank 25th in math, Guggenheim says, but we're No. 1 in thinking we're No. 1.) What the movie doesn't do, Simmons says, is address the "cultural problems" such as teen violence and lack of parental involvement that work against schools.

"A long list of people are trying to get into magnet schools. A long list of people are trying to get into lottery schools," Greg Hutchings says. "They're running from something. We need to figure out what it is."

Stand for Children will host simultaneous public discussions of Waiting for "Superman" at 10 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 23, at the Frothy Monkey coffeehouse in 12South and the East Nashville Portland Brew.


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