Taking aim at ‘Waiting for Superman’

Posted by · 8:55 am · November 3rd, 2010

When I saw Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman” at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June, I noted that “the film casts a broad net when it would have been something more as a focused study” and that “modest stretching to make the point” dilutes the overall impact of the film.  However, I also made it clear that while not entirely successful as a work of art, it’s certainly worth applauding as a work of activism.

Well, Diane Ravitch at The New York Review of Books isn’t nearly as forgiving.  In a piece called “The Myth of Charter Schools,” Ravitch takes Guggenheim’s film to the cleaners, attacking its depiction of charter schools and denouncing privatized education as the answer to a struggling public school system.  She also mentions similar docs released this year — “The Cartel” and “The Lottery” — but mainly, Ravitch dives into the facts and figures to disassemble seemingly every frame of Guggenheim’s film.

Highlighting unsavory real estate deals, embezzlement and blurred lines between church and state, among other concerns with charter schools, Ravitch really takes the gloves off when it comes to what she views as essentially propaganda in the film.  “Why propound to an unknowing public the myth that charter schools are the answer to our educational woes, when the filmmaker knows that there are twice as many failing charters as there are successful ones,” she asks.

She also takes aim at the near deification of Geoffrey Canada, whose story is a wonderful one but also isn’t fully disclosed.  Writes Ravitch:

Guggenheim didn’t bother to take a close look at the heroes of his documentary. Geoffrey Canada is justly celebrated for the creation of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which not only runs two charter schools but surrounds children and their families with a broad array of social and medical services. Canada has a board of wealthy philanthropists and a very successful fund-raising apparatus. With assets of more than $200 million, his organization has no shortage of funds. Canada himself is currently paid $400,000 annually. For Guggenheim to praise Canada while also claiming that public schools don’t need any more money is bizarre. Canada’s charter schools get better results than nearby public schools serving impoverished students. If all inner-city schools had the same resources as his, they might get the same good results.

She further accuses Guggenheim of skirting the issue of poverty “by showing only families that are intact and dedicated to helping their children succeed,” vis a vis a public “lottery” held to determine which students would be enrolled in charter schools, and really makes her point clear early in the piece by asserting that “Guggenheim presents the popularized version of an account of American public education that is promoted by some of the nation’s most powerful figures and institutions.”

To be perfectly honest, I’m surprised it took this long for a hit piece along these lines to land.  You knew it was coming, because the film simply plays too loose and simplistic with data (as I noted in a small example five months ago).  It’s a kumbaya moment waiting to be shot down, a balloon waiting to be popped by reality above lofty (and skewed) rhetoric.

Education is a concern.  The dialogue should be opened up and I think Guggenheim’s film does that to an extent.  But obviously focusing strictly on reform and not paying attention to peripheral concerns in a child’s life is unwise — not to mention the inherent danger in generalization and fudged facts in order to make a point, however profound.  All involved left themselves open to Ravitch and her ilk.

Geoffrey Canada, by the way, was recently featured on Late Night with David Letterman.  Here’s that appearance:

[Photo: Paramount Pictures]

→ 14 Comments Tags: , , , , | Filed in: Daily

14 responses so far

  • 1 11-03-2010 at 9:06 am

    Michael said...

    I thought it was a little too good to be true. The movie just had this quality about it that made it easy to go along with while watching, and it wasn’t until later where I had to stop myself to ask what it was I had actually taken away from the film. As you mentioned, the state of the Education system is a worthy subject for a documentary, and slanting it in the way of calling for reform maybe a little one-sided but is commendable that someone is trying to fight for what they feel is good. I think what was missing was some balance or some other possible solutions for helping the Education system, and focusing on fewer subjects (with such similar circumstances.)

  • 2 11-03-2010 at 9:08 am

    Michael said...

    As for awards contention – I still think this movie has a really good shot at being nominated, but I do know every year there are some major players in that category that are snubbed so maybe a film that is questioned as much as this might not get in after all.

  • 3 11-03-2010 at 9:30 am

    Ken said...

    I have numerous problems with these criticisms. She basically assigns certain motives to the film that were NOT PRESENT. The film did not say or imply that charter schools were a solution. It was pointed out – clearly – by Guggenheim that many charter schools aren’t working. What Guggenheim instead argued is that ‘we need to look at what these schools are doing that is working, and turning around these urban areas.’

    The reason that he showed functional families is to demonstrably point out that EVEN WITH supportive families, these kids were still screwed. It’s such a common argument that the driving problem is parental involvement, and this movie was arguing against that.

    And by the way, the Harlem Children Zone not only can be replicated, it WILL be replicated. Obama has pledged to create 20 more of them across the country.

    I agree with your general criticism that a movie/documentary is far too short of a canvas to address the full problems…something like a 12 hour miniseries would probably do the trick. But again, I think you are confusing the point of the movie…it’s basically to get the conversation started, to get the ball rolling. When I saw the movie (in a theater with a lot of teachers), there was tons of discussion after the movie. THAT is the point!

    I really, really, really think this should be nominated for Best Picture. And I probably could type pages more about this movie, but I’ve already typed too much!

  • 4 11-03-2010 at 9:33 am

    Faith said...

    I don’t remember the film ever suggesting that public schools don’t NEED any more money. But money, or lack thereof, isn’t the only problem. Ravitch is right, the film barely mentions that most charter schools fail, and lotteries benefit parents who are active in their children’s lives and who will put out the extra effort to make sure their children are educated. But the film has merit as a call to action to change the system as we know it. And it tells the stories of these kids very well. No documentary can answer every question and solve every problem; and no one should expect that. But “Superman” has engaged folks in conversations about this important issue, including people who hate the film. That’s a win in my book.

  • 5 11-03-2010 at 9:41 am

    Ken said...

    Thanks for posting that interview, by the way. Canada is a really inspiring figure…check out the 60 Minutes piece on him.

    Employing just a tiny bit of hyperbole, if you had an Academy screening, and had this guy speak for 10 minutes, the whole room would put this in the top 10….but I mean really, if The Blind Side can get nominated, it’s just a matter of getting AMPAS butts in seats for this film.

  • 6 11-03-2010 at 9:51 am

    Loyal said...

    I saw the film several months ago in a 1000 seat theatre full of educators. Does it work? Not entirely. There’s no real call to action and like Ravitch’s points out, Guggenheim plays fast and loose with the facts.

    Does it deserve to be nominated for Best Documentary? Sure, if for no other reason than it’s a conversation starter. While I didn’t love the film, I admire what it tried to do. If you really want to an interesting look at America’s education system, I’d recommend Guggenheim’s other documentary The First Year.

  • 7 11-03-2010 at 10:05 am

    Alex C. said...

    I thought Guggenheim too great measures to point out that it wasn’t ALL charter schools that were successful.

    These criticisms are basically like saying there is no problem with the economy because only 10% of people are unemployed, not 20%. The problem is there and Guggenheim offers some well-researched and thoughtful solutions.

  • 8 11-03-2010 at 10:45 am

    Maxim said...

    While watching the interview with Canada (who seems like a good man) I came across a moment when he said “we need to create a system where success will be rewarded and failure eliminated”.
    I was struck by the realization that this was exactly the kind set-up that prevented less gifted kids from advancing.

    Now I know Canada was talking in different context but at the point he already lost me. His absolutism, while admirable and beneficial for his students is not the solution for America’s educational problems. Charter schools are still territorial. Instead of looking for innovation in charter schools where there is absolutely no guarantee that they will be ran by someone nearly as dedicated, and the wide-ranging differences of which would do nothing but further divide the population we have got fix and innovate that wounded workhorse that is the American Public School System.

    It is amazing to me that there is no one among those spewing out data to suit their own causes who is willing to present all of it. Yes, United States is not doing that well compared to other developed countries. But why not acknowledge that among those countries.

    we have a precedent in that, just as we do in the fact that public schools where the institutions that educated and helped put us on the map in the frst place? Why are we so quick to abandon them now?

    Returning to that quote I presented earlier, just because something isn’t working now does not mean it should be nixed. Why not look why it stopped producing results. Or just, you know, use common sense and channel a little more love (money, care, professionalism) in that direction?

    I would like to point out that true innovation is nothing more that an experiment that succeeded. The other side of that, of course is that not every experiment gurantees success, and, forive me for saying this, I do not think we can afford to experiment with kids, no matter what their current status. It’s like saying that there is a superman who will rescue them only to later reveal that there was a beuracrat or a bussinessman behind this mask all along.

    And, forgive me again, but superman is such a victimizingly patronizing word when used in the title of the movie. What innovation can there be without at least a touch of personal drive? We see it in Mr. Canada who beat the odds despite his dreary circumstances. Now I know that his story cannot be repeated infinitely but my point is that, originally superman was meant to inspire too.

    Look at the amazing growth community colleges are undergoing right now. Now that access and enrollment have increased (doubled?) these places are burdened with additional task of fixing the holes in education that public schools have left behind. There is no knowing what a student may or may not know. At least with increased access (and prestige) more students will believe they will have a place to go after high school and this should make them pay more attention. And what more can we really desire from them? The ball is the court of legislators.

    We have seen what privatized healthcare has done for our national rankings in that area, and, most importantly, the people. It’s a jungle out there. Let’s not put any more children in that kind of environment.

  • 9 11-03-2010 at 11:26 am

    Maxim said...

    Seems like an important part of one of the sentences got cut off. It should read:

    “But why not acknowledge that among those countries that are doing better, most are achieving their results through public schools too.”

  • 10 11-03-2010 at 11:42 am

    the other mike said...

    that was a hit piece alright. so predictable these days. why cant we be happy for the next man. crabs in a barrell ish,

  • 11 11-03-2010 at 11:42 am

    Silencio said...

    Yeah, I read that a little while ago and thought it was brilliant. I wasn’t going to see it anyway since I already work in public school and know what he’s talking about, but especially now.

  • 12 11-03-2010 at 3:04 pm

    Lance said...

    Watch season 4 of “The Wire” to get an idea of the problems in our education system.

  • 13 11-03-2010 at 3:17 pm

    Lance said...

    I hate how this movie blames teachers and makes them look as if they are doing a terrible job. In this movie they compare America to countries that don’t have the same poverty issues. If you take out the scores from poverty students, America does just as well – so are our teachers performing that poorly? No, it’s just impossible to teach students that live in neighborhoods where education means nothing to them. Some people say we need to do better – well let them try out a few classes in the worst neighborhoods in the world. Let them teach a class where students only get one meal a day. Let them teach students who think they’ll be dead before the age of 25. It’s a lot harder than they think.

  • 14 11-03-2010 at 3:26 pm

    Alex said...

    Now that we know that Davis Guggenheim misrepresented facts in Waiting For Superman, who knows what is true in An Inconvenient Truth!!!!