Looking for Thoughts on Waiting for Superman

Last week I finally saw Waiting for “Superman,” and I found it both compelling and suspect.  As a post-secondary Canadian teacher, I find myself unable to evaluate the validity of the questions posed or the answers suggested by this film.  Are charter schools the answer to the US’s educational woes?  (Or ours?)  Will merit pay really support great teaching and learning?  Is tenure for schoolteachers a bad, bad, bad idea?

I have seen commentary on all these questions in blogs and American news, but because I’m not familiar with the system, a lot of it is beyond my understanding.  American teachers (or anyone who knows something about American schools), can you help me out here in language I can understand?  If you’ve seen the film, what do you think of it?  If you haven’t, have you encountered the filmmakers’ mission statements and action plans?  Are they valid?  Feasible?  If not, what are they missing?  What  are your feelings about Michelle Rhee and her move to overhaul the Washington DC school system?  Is Geoffrey Canada a revolutionary hero?  Tell me what to think, I beg you.


19 thoughts on “Looking for Thoughts on Waiting for Superman

  1. I found the film misleading. Normal public schools take all comers and must do their best to integrate everyone into the same classrooms. Charter schools are highly selective and may turn down whoever they wish, simplifying their educational tasks enormously. Also, given the difficulty (as shown in the movie) of getting into many charter schools, only the most motivated parents get it done. Public schools in the same neighborhoods have parental and student apathy as a serious hurdle.

    The tenure system in some states is (as depicted in the movie) highly abusive in the lengths it goes to to protect every job, no matter how little the individual deserves it. Tenure in other states is arranged differently, so bad teachers can be fired for cause if evidence is reasonably presented. I’m not a fan of tenure in general, but it’s not as bad as the movie makes it out to be.

    Neither is merit pay as good as the movie would have you believe. In those very special schools, the effort put into evaluating teachers by many pathways and by repeat samplings is evident. In such cases, I love the idea of merit pay! However, when it’s brought up in most cases, the plan is to simply use student scores on a single high-stakes standardized test to judge the teacher. The huge variability in teacher outcomes from one year to the next makes it quite clear this approach is entirely useless.


    1. Jeanne:
      Thank you so much for all your thoughtful comments! Some of what you say here reflects my own impressions as well. I work in a tenure-based post-secondary (but not university) system, and it is both problematic and helpful. It protects lazy, incompetent teachers, but it also gives good, responsible teachers the freedom and security to do their jobs happily and well. We are paid based on work experience and scholarity, not “merit,” but the fact is that more schooling and experience often do make for better teachers, even if this is not always the case. Would a perfect system work differently? Of course, but I can’t imagine what that system would look like. Thanks so much for weighing in on this! I too feel that the film is misleading in that it oversimplifies a lot of complicated questions.


  2. I have not seen the film, so I am only giving input based on your comments. Teacher tenure is a non-issue that has become the BIG issue when people bash public schools. No bad teacher has tenure. A bad teacher can be fired. Good teachers want the bad teachers fired, but they don’t have the ability to do the hiring and firing. The administration has to have the balls to take a stand for the students. I have never seen a teacher’s union support a bad teacher. Bad teachers know they are bad and don’t ask for union support anyway. Just some of my thoughts on this….thanks for writing about it!


    1. And thanks for replying! I need to do more investigation into the tenure situation; thanks for giving your thoughts.


  3. Charter schools are not highly selective. That myth is perpetuated by “educators” trying to explain away their failure to teach, especially compared to the outstanding success of charter schools. Arizona Revised Statute (ARS) 15-184 clearly states: “A charter school shall enroll all eligible pupils who submit a timely application, unless the number of applications exceeds the capacity of a program, class, grade level or building…a charter school shall not limit admission based on ethnicity, national origin, gender, income level, disabling condition, proficiency in the English language or athletic ability.” Charter schools often have an entrance exam, but only to put the students in the appropriate grade.

    As to tenure, do a Google search and you will quickly find numerous examples of school districts with bad teachers who are paid to show up because there is no effective way to fire them, thanks to strong teacher’s unions. Tenure was originally established to protect the right of teachers to present unpopular opinions. It was never intended to protect the incompetent, which is how it has evolved.


    1. Bruce:
      There was a very interesting article in the NYT magazine in April which in part discusses the challenges that public schools face but that charter schools are able to dispense with:


    2. Bruce: I am a huge fan of public schools and believe that (most) students receive a well rounded education from these institutions. I grew up in a town where a church had started a charter school system. They would have families wait outside all night to get their children enrolled in the program. The charter schools experienced a huge increase in enrollment in the last 5 years, but recently enrollment has slowed, because of lack of electives and poor teachers.
      I have not seen the movie, but I believe that it is not a certain type of school that will save us. It will be great teachers and PARENTS who are stepping up to make sure students get the best education.


  4. I’m rather dubious of merit pay, mostly because I have yet to see an effective system come up with that accounts for the particular students in a classroom. I have a friend that works entirely with special needs students, and she gets nervous about merit systems for this very reason: she hasn’t heard any ideas that would account for her students particular issues when evaluating her teaching (and from what I have seen and heard of what she does, she is quite good).

    The systems I have heard of that might work are not really ever followed, either. Public schools depend on large tests to assess performance, universities depend on student reviews based on multiple choice ratings, etc., rather than actual reviews from co-teachers or administrators. Having an actual education professional giving you a performance review could be subject to issues, of course, but it would be better than things being dependent on large tests (especially when student performance can vary so widely despite the teacher: I teach multiple sections of two writing classes in college, and classes can perform completely differently, even though I teach them all in mostly the same way and with the same assignments).

    Student reviews are also pointless because of how biased students are, and their perspective. One of the questions my university’s review asks students to answer is “Would you recommend this teacher to another student?” I’m still astonished at the idiocy of this question. The group who came up with it probably thought it was asking students a qualitative question about the teacher’s ability. However, students often recommend teachers at a college based on how easy they are: many students flat out state this, and the presence of “rate my professor” sites show this as well.

    I don’t ignore all my student feedback, but you really do have to separate out the chaff that think I gave them a B “because he doesn’t appreciate my writing style.” Any merit system would have to account for all of these issues, and I haven’t seen one that can do it well.


    1. Neal:
      Your comment about special needs students is an excellent one. How do we account for student improvement/learning and not raw test scores? If a teacher takes eighth-grade students who read at a third-grade level and moves them up to a sixth-grade level, will that teacher’s achievements be recognized? And I agree that student reviews are difficult to interpret – they can be helpful, but we need to learn how to read them skillfully!


  5. I thought that this movie, while possibly over-simplistic (including in its assumption that if you just got to university, your life was made), was very positive in that it was thought-provoking and pushed us to a realization of just how bad our education system is. (Canada’s score was just one above the US in terms of standardized testing to compare with other countries, i.e. we are not that much up the totem pole from them.)

    I don’t think the point was whether charter schools could fix the problem in and of themselves, I think the point was that in schools where educators believe that students can learn, students who have performed below grade level–in school districts where the majority of students are performing below grade level–can improve those scores. Therefore, what charter schools can do is act as models to debunk the myth that the problem is in the students themselves (their social problems, their lack of support at home, etc.), and that notion can cross-fertilize back into the mainstream school system…if the mainstream system is willing to hear it.

    My question upon viewing the film was, what’s going on in the education programs in our universities, where teachers are trained? Is their training sufficient and is it directed in the way it should be for best results for most students?

    As a parent of a child in elementary school, I’ve learned that the teacher has a huge impact on the child’s experience of school and on what they learn there. As well, I’ve learned that there is no feedback system for teachers to learn to better their craft (and, in fact, that some very good teachers with good teaching techniques, are discouraged from using them because they are not ‘in vogue’, such as phonics for teaching reading).

    This movie made me want to participate more in the education system (where to start, is still the question), made me want to see communities demanding a better outcome for our students–not strictly in terms of average scores on standardized tests, but in terms of achieving an educated, informed population, and whether students’ learning prepares them for a world in ecological crisis.


    1. Brogan:
      “…what charter schools can do is act as models to debunk the myth that the problem is in the students themselves (their social problems, their lack of support at home, etc.), and that notion can cross-fertilize back into the mainstream school system…if the mainstream system is willing to hear it.”

      This strikes me as a good summary of one of the points the movie drives home, and a very positive one at that.

      One thing that strikes me, though, is that, beyond training, the accomplishments of charter schools require a level of commitment from teachers that is beyond what many teachers (ie. human beings) can offer over the long term.

      My understanding of the KIPP system, for example, is that teachers not only spend very long hours at school (longer even than public school teachers) but are expected to basically be on call at all times. When I was a fresh young teacher I had the energy necessary for that kind of investment, but I’m not sure I could do it now – I’m middle-aged and have duties at home that require as much energy as my work responsibilities. Is it possible for teachers to commit to charter schools over the long term without burning out and becoming ineffective? Do the rewards outweigh the sacrifices? Maybe others have thoughts on this?


  6. I know I am late on this, but I have a lot to say about charter schools.
    1. They can’t be the new model because their mission isn’t to educate every student-their mission is to educate students who want to be educated-this isn’t public education-it’s publically funded private education. Worse, as a whole, they tend to do no better or worse than a regular public school. Also, charter schools tend be self-segregating-I don’t know, have we given up on the idea of multicultural education and integration?
    2. Tenure is important. I know that there’s problems with the tenure system-but it’s the only thing that protects a good teacher from a bad administrator. Tenured teachers are the ones who are usually more politically active, more involved in the union, more willing to address serious issues at school sites. If you remove tenure, you remove the teacher’s ability to take an active role in decision making . As Brogan pointed out, a lot of policies that are introduced are stupid, or don’t work, are you going to debate this point with your prinicipal when your job could depend on it?
    3. Brogan-actually there is a feedback system in which teachers are assessed by Administrators annually. Is it useful? It really depends on how experienced your administrator is. Sometimes I’ve taken away a lot from my review other times, not so much. But that’s because sometimes the Admins were only teachers for a couple of years.
    4. I teach in an inner city school-the kind of school you probably picture when you think of an inner city American school. I really do believe that kids are cheated out of an education, but for probably different reasons than you think. Kids are cheated because 1. Adults listen to their excuses as to why they can’t do things, which in general lowers expectations as a whole. I mean they’re teenagers, teenagers always do less then what you want them to do, so why lower the bar even more? 2. In effort to relate curriculum to students, by the time get to high school they have been playing games and watching movies and are nearly incapable of sitting down and reading a novel or writing a paragraph, let alone write an essay. It has nothing to do with intelligence. It depresses that so little is expected of kids, particularly poor students. For instance, students at our school don’t read many novels( I think they read three in four years) because they “wouldn’t understand them” and guess what? if you want to teach a novel, there’s not funding to buy them.
    5. Testing: testing is a real problem. Everyone should look at state tests and ask themselves if that test is any sort indicator of actual learning. After you look at the test, realize that the student is not graded on their performance and that the scores they get don’t impact their lives at all. Yet, the tests have led to a narrowing of curriculum. More and more, fiction and poetry and the arts are being thrown out because “the real reading demands on students are reading for information.” I honestly think this is a symptom of the fact society doesn’t value a rich intellectual life, particularly for poor people.
    6. The superman teacher: I really love my job and I love my students, but I resent how political it is to be an urban teacher. I am really in it for the long haul, it’s not some two year slumming gig I do to fill out my cv so I get into Yale law school. I am also not a missionary. On the other hand, why should I work twelve hours a day and only get paid for six? And if it takes twelve hours to be a successful educator, then why aren’t they hiring more teachers to fill the jobs? Yet, at least once a month, I read an article about how lazy teachers are and ask for so much, when I work more hours and make less now than I did at my corporate job. The teachers at local charter school are on call until seven pm at night, yet they don’t make overtime. Merit pay is crap, as if they would ever pay you more. Please.
    7. Student accountability: One thing that charters do well is to hold students accountable. What I find so interesting about the debates in education is that nobody ever talks about students. Many students don’t want to work or make an effort. I don’t care who is in front of them, or what they are doing, I think there could be a dancing leprechaun and they wouldn’t care. Yet, education is hard work. I guess you could blame this on the teacher-but on the other hand, it’s assuming that the teacher is just pouring information into their open brain, and that’s not how people learn. I’d hate you to think I am blaming the student, but education is a relationship, which assumes that both teacher and student are willing to work together. I am not saying we should give up on students, I am just saying that it should be more unpleasant for the student not to learn, like having compulsory intensive after school tutoring and weekend school until they learn the skills.
    8. Michelle Rhee: I truly hate this woman. I went and saw her speak recently about reform and her new PAC group. I think this is all about privatizing public education, as the people who were at her talk were mostly business people and consultants. I don’t think people understand that the federal government doesn’t just give school districts money, often it’s tied to special projects which then involve hiring outside consultants. That’s why there’s not money for books, yet there’s money for some special expert to come in and give teachers a powerpoint on how to teach more effectively. I don’t think there’s a problem with funding in education, it’s just a problem of where the money goes and how it’s spent. So, for instance, in my state, though educational funding has increased over the last twenty years or so, the dollar amount reaching the student has actually declined. I think local communities should have more power to decide how this money is spent. Secondly, I believe that the tests are setting up public schools to fail, so that when they are closed, private corporations can make money of them. Actually, private corporations are already reaping huge profits by providing specialized services to “failing” schools. These consultants come driving up in a Porsche. The very same people(like Michelle Rhee) who are creating this dialogue of school reform are also the same people(Michelle Rhee) who stand the most to gain from the schools not being fixed. Anyhoo. That was longer than I intended.


    1. Ooof – thanks so much for all this, uberfrau – it’s an education in itself! I’m constantly trying to get my head around the conditions American teachers work under, and this is very enlightening – thank you.


  7. Okay, so how about the student’s perspective? I am a recent graduate from high school (meaning that this fall I will be a sophomore in college), and I attend the University of Michigan. I spent my entire freshman year scraping by to learn just enough to get a grade that was “good” enough to pass each class. I was the top of my class in high school, but I feel like I have met the floor or broken though it my first year college. I would consider myself very aware of the good and bad teachers in my school (a public school), but I also felt that I was pursuing my education and scoping out the teachers that could and would teach me something, not fill out my report card with A’s based on all the extra credit that I completed each term. That being said, what you learn in high school scrapes the surface on what you are expected to know in college before even entering the lecture hall. I spent a lot of weekends trying to fill holes in the education gap that I was experiencing, and I feel that a lot of students (good students) are doing this too. I didn’t watch the movie, but I was struck by uberfrau’s comment, number 7: student accountability. It’s true, no one asks the students. We receive exit surveys for high school two days before graduation, when it’s too late to affect our own education. There needs to be some sort of change in the public school system, where reform becomes proactive, and students feel like they are the priority and that it is okay for them to demand higher standards from both their teachers and the government. Studentswant learn in a classroom where the teacher feels in control, and has the funding for the basic stuff, like books for each student to take home and read. Students want learn in a classroom that is rid of distractions and disruptive peers—stop taking the counselors away and bringing in the police. Disruptive students aren’t criminals, they are just lacking focus, and it makes it harder for them to learn with no motivation. Bring weekend school back, but not as a stigma requirement for screwups. Should the top student need math help, he or she should feel comfortable coming to the school to get extra help, not get babysat for 3 hours by teachers who don’t teach core subjects. Get rid of mindless discipline, because it hasn’t worked in all the years (and years) it’s been implemented. Detention is a joke, and just wastes resources while allowing a disruptive student to come up with a excuse to validate his or her actions. Yes, I think that the disruptive classmate that just set my class back a week should be punished in some form, but the format we have now isn’t accountability. It isn’t It’s hand-holding and it needs to stop. There was a lot of material I could have learned in high school that would affected how I managed my freshman year, but with a curriculum written to help students to succeed on one test that won’t matter after the summer before college, and teachers acting as referees when they should be teaching, no wonder things seems to be near crisis every year in the school system. It’s no wonder why every teacher’s excuse at the end of the school year is, “Sorry, guys, we ran out of time” or “Sorry, the school cut funding for that”. We need student accountability, but we also need to feel comfortable holding our teachers and administrators accountable. We should be able to feel comfortable with expecting high standards across the board: students want to learn. All of us do. But no one cares or really believes you can make it pass your first year in community college, then why put the effort in?


    1. Yeah, I totally agree with you. Particularly your one comment about the test and how it won’t matter once the summer is over. The subject tests are ridiculous. For instance, how can you test someone’s skills in English if you do not ask them to write an essay? Or, how could 200-500 years of history be condensed into a multiple choice quiz? Student’s don’t have demonstrate comprehension of movements or connect those movements to themes in history. It’s not that I think there shouldn’t be tests but I think the tests that are given should have meaning. The current test weren’t designed to provide and in depth picture of student knowledge and they certainly weren’t made to form education policy. And of course, the tests have nothing to do with college. It is a big step to college, and nothing can prepare a student for college-not even an AP class.

      So much of education falls apart around the “disruptive” student. I’m going to say there’s a couple of factors in it-for one, I think your generation has been coddled far more than mine ever was. I think this is connected to a more general societal trend of prolonged adolescence. And what goes along with that is that students have less freedom than I did at their age, and are under much more surveillance. What that means in school is that students have seemingly fewer responsibilities-which of course, isn’t true because if they shirk those responsibilities things just take longer. A lot of this is parent driven: Parents complain that there’s too much homework so there is less homework. Parents absolutely have to be able to contact their teenager at all times so cell phones have to be allowed. The biggest difference is that some parents will tell you that it’s your fault if their kid gets in trouble in class. Or better yet, yell at you because you took their kids phone away when they were talking to their parents during a lecture about the changed time of their dental appointment. Then you get into the zero tolerance thing and the criminalization of teenage hijinks and it makes school seem like a prison when it’s not. You’re absolutely right, school is not about babysitting, but on the other hand, how can it be different when you are asked to treat a 16 or 17 year old like they are 5? I don’t know if that was your experience in high school, but it’s what I see a lot of. I get what you’re saying about discipline, I’d really like to see the consequence being directly related to disruption. I disagree about non core teachers. If anything, I think there should be more electives, that’s more like college.


    2. servicelearning – I had the same problem with high school and then entry into college. I breezed through my classes in high school and then went, “wait, what?” when I got to college. I remember sitting in my Junior english class wondering how my classmates still didn’t understand nouns and verbs while I was trying to prepare for the SAT – and getting scolded for working on something else (self-imposed vocab) while the all important noun and verb discussion occurred. And I thought that teacher was awful and a big part of the reason I felt unprepared for my college writing classes. Then, I became a teacher. I would look at my “going to be valedictorian” and “headed to Yale” students and know how frustrated they were with the kid who was trying to set his desk on fire every time I paid attention to someone else. And, of course, fire-boy’s parents pitched a fit when I assigned him detention and took away his lighter.

      Now I see it as a much more multi-faceted problem. My junior English teacher was probably pulling her hair out over the noun-verb kids. She wasn’t a dreadful teacher – she wasn’t great either, she could have allowed me to work on my own – but she was in a dreadful circumstance. The school district didn’t have to schedule honors english at the same time as band so that the band kids all wound up in college prep with a bunch of students who were never going to college. The school could have actually followed policy and put those kids in an appropriate class where they could learn grammar basics. And then, we run into their parents. I think it’s great that parents think their kid is awesome. But, if your kid can’t read, he doesn’t belong in college prep English. When I taught, my school put a girl with agoraphobia in my landscape construction and management course. That’s right, she had a fear of the outdoors and I was expected to include her in all class activities. No one seemed to notice how that punished the other students in my room. School districts usually cave to parents who are vocal and who may have the means to hire a lawyer.

      Unfortunately, the solution really is a re-vamping of the entire enterprise and a change in the cultural expectations of what it means to go to school. In other parts of the world, children and families sacrifice a great deal to achieve an education, in the US, we tend to view it as a distraction from whatever it is we feel like doing.


      1. KatieM: It is very interesting when we get to the other side of the desk, isn’t it? I’m in a privileged position in that I can throw a student out of my class if he’s interfering w/ others’ learning, but it’s taken me many years to figure out where to draw that line (and I’m still working on it), and there can still be unpleasant repercussions. I agree with all of you that the problem is a systemic one. This system isn’t working. So we need something new, and some of you seem to feel that charter schools are not the answer…


  8. Education is a part of life. We need education to help our minds grow for all the wonders that the world has to offer us. Adolescences over the years before have been being cut short of their education. In the result of making teachers unions’ too strict and complex kids are being blindsided by schools across the country, “We need to follow the lead of other countries and recruit teachers from the top of universities’ graduating classes.”(2011, Bajoria) Our government is not to blame for this education crisis. Our school teachers and students may be attending school regularly and when they should be but there is one small flaw, they have no drive to teach and learn. Many people think “Good tools help make education more interesting and exciting, but ultimately quality of education comes down to quality of the teacher”, and almost all agree with this statement, (2011, Bajoria). Especially in the k-12 system children don’t know how important education really is, because they may not be supported by parents, teacher, and peers. So I propose the state makes a bar for teachers to reach and test our teachers as well as the students! “Schools should embrace more tension in the system through paying for performance, employing data systems that track how much a child learns from a teacher, measuring teacher quality, giving local administrators the ability to manage staff and finances, and comparing results to the best education systems in the world.”


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