'Superman' wows Sundance

Waiting for Superman, a movie bemoaning the U.S. education system, has won the audience award for best U.S. documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.

Whitney Tilson quotes his friend Kelly Amis:

The big, fabulous news is that they (the producers and director) GET IT. I knew they were highlighting charter schools, but didn’t know they would also take the teachers’ unions (and to lesser extent, bureaucracy) to task in such a big way. The three main points of the film are basically: American kids are doing terribly, tenure’s ridiculous, and parents need many more high-quality school options.

Stewart Nusbaumer on Huffington Post says the movie “demystifies” the education system.

We have tried throwing a ton of money at the problem, created a litany of newfangled reforms, even passed new laws, but nothing has worked. Our schools remain dismal.

What Waiting for Superman drives home is to improve our education system requires improving our teachers. Requires demanding our teachers get deep in the trenches, be allowed to be flexible and innovative, persist, and to be held accountable. This the teacher unions and the Democratic Party will not accept, even for the sake of our children.

Here’s another rave review.

Note that the filmmaker, Davis Guggenheim, directed Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth.

About Joanne


  1. It’s always the teacher’s fault, isn’t it? I can’t wait to leave this profession. I know many, many other wonderful, caring, and talented teachers will join me.

  2. tim-10-ber says:

    No…it is not always the teachers fault. however, teachers have the unique ability like other unionized groups to have an incredible voice in the education equation. But teachers have failed their students by not using their voice and letting the union dictate conditions that only benefit the adults and rarely the students.

    If you want to truly make a difference use your voice…If you want to be treated as a professional, demand better of your profession and your “professional” representation.

    You know better than anyone the quality of your education, your training, the curriculum you teach, the classroom/school environment, yet we never hear this…we hear about tenure, teaching to the contract, days off, very high rates of absences, etc…where is your voice when it comes to demanding what it right for the students?

  3. Fire us all. And the next batch will be just like us (even without unions). Why? Because the ideas will be the same: use projects; reading comprehension is a skill; school is largely about socialization and social work; facts/knowledge doesn’t really matter; group work is better than direct instruction.

  4. no, Ben. It’s not a matter throwing anyone under the bus. It is figuring out what needs to be fixed, speaking out about what needs to be fixed … and ruthless implementation.

    what is highlighted in the film are schools where that is occurring.

  5. Unfortunately, every reform movement I’ve seen that is dedicated and ruthless about implementing its ideas tends to be based on ideology, not actual research based educational reform.

    (By research based, I mean based on actual scientificaly sound studies, as opposed to the normal opinion surveys disguised as “educational” research)

  6. Now that the beautiful and right-thinking people of Hollywood are embracing charters, surely we’ve crossed the rubicon. I wonder if it’s a bit frustrating for all those folks who’ve labored through the dark days to make school choice a possibility (Joanne) feel just a tad bit resentful of these preening late comers. I wonder if the actors/directors at the Oscars will wear little ribbons supporting “school choice”. Nah, probably just for Haiti.

  7. First off, unions. California is a “fair share” state with regards to unions, which means the unions are entitled to my money by law, whether I am a member or not, as a condition of employment. Accordingly, the unions should not consider education at all, but should focus solely on my pay, benefits, and working conditions. Legislatures, parents, and school boards can worry about education.

    So you want to get rid of unions? You think *that* would fix education? Unions aren’t even the lion’s share of the problem.

    So what is? What is the problem?

    Oh, you want a silver bullet, one answer–if we could just fix that, life would be good. Dream on.

    (Full disclosure here–I’m a teacher.) What is our biggest problem in education? It’s that our schools are a reflection of our society. Our litigious, immediate-gratification, comfortable, responsibility-averse, politically-correct society. If you wonder why kids act the way they do, or why schools are run the way they are, watch tv–or better yet look in the mirror.

    Most readers of this site, being reform-minded, probably don’t fall into the categories I listed above–but too many others do. Every time you read about some stupid enforcement of a zero-tolerance policy, remember it’s because administrators don’t want to get sued for exercising any judgement. Every time some parent does homework for their kid so the kid can get into Stanford, remember. Every time a kid cuts and parents write an excusal note so the kid doesn’t get in trouble at school, remember. Every time a school board, as in Seattle, chooses a curriculum that dumbs down instruction in an effort to close the achievement gap, remember. Whenever a parent schedules a vacation to start 2 days before the 2-week Christmas vacation (or any other school break) because “that’s when the cheapest airfares are”, remember. Whenever a school board uses race to place students into schools (think Seattle and Louisville and the Supreme Court cases a couple years ago), remember. When you wonder why schools feed breakfast and lunch to students who otherwise would go hungry, remember. Whenever a kid who can’t read or calculate has his grades changed because he can throw or catch a ball, remember.

    Teachers are not the problem with those issues.

    I’m not saying there aren’t bad teachers, far from it. There might be a couple at my high school, but certainly no more than that. You could probably get rid of every bad teacher–and yet the problems would remain. The solution here isn’t Superteacher, the solution is taking education seriously–and too many don’t. Again, readers of this site are probably not the problems, but let me assure you, those problems are out there.

  8. let me clarify “ruthless” … it means once you know what needs to be done, don’t get waylaid or distracted. As paul correctly notes, that knowledge comes by data-driven decision and sound research/practice.

    “An Army at Dawn” examines this problem in a different context: where the US Army had to learn to focus and execute in North Africa in 1942. Eventually, the commanders who equivocated or protected themselves had to be replaced lest their mistakes or hesitation caused deaths. (or in this modern edition, more uneducated youth)

    Being any less than ruthless in execution just had terrible costs. It’s not about ideology at all, it’s about getting the job done.

  9. Chris, I would love to be ruthless in educating my students. I would like to grade ruthlessly — hold them all to a standard. But everytime I give a kid an F for not completing an assignment, or for completing it with only 45% accuracy someone comes and tells me that I need to let them make it up. Someone comes and tells me that I cannot give them a 45%, but I have to give them a 59%. Hell, if they don’t do the work at all I still have to them a 59% b/c it’s the highest possible failing grade, and it doesn’t hurt their average as badly as a zero would. Someone comes and tells me that it isn’t the kids fault. Never the child’s fault. I didn’t have my objective posted on the board. I didn’t have my word wall up to date. I didn’t post my standardized test data. And, I didn’t ask enough higher level questions. If I had only done THOSE things, the student would certainly be passing.

    I’d love to be ruthless in holding my students to high standards for behavior, too. But everytime a kid punches another kid — be it in my room, the hall, before school — they will most likely just have a talkin’ to and then be sent back to class. I’d like to enforce rules about coming to class prepared, but I’m scolded for not buying supplies for students myself. (Even though I’m not their mother — so it’s not my responsibility to buy them binders and pencils, etc.) I’d like to tell them that they can’t curse at me. But their parents tell them that I’m just a teacher and they don’t have to listen to me. Their parents tell them to complain to the principal about me/my colleagues. And he routinely goes along on the parents’ — or worse yet — student’s side.

    I agree with Darren. Society at large has created many of the problems that schools face today. But, educators are expected to fix it all on our own.

  10. as Julia and Darren correctly underscore: ruthless execution is an enterprise-wide culture – it can’t be done just in one classroom (nor in one principal’s office nor in a board meeting) And parental engagement is important (if not critical)

    The entire point is to not be alone.

  11. Julia, Darren and Chris, you miss the point of charters. They exist to enable parents, students, and TEACHERS, who actually want a better quality educational environment, an out.

    I agree that our culture is largely at fault for creating the circumstances of our public schools. Charters, vouchers, and homeschooling are release valves.

  12. Stacy, where do you get the idea that I’m anti-charter, anti-voucher, or anti-homeschooling?

  13. “Note that the filmmaker, Davis Guggenheim, directed Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth.”

    Sounds like he “conveniently” made teachers/teacher’s unions the scapegoat and the solution at the same time. I think I’ll pass…just like I did on Algore’s propaganda piece.

  14. I will echo what has already been said by Darren and Julia.

    I will also add that this is just another way for people/parents to put the blame on someone but their kids. It’s never their fault. They are never allowed to fail in this society. And we teachers are in a catch 22.

    A few years ago, I gave a lot of points for homework and partial credit on tests (I am a high school math teacher) so they would be able to pass with a C for the most part, unless they bombed every test. Then my CST scores were low and didn’t reflect the grades I was giving in class. I was told flat out by my boss that my scores “sucked” and that “it couldn’t happen again”. So I tightened up my partial credit (to none now) and made homework worth less. And my grades matched my CST scores almost perfectly. Then I was told last year by my boss that I was being too hard on my students and I was failing too many students. When I reminded her that she wanted our scores to match the grades we give out she said are you saying all of these students won’t be proficient? I told her I would be lucky to hit 50% that year. What did I end up at? 50%.

    So how can we win? When do we start focusing in on the students and the parents who are with them more than we are?

  15. Math Teacher says:

    I agree with Darren, Julia and Mr. W.
    BTW, my union negotiates our salaries, benefits, and maybe one other thing per year related to work conditions. The union does not negotiate curriculum decisions, teaching practice, grading policies, testing policies, class-size reduction, etc. These things come down as mandates from the District office, the state, the fed and the voters (case-in-point: the Unz Inititiative, California) and are often influenced by business interests.
    Additionally, my small district, as I’m sure is true of most districts, is spending scarce funds on litigation, usually around special education services, or other unhappy problems with parents and others. This puts a continuous drain on resources, and is also, as Darren points out, a reflection of our society.
    If only all I had to do was teach… but it is never that simple.

  16. Chris,

    I love the term “ruthless”. So civilized, isn’t it? Why should anything be ruthless? I understand why you use the word, though –such violent thinking pervades the private realm, and our culture in general. And I understand your thinking that a putsch is the only way to undo current deeply entrenched malpractice. Many superintendents think this way –they want to wipe the slate clean and impose their beautiful, half-baked utopian plans. I haven’t seen the film –I’ll try. But I’m not going to get behind ruthless anything unless the principles of it are sound. And if the principles are sound, reasoning, not ruthless action, should suffice. Haste makes waste. Slow, steady and solid is best.