Finally, Superman

I finally got around to seeing Waiting for Superman.  The scenes of parents and children waiting for the lottery results were tear jerkers, but the movie was very simplistic in its depiction of education problems and solutions.  It assumed that the children of involved parents would be doomed by going to neighborhood schools but saved by going to charters. Maybe so, but reciting the statistics for all students doesn’t make that case. I wanted to see a lot more on how successful schools teach: What’s replicable? What depends on finding brilliant principals or young teachers willing to work  insanely long hours?

The depiction of Woodside High in California, the alternative for the girl who gets into Summit Preparatory Charter School, implies that the school serves middle-class and upper-middle-class whites, some of whom are tracked into low-level classes that don’t prepare them to go college.  A majority of Woodside High students are Hispanic or black; 43 percent qualify for a subsidized lunch.  All non-disabled students are placed in college-prep classes, says the principal.  The movie’s statistics on the number of students who go to college include only California state universities, not private or out-of-state colleges or universities or community colleges.

About Joanne


  1. The film, while emotionally engaging, was about a mile wide and an inch deep. While many believe it is just what is necessary to generate the discussions America needs to have, it will instead generate overgeneralized solutions to incredibly complex socioeconomic issues. It won’t generate the discussion among the public because the public will see the simplified view it presents as a solution. As I watched the film, I found myself thinking at the very end, “just let them go … just shift the money and let every kid go.”

  2. CarolineSF says:

    Thank you for your honest review!

  3. Tim-10-ber says:

    I thought charter schools have been shown ineffective for middle and upper middle class students. Charters, good one just like good government schools (I know they are all government schools) are good for some kids especially those two and three years behind as the students benefit from the additional time to catch up and hopefully surpass their peers. For these kids their default school failed them by passing them when they were not ready. When diestrue reform come to government schools so the right things are done for the kids. Isn’t that really the message from all of these movies?

  4. No. The message from Waiting for Superman is that teachers are lazy, ignorant and malevolent, public schools cause poverty and blight, and charter schools are the magical miracle solution.

    None of what Tim-10-ber “thought” about charters is borne out in reality. Just as with public schools serving middle- and upper-middle-class students, charters serving that same demographic tend to be highly regarded and high-achieving.

    The comment about charters’ giving students additional time to catch up and hopefully surpass their peers doesn’t have any basis in reality. Research shows that challenged students don’t gain any academic benefit from the “extra time” they get from being held back a grade, if that’s what this comment refers to.

    It does benefit charter schools when they move to hold students back a grade, because the most problematic students tend to leave the school when that happens.

  5. Stuart Buck says:

    “Waiting for Superman” was simplistic, to be sure, but its message about teachers was more like this: there are great teachers and there are bad teachers, and unions keep most of the latter ones from experiencing any meaningful consequences.

    As for charters, there is actually really good evidence that charter schools are helping poor kids but that they harm achievement among rich kids. So that’s about the perfect solution to the achievement gap, right?

    See this Mathematica study:
    “we found that study charter schools serving more low income or low achieving students had statistically significant positive effects on math test scores, while charter schools serving more advantaged students—those with higher income and prior achievement—had significant negative effects on math test scores.”

  6. It appears that we didn’t see the same movie, Carolyn. It said teachers are valuable, and critical to student success. The movie indicted the current union and bureaucratic structure failed to ensure that ineffective teachers were improved or replaced.

    Glad that you did see the movie, Joanne. It did tackle a number of subjects and so leaves much room for deeper study. I think that it did achieve the apparent goal of triggering discussion and action.

    Joanne is right with some comments about Woodside but off-base on others: the school does serve middle and upperclass white, they comprise over 1/3 of the student body. 50% are Latino (but that doesn’t mean they can’t do well) funding is 23% higher than the state average, instructional spending is 9% higher than the state average. there is tracking although it is less than at neighboring schools in the same district.

    the principal does state that all non-disabled students are placed in college prep … and they are getting better at reaching the a-g requirements, but it still a long road ahead.

    the figure provided in the movie is correct, but the school is working hard at improving it, especially now that the spotlight is on, but they were working on it before the movie appeared.

    The college readiness stat in the movie comes from UCLA is not how many graduates attended California colleges — many of other reviews have also gotten this wrong. The figure is how many freshman (sophomores?) were ready for university by seeing what % completed the California A-G requirements required for CSU and UC schools ie “C” or higher in 2 years science, 3 years math, 4 years english, 2 years history, 2 years of language 1 year of performing arts, 1 elective — barely the minimum to go to any university.

    for the most recent year of figures at Woodside (class of 2008)
    52% of graduates completed the A-G
    32.2% of the freshman class which started 4 years earlier.^HIGH–SEQUOIA^UNION^H–4169062-4138053&cChoice=SchGrad&cYear=2007-08&cLevel=School&cTopic=Graduates&myTimeFrame=S&submit1=Submit
    the figure should rise in the years ahead.

    The principal is correct to note that this metric overlooks students who who quit or transfer to the continuation school (Redwood), but a vanishingly small % of students (two student in past 5 years) completed the a-g requirements.

  7. CarolineSF says:

    My blog debunking one of the slew of falsehoods in Waiting for Superman:

  8. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    Davis Guggenheim directed “Waiting for Superman” and “An Inconvenient Truth”….0 for 2 . A propagandist like Riefenstahl, but with 1/100 th of her talent. Those who would like a more cogent analysis of public/charter school education would do better to read anything by Diane Ravitch or Dan Willingham.

  9. One thing the movie omits is any mention of the chaos in most inner city schools. Teachers do not have the power to curb this. One of the Bronx moms interviewed in the movie talks disparagingly about the economics teacher she’d had in public HS who refused to teach her class. I’ll bet outrageous rudeness on the part of students had something to do with this “bad” teacher’s refusal. Many tough schools chew up and spit out decent adults who want to teach. Adults’ failure to teach well in these circumstances is not a sign of poor motivation or stupidity; it’s a sign of deep cultural dysfunction in the communities. Guggenheim seems blind to the fact that charters are de facto skimming mechanisms: few unmotivated, dysfunctional kids apply and last in charter schools. No one, not even KIPP, has a formula for reaching the unmotivated and dysfunctional. Yet the movie implies that such a formula has been found. False.

  10. For these kids their default school failed them by passing them when they were not ready.

    This betrays utter cluelessness of conditions in the Bay Area suburban skills. Charter schools are far more likely to pass kids with no skills than Woodside or Sequoia. I tutored low income URM kids from Sequoia High School District, and there was a huge difference in skills vs. GPA when comparing kids from the comprehensives and the charters (Summit and EPA). Charter kids had higher GPAs and low skills, comprehensive kids had terrible gpas but often very good skills. Obviously, comprehensives have lots of low skilled kids, but they aren’t passing classes–certainly not with high GPAs.

    I would be very surprised to know that Summit even had an F. The kids are sent to intercession and forced to do makework to get their grades up. Alternatively, the kid leaves the school. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a repeat.

    I imagine urban comprehensives are different, but in this area, charter schools are progressive feel good places with low standards. If you’re a seriously competitive student, you don’t go to Summit. Summit’s non-URM kids are, for the most part, kids whose parents don’t want them to go to Sequoia or who, like Emily, can’t get into AP classes at at better school.

    The a-g requirement is crap, by the way. All that means is that the kid has the class on his transcript. His actual skills are another matter. A third or more of Summit kids test at remedial level.

  11. CarolineSF says:

    In connection with Cal’s comments: Envision Schools, a San Francisco-based charter school chain, has a policy of giving no grades lower than C.

    It’s a miracle!

    (I know a lot of kids in public high schools who wish their schools had that policy.)

  12. “I would be very surprised to know that Summit even had an F. The kids are sent to intercession and forced to do makework to get their grades up. Alternatively, the kid leaves the school. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a repeat.”
    lest these error betray utter cluelessness of conditions at Summit and Everest: yes there are Fs, yes there is genuine academic intervention over intersession, yes some kids choose to leave, yes there are repeats of grade levels when a student is not ready to advance.

    “… or who, like Emily, can’t get into AP classes at at better school.”
    which is precisely the question in the movie.

    “GPA vs. skills”
    These observations are immensely important and worth investigating – I know that efforts were in place to calibrate GPA vs. eternal tests. I agree completely with Cal that it is skills which matter – both in measurement and in practice. Moreover, any to-and-fro discussion does not diminish the important of tutoring work such as Cal’s.

  13. lest these error betray utter cluelessness of conditions at Summit and Everest: yes there are Fs, yes there is genuine academic intervention over intersession, yes some kids choose to leave, yes there are repeats of grade levels when a student is not ready to advance.

    I have tutored kids from Summit. I know exactly what happens during intercession. I was at Stanford the year that a Summit teacher sent out a letter she hoped everyone would read to their students. It was a hugely reproachful letter to the students not bothering to work hard and pass their classes because they knew they could do all the work in intercession.

    Quote from letter:

    I simply do not understand. I do not understand your lack of effort. I do not understand your lack of commitment. I do not understand your acceptance of mediocrity. On better days I can rationalize your actions as “being teenagers”; teenagers who have turned their support systems into crutches. Teenagers who can’t see that MARS is not a good thing. MARS is supposed to be the solution for students who tried really hard to learn information, master standards, and through no fault of their own still need a little bit of extra time and help. Sadly, MARS is not this for most students; it has become a place for students who did not try all that hard to learn information, who did not put in 100% effort to master standards, and who waited until the last four weeks of the school year to do what should have been done months ago.

    That’s from a teacher, not a critic. (It finished by basically whining that the kids didn’t appreciate the hardworking self-sacrificing teachers.)

    So Summit congratulates itself for turning out “college ready kids” when in fact they give the kids a four week do-over f for anyone who just blew off school for the rest of the year. I’ve seen how the do-over works–it’s a joke. The kid just has to get it done.

    I very much doubt kids fail all that often–and the ones who do must be truly deficient in skills. Whereas in comprehensive schools, where kids don’t get the free do-over, the kids fail even if they have the skills and just didn’t bother to do the homework. I’m not crazy about that approach, but it beats the bejesus out of Summit’s self-congratulatory pap about hard work and support, when in fact it’s nothing more than 4 weeks to get the makework done so everyone gets to pat themselves on the back.

    I know a number of Summit teachers. They are committed, passionate and dedicated. But so are teachers at the nearby comprehensive schools. The difference isn’t the methods, nor is it all that much about the kids–except Summit kids’ parents knew enough to put them there so they could get a free pass despite having the same work ethic as the teens failing over in the comprehensive schools.

    Summit’s results aren’t that impressive. The selection bias gets them the higher level low income kids with committed parents, so they start with a higher skilled group. And even then, as I said, a third to a half of their kids test into remediation, despite their a-g transcripts. So all they really have is the transcripts–and since they get those with free do-overs, what have they really accomplished?

    But so long as colleges are determined to do an end run around affirmative action bans, they will count grades and transcripts more than abilities, and places like Summit will be able to fake out the “experts”.

  14. Michael E. Lopez says:


    Joanne didn’t say that the school served Upper and Middle Class Whites. She said that that was how the film depicted it. She actually confirmed what you said.

    Ben F-

    I couldn’t agree more. People who think there is a magic formula have never heard the expression “You can lead a horse to water.” Or maybe those kids really just need a nice white lady…

  15. @CAL “The selection bias gets them the higher level low income kids with committed parents, so they start with a higher skilled group.”
    a common belief however this assertion doesn’t bear up when one compares 8th grade results as was recently presented to the Sequoia board: Summit has a lower skilled entering group that the district as a whole.

    Intersession can get better – I do think that school has the culture of continually making improvements. I also agree with your observation that teachers are committed, passionate and dedicated at both district and charter schools.

    @ Michael
    Joanne stated that the movie implies that Woodside serves upper and middle class whites: Woodside does. One would get a bigger uproar from the teachers and parents if one were to say that Woodside didn’t serve upper and middle class whites.
    Those whites are not the dominant population of students – as Joanne and I both point out — although whites are the dominant population of A-G ready graduates 94 white / 170 total > 55% for the class of 2008.