Waiting for Superman

Talking Points

AASA in Partnership with The Learning First Alliance

September 2010


AASA in partnership with The Learning First Alliance prepared the following talking points to help members respond to the documentary film Waiting for Superman.

Waiting for Superman is an emotional film that follows five public school students who compete in lotteries to attend public charter schools. It is produced by Participant Media, a mainstream production company that tends to produce documentaries with a left slant, including AnInconvenient Truth, Charlie Wilson’s War, Syriana, and Fast Food Nation. This film was made by Inconvenient Truth producer Davis Guggenheim.

Waiting for Superman has been screened at a variety of film festivals, including Sundance, and is scheduled for public release on September 24, 2010. The film’s promotional web site is found at: www.waitingforsuperman.com

These talking points can be used by school leaders to engage their school communities in discussions about their public schools.

General Comment

  • Waiting for Superman is very moving. However, we must remember that it is ultimately entertainment. Before making any sweeping claims about policy, we must study the research.
  • While it is important to examine the challenges that exist in the public education system, which this film does, we must not merely criticize the system. Rather, we must use the challenges we find to begin a dialogue about how to ensure that every student can succeed.

 Importance of Community Engagement in School Reform

  • We commend the film’s call to action on behalf of our public schools. Community involvement in education reform is crucial to its success.

 Importance of Collaboration in School Reform

  • Waiting for Superman is well made and says important things about the challenges of the public education system. However, the reductive messaging—“charters are good” and “teachers unions are bad”—oversimplifies complicated issues and threatens to thwart thoughtful discussions about education reform. The “us” versus “them” mentality that the film promotes encourages division rather than collaboration, which few would dispute is necessary for true change to occur.

 Charter Schools and Systemic Reform

  • The movie should serve as a call to ensure that every public school is successful. We must develop a system where all kids can be winners. Not everyone can win in a charter school lottery, but everyone can win in a public school.
  • Good charter schools exist. We need to look for elements of success in them and then apply what we learn to struggling schools. But we must remember, as this film briefly states, that only 1 in 5 charter schools outperform traditional public schools. We must also remember that 2 in 5 charter schools perform worse than traditional public schools, a fact that this film does not acknowledge.
  • While great charter schools do exist, not every school can be a charter. Given that 90% of American students attend traditional public schools, change in a single classroom, school or even district is not enough. We need replicable, scalable, effective ways to provide all children the education that they need. No solution is as scalable, accessible or accountable as a great neighborhood school.

 Successful Traditional Public Schools

  • While there are struggling public schools, there are also public schools across the country that help children from all backgrounds reach great academic heights. In them, unheralded teachers are doing extraordinary things every day. Unfortunately, this film did not feature those schools or teachers. It was a missed opportunity to shed light on the good that is happening in the vast majority of our public schools.
    • Viers Mill Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland—right outside of Washington, DC—serves a high-needs population. Many of its students speak a language other than English at home. Most receive free or reduced-price lunch. Yet the school consistently scores well on standardized assessments. In fact, in 2010, 100% of 5th graders met state reading standards, and 100% of 4th and 5th graders met state math standards. Combine that with an environment in which teachers have a real voice and every child feels valued, and you have an outstanding school. (Learn more at http://www.learningfirst.org/viers-mill-elementary-school-success-long-haul-0)
    •  Detroit’s Carstens Elementary School, where nearly 100% of students are African-American and over 90% receive free or reduced-price lunch, is a beacon of light for its surrounding community. Back in 1997, “student achievement was zero,” but today students thrive. 100% of 3rd and 4th graders met state standards in math in 2010. They also outperformed the state as a whole in reading. And in addition, students here are good citizens: Despite being disadvantaged themselves, they know the importance of donating to relief efforts in Haiti or to a canned food fundraiser. Staff work hard to meet all the needs of students, and they pride themselves on their shared leadership. (Learn more at http://www.learningfirst.org/motor-city-miracle)
  • While this film focuses only on the challenges of urban schools, we must not forget that there are significant challenges in educating rural and suburban students as well. In addition, there are significant challenges in working with certain student groups who were completely ignored in this film, such as students with disabilities. Yet there are great schools overcoming all those challenges every day.
    • Consider Laurel Hill Elementary School in Laurel Hill, North Carolina. The school performs well above state averages on end-of-grade tests, despite the fact that over 70% of the student body receives free or reduced-price lunch. And students with disabilities perform particularly well at Laurel Hill compared to their peers statewide, thanks in part to a well-established inclusion system. The school also has the highest attendance rate in its district, no mean feat in a rural area where kids historically missed school frequently to hunt and fish. And the school’s teacher turnover rate is below that of the state and district, indicative of a teaching and learning environment where people want to work. (Learn more at http://www.learningfirst.org/exceptional-children-performing-exceptionally-well-conversation-principal-cindy-goodman-0)

Find more examples of successful public schools and districts at: