The Message of 'Superman' Is Wrong, and So Are the Facts

Updated Jan. 7,  2011

February 17-19, 2011
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By Diane Ravitch
Research professor of education, New York University; senior fellow, Brookings Institution

Last fall, the nation’s public school educators were surprised by a barrage of negative publicity emanating from the film “Waiting for Superman.” The release of the film was accompanied by a high-powered publicity campaign that included a cover story in Time magazine, two episodes of the Oprah show, and a week of programming on NBC. As the publicity kick-off wound down, the Gates Foundation added another $2 million to keep the momentum going, and President Obama invited the five children featured in the film to the White House.

The message of the film is a celebration of privatization: public education is a failed enterprise in every state. Achievement is very poor in every state. Families that seek a better education have only one choice: privately managed charter schools, many of which get “amazing results.” Four of the children fleeing public education in the film live in urban districts, and one lives in a California district whose public high school gets excellent results. Nonetheless, all of them enter a lottery to try to gain admission to a charter school. The film further asserts that resources don’t matter because the nation already spends enough on education and that poverty doesn’t matter because poor kids in certain charter schools make incredible academic gains despite their poverty.

Much of the publicity around the film noted that its director, Davis Guggenheim, had won an Academy Award for his film about global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Nothing was said about the fact that the CEO of one of the producers, from Participant Media, was previously CEO of a chain of for-profit postsecondary institutions or that the owner of another producer, from Walden Media, makes large contributions to think tanks advocating vouchers, charters and privatization ( Or that the only expert researchers presented in the film are proponents of school choice. Or that the film does not portray a single successful regular public school.
It’s important to do some fact checking, as I did when I reviewed the film for the New York Review of Books ( Geoffrey Canada is the hero of the film, the one who talks about how he “waited for Superman” as a boy and was disappointed to learn that there is no Superman. Canada is justly lauded for creating the Harlem Children’s Zone, which provides social and medical services for children and families in Harlem in New York City. But Canada’s success is used to support the claims that resources don’t matter, that poverty doesn’t matter, and that charter schools (like his) can make every child successful without regard to resources or poverty.

Unfortunately, this narrative is not true. To begin with, the Harlem Children’s Zone has a very wealthy board of trustees that has raised vast sums of money for the HCZ operation. HCZ currently has over $200 million in assets, and Canada was paid $400,000 in the last year (which does not include speaking fees, consulting fees, etc.). So HCZ is certainly not in a position to say that resources don’t matter. The only people who say that resources don’t matter are those who have plenty of them. The film does not acknowledge what Paul Tough described in his admiring book about HCZ: Canada recruited students and told them that if they attended his charter school, they would go to college. He called the school the Harlem Promise Academy to demonstrate that his promise to his students was real. But when the scores of the first class of middle-school students didn’t go up enough to satisfy the board of trustees, Canada kicked out the entire grade and told them to find a place in a public high school (it was late in the season, and most schools had already made their decisions in New York City’s choice-based system). Davis Guggenheim also did not admit that many students in Canada’s charter schools did not meet state standards in 2010: 60 percent in one of them and 50 percent in the other. These results are better than neighborhood public schools, but they are not the 90–100 percent that Guggenheim implies. Perhaps if the nearby public schools had the same resources, they would get the
same results.

The film also presents SEED charter boarding school in Washington, D.C., as another of its exemplary schools. But Guggenheim does not point out that the school costs $35,000 per year or that it has a remarkable attrition rate: about 150 students enter in 7th grade, but fewer than 20 remain to graduate in 12th grade.

Guggenheim’s presentation of academic results for American public schools is absurdly distorted. He claims in the movie and in the accompanying press materials that 70 percent of 8th grade students read “below grade level.” This is supposedly based on data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It is false. NAEP does not report grade levels. As I explain in the review, the “advanced” level on NAEP represents the very highest performance, probably equivalent to a 750–800 on the SAT. Only 3 percent of students in 8th grade are advanced. The “proficient” level is equivalent to an A or a very strong B; this is 32 percent of those who are sampled. The next level is “basic,” which is akin to a C, the students who have partially mastered the skills and knowledge they need for proficiency, and 75 percent of students are basic or above. The remaining students — 25 percent — are “below basic.” So when Guggenheim cites data for the nation and states, he wrongly treats all those who are below “proficient,” as below grade level, when in fact he should be citing only those who are “below basic.” They are 25 percent of 8th graders, not 70 percent. That 25 percent below basic includes students who are learning English and students in special education. But you won’t learn that in “Waiting for Superman.”

The film is the public edge of a movement to advance privatization and to replace professional educators with earnest amateurs. Such a widespread effort to erode the foundations of public education is unprecedented in our history. Educators must organize to build support for the public nature of public schooling, which belongs to the public, not to the mayor or the business community.

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