“Waiting for ‘Superman'”: An Assessment from a Social Justice Perspective

by Lawrence Blum
Professor of Philosophy, Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Education

University of Massachusetts, Boston

The film “Waiting for ‘Superman’” (WfS) has become a national event in the debate over schooling and education, with major coverage in the print media and over the airwaves for the film (already one of the most successful documentaries of all time) and its director, Davis Guggenheim, the Academy Award winning director of An Inconvenient Truth. The film itself has some of the trappings of a movement, with an accompanying book of the same title (“an inspiring companion to the acclaimed film”), a website devoted to the ideas for reform featured in the film, and, at the very end of the film credits, encouragement to text the message “possible” to “77177, ” with the implication that by doing so you are helping to reform education. And perhaps you received a special notice from Amazon that the film was being released on February 15, for 40% of.

In the accompanying book, Guggenheim positions himself as an expert on schools and education, and the film as expressing that expertise. WfS and the currents of “school reform” it promotes explicitly or implicitly raise profound and vital issues for those of us committed to schooling as a social justice concern, to the public school tradition in the US, to education in and for democracy, and to civic and moral education.

In this post, I will assume some familiarity with the film and/or its line-up of heroes (“new reformers” such as Michelle Rhee, Geoffrey Canada, Bill Gates, a few others active in the voucher or charter movement)—and villains (Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and bad public school teachers). My own comments for this particular audience build on some very valuable critical resources out there, which I list and annotate at the end of my post.

I will comment on 3 aspects of the film in the context of current school reform:

(1) education as a social justice issue.

(2) how to think about poverty and schooling

(3) why are there middle and upper middle class largely white suburbs/exurbs, and resource-starved and economically distressed black and brown communities in urban centers?

There are other serious problems with the film and I will deal with them in later posts, but preview them at the end of this post.

(1) Education as a social justice issue and the “no excuses” mantra

For decades, social justice activists, scholars, and community activists have decried the gaps in education available to children in different communities, defined both by class and by race, and have organized to call attention to and rectify these gaps. WfS misleadingly implies that the “new reformers” featured in the film are the first to discover these appalling disparities, or the first ones to take them seriously. This implication enables the film to seem to occupy the moral high ground of concern for poor black and Latino children, snookering quite a few liberals, who care about poor black and Latino kids in urban schools—who want to be on the side of the kids in the film. Indeed, Guggenheim sees the film as an inheritor of the Civil Rights Movement, about which his father, Charles, also a documentarian, made several films. And Arne Duncan, who is in most respects aligned with the point of view of WfS, has said that “school reform” of his and WfS‘s particular brand is “the civil rights issue of our generation.”

The film and the new reform movement is an insult to the historical reality of the Civil Rights Movement, which was always a social justice movement aimed at giving people of color equal access to the major institutions and life domains of society and reducing inequality in society. Progressive educators have always tied school reform to economic and social improvement in the communities in which the troubled schools are located—both because without a reduction in inequality more generally, comprehensive educational equality can never be achieved, and also because the same impulse that drives a concern for children in poverty should drive a concern that poverty itself be diminished.

WfS and the new reformers want to split this agenda in two, and leave a concern with poverty itself behind. They believe they have a reason to do this. It is called “no excuses,” both the title of an influential book on education by Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, and a defining slogan of the KIPP charter schools, heroized in both WfS and the Thernstroms’ book, and of other players in the new reform movement. The slogan is repeated by Guggenheim in his contribution to the film-accompanying book.

In the “new reformers'” world, if you mention the economic assault that the kids’ communities have undergone over many decades [see detailed discussion below under (3)], the history that has led to their current stressed and often dysfunctional conditions, you are saying that the kids can not be educated, you are making an excuse for teachers to give up on the inner city kids, or, even worse, you are making the racist assumption that black and Latino inner city kids just don’t have the cognitive capabilities to learn. At one point in the film, the narrator [or some education adult] says, “Maybe we make the ‘dark’ assumption that kids in poor neighborhoods can’t learn.” “No excuses” is presented as the only way to avoid that assumption. Any mention of health, stress, economic deprivation, parental educational deficits, badly functioning families is forbidden because, they say, it allows teachers to throw up their hands and say the students are ineducable.

But it is educational progressives rather than the new reformers who have for years been pointing out that poor black and Latinos’ relatively low school performance is not due to the students’ own innate deficiencies. Read Jonathan Kozol, Linda Darling-Hammond, Herbert Kohl, Gloria Ladson-Billings, the publication Rethinking Schools, and scores of other educators, scholars, and activists. They have been trumpeting the capabilities and creativity of low-income kids of color for decades. Guggenheim seems not to have heard about this history. Progressive teachers know the kids are capable of being educated, and educated well. They think the kids deserve good educations, good jobs waiting for them, decent health care, and viable communities. Teachers can make a big difference. But they cannot fully make up for the dysfunctions that accompany concentrated poverty. Any educational program that fails to aim at reducing these inequalities can not claim and does not deserve to be thought of as a Civil rights movement.

The portrayal of Geoffrey Canada in WfS is a good example of the film’s embrace of the “no excuses” mantra with its implied “we’re the only ones who really believe in these kids,” while misleading its audience as to the social justice implication of Canada’s work. Canada is the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), a 97-block high-poverty zone of Harlem that includes 10,000 children. The Zone provides “wrap-around” social and medical services for the community and for the kids in the schools—asthma care (there is a lot of asthma, and kids miss a lot of school because of it), free health and dental care, after-school programs, extra adults in the elementary school classrooms, classes on parenting for young parents and soon-to-be parents, block associations, help for residents to buy buildings, a chef who prepares healthy meals, pre-college advice, and more. HCZ is supported by a huge infusion of private funds. Canada has always made the point that schools can not educate effectively without improvement in their communities, and he is willing to take funds from anywhere he can get them to provide the services he thinks are required. Two billionaires on his board help with his access to these funds. The HCZ spends something like three times as much on all the services for an individual child as the New York city average.

WfS makes use of Canada to tout the charter schools Canada has started in his zone, to trash teachers unions, and, implicitly, to sign on to the privatization agenda that Canada and others in the film articulate. But an entirely different lesson can be drawn from the example of the Harlem Children’s Zone—that children live in communities that affect their ability to do their best in schools. That is why the broad array of services is necessary. If the communities have multiple disadvantages, these have to be addressed, Canada thinks, or you can’t get any lasting improvement in the children’s education. Entirely in line with what educational progressives have for years pointed out, Canada understands that an “equal funding for each child” standard is nowhere near adequate to providing an equal education to children from very different circumstances. HCZ can be seen as a demonstration project for the range of interventions and expenditures required for children in concentrated poverty neighborhoods to have some degree of success in school. If it takes two to three times the per-student spending to get the results Canada’s schools do in the HCZ, then the social justice message here is that it is society’s responsibility to provide that spending and those poverty-neutralizing services for every child, not only those who have the good fortune to live in a district with a charismatic leader able to coax millions from private donors.

(For the record, Diane Ravitch in the article mentioned below, and a New York Times article, www.nytimes.com/2010/10/13/education/13harlem.html?_r=1&ref=nyregion&pagewanted=print, claim that the film overstates the achievement of the schools in HCZ.)

Low-income children have poorer health, which contributes to school absence, and difficulty in giving one’s best attention to the task at hand. High rates of joblessness put stress on a child’s parents, which then often negatively affects the children, and deprives children of role models that might help motivate them to work hard in school. Lower parental education cuts into parents’ ability to prepare their children for school, and to help their children do their schoolwork. It weakens the parents’ confidence to advocate for their children with the school, to navigate “the system” to get such help, and more generally their ability to be part of a community effort to support the school, compared to middle class parents.

This is only the surface of a complex set of connections between life in low-income, racially-defined communities and life in schools. Knowledge of the deficits and disadvantages afflicting their students helps teachers teach these students. It is ridiculous to tell teachers to ignore these connections. Teachers recognize that if a student seems unable to pay attention, this may be health-related rather than reflecting lack of capability or interest. It may reflect economic stress at home, or responsibilities the child has had to undertake to help in her family. Any good teacher will want to know something about her individual student’s circumstances, from a learning disability to a harsh and disapproving parent. Knowledge of circumstances related to the student’s socio-economic situation is just part of this necessary knowledge. Certainly it is wrong for a teacher to give up on a low-income student because of these challenges, or have racist beliefs that the child cannot learn. But the “no excuses” mantra counsels sticking your head in the sand.

(2) Schools and poverty

You might think that WfS and the new reformers have a reply to my insistent focus on concentrated poverty as having a large impact on educational experience. It is that some schools with a high percentage of poor kids still manage to do a good job of educating them without paying attention to deficits stemming from their poverty. These “No Excuses” schools are represented in WfS primarily by KIPP Academy, which is presented as successful. So, the argument goes, even the poorest kids can achieve at the highest levels. Therefore, poverty is not itself an obstacle to school success.

Notice that the schools in Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone do not support this argument. These schools provide extra resources that essentially compensate for or remove some of the disadvantages of poverty—health care, decent food, housing support, support for parents, and the like. These initiative reject the “no excuses/poverty doesn’t matter” line.

Of course schools and teachers can do a better or worse job of teaching the same disadvantaged kids. WfS implies that innovation and good teaching can be found only in charter schools. This is obviously ridiculous. Many regular public schools with unionized teachers are doing well, and are also improving their students’ learning. And as the CREDO study shows, many charter schools are trying new things, and they aren’t working. Innovation is not always good!

There is a deeper issue here about poverty and education that has to inform a social justice perspective on schooling. We can think of it in terms of two models. One is that all children in distressed neighborhoods, such as the Harlem Children’s Zone, have essentially the same family- and community-based difficulties. So if you set up a school that attempts to educate a subset of these children, and that school is successful, then that school’s approach can serve as a model for educating all of the children in that same area. A second model is that even though all the children in a distressed neighborhood are affected by that negative environment, there are “hidden differences” between children that make some much more challenging to educate than others.

We can see the difference concretely in a contrast between the KIPP schools in Harlem and the way Geoffrey Canada approached schooling in the HCZ, as described by Paul Tough in his laudatory and insufficiently critical, yet still useful, book about Canada and the HCZ, Whatever It Takes. KIPP ran two schools in New York, one in Harlem, close to the HCZ. The schools had similar demographic characteristics to the overall HCZ, but their test scores were much higher than the HCZ school, Promise Academy.

Stanley Druckenmiller, a key adviser of Canada’s (and one of his two billionaire Board members), wanted Canada to bring KIPP in to run the HCZ schools. But Canada resisted. This is why: Like all charters, KIPP Academy had to choose its students by a lottery from among students (or their families) who entered the lottery. However, those who entered the lottery in the first place were not representative of the HCZ—and more importantly here, KIPP’s—demographic. This is because of the “hidden differences.” Canada thought that the families who try to get in to the school, who put in for the lottery, are already a significantly different population than most of their neighbors who do not. The parents are much more likely to be especially supportive of their children’s education, and savvy enough to know about the educational options for their child, than their average neighbor who does not tune into the charter option. (Of course there will be some parents who prefer the public school over the charter for good reasons.) This means that a child in the lottery has a hidden advantage over her peers in the regular public school because she is growing up in a household much more likely to promote her educational success.

This advantage shows up in the entry test scores of KIPP 5th graders, which was “well above average” for the South Bronx, and even further above the incoming Promise Academy (the HCZ school) students (Tough, 161). Canada did not want to serve only this population. His whole point was to take care of every child in the zone, including those whose families provided almost no support for their education for all sorts of reasons.

WfS goes for the narrative that any poor kid can stand in for any other. It focuses on 4 black or Latino children, who are implicitly taken as representative of poor kids of color in these sorts of neighborhoods. Each of the four has a parent (or grandparent) who leaves no stone unturned to get them into their favored (charter) school.[1] They are indeed disadvantaged children compared to children who live in safe, upscale neighborhoods where schools are good and parents provide financial and other support for their education. But they have advantages over their peers, advantages we don’t see from looking only at the demographic—advantages to which the film seems oblivious.

As mentioned, Canada recognizes these differences in the portrait of him in Tough’s book—but not the one portrayed in Waiting for ‘Superman’ (where he is simply pro-charter, pro-social entrepreneur, and anti-union). Druckenmiller (the billionaire adviser) continued to press Canada to turn his schools over to an outside organization like KIPP. But Canada thought “the only way to save large numbers of poor children in a neighborhood like Harlem was to give them all a high-quality education, even the least motivated and least prepared, beginning at a very young age, and to do so in the context of a broader transformation of the entire community (Tough, 163).”

In calling attention to KIPP’s—and charter schools in general’s—self-selection advantages over their counterpart regular public schools, I am not agreeing that KIPP schools are necessarily superior, even leaving aside the self-selection issue for the moment. The jury is still out on that issue. Druckenmiller characterized KIPP (though seeing it favorably) as “more of a military-style, real rote-learning, rote-behavior discipline thing” (Tough 161). Canada is described as wanting his HCZ kids to be taught the higher level thinking and personal development encouraged in his own son’s school in a middle class area rather than the “drill and kill” he sees in KIPP.

The self-selection problem runs even deeper than this. Charter schools have ways of pushing students out that is much more difficult to do in regular public schools [Tough, 166, and somewhere else? Ravitch?].[2] And this is appropriate. Public schools should be set-up to take all comers. This is part of what they contribute to society. It is a well-established fact that in general charter schools take notably fewer students with learning disabilities and English Language Learners than do regular public schools.[3] Given their unequal ability to deselect weaker or less motivated students, than their counterpart public schools, it is all the more remarkable that the CREDO study of thousands of schools found that twice as many charters underperform public schools as outperform them. It is a sign that charters as a whole are even less effective than a direct comparison such as the CREDO study reveals.

Again, my main point here is that the demographic category of “poor black or Latino student” hides vital differences bearing on likelihood of educational success that charter schools are positioned to exploit. Liberals and philanthropists should take note. If you have some money you would like to give to a worthy cause, and you visit, or hear about, a school that is working wonders with “poor kids,” think before you write the check. These poor kids may be the cream of the crop of their demographic peer group; they are certainly not simply typical of them. You might be helping these particular kids. But in doing so you are also ultimately contributing to making the educational experience of the students in the traditional public schools worse, by “creaming off” the students with the best organized or most committed parents. Your money would do more good helping out the traditional public schools.

The larger message of decades of progressive school advocacy and reform is that if the society is to provide anything remotely like an equal education to black and brown children in the inner city, we will have to raise taxes on wealthy people and spend publicly generated funds for the extra services such students need. This lesson is far from the one promoted by WfS, and indeed seconded by Canada himself in the film, that private educational initiatives are the solution to our educational problems. As Diane Ravitch warns in her essential 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, the prominent role of hugely wealthy private foundations—especially the Walton (Wal-Mart), Gates, and Broad foundations—undermines the democratic character of schools and control of schools (see especially chapter 10: The Billionnaire Boys Club.”) Schools are a public trust, with public purposes that cannot be “outsourced,” and that required public monitoring and public voice.

3) How did we get here?

Educational disparities are just one part of an interlocking set of disadvantages and cannot be understood outside that context. The contrast between middle- and upper-income largely white suburbs and exurbs, and poor, largely black and brown urban areas has become such a fixed point in our mental landscape that we have forgotten that these inequalities were created through historical decisions we have as a nation made; and just as we created these structures of inequality, we could make decisions to dismantle them. This sense of “that’s just the way it is” blunts our sense of injustice about how appalling these disparities are—in income, health, wealth, access to jobs, recreation, and virtually every measure of social well-being. WfS and the new reformers pick out only one piece of this picture, education, and by implication leave in place the other disparities. Or they go so far as to suggest (as the film does) that the inequalities in health, jobs, income, wealth, and communal functioning are actually all a product of educational inequality.

To dislodge the sense of inevitability about these manifold and interlocking disparities, it is useful to remind ourselves briefly of the historical processes leading to this situation. Racially discriminatory federal mortgage policies, and discriminatory home selling practices (continued after being officially prohibited in 1948), and “redlining” of black neighborhoods encouraged white suburban growth in the post-WWII period. The economies of cities, to which African Americans had moved in large numbers during the 1910-1940’s, were weakened as highway building and job location favored the suburbs (See I. Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White). On the educational front, educational programs for GIs benefited whites disproportionately over blacks, because discriminatory policies had limited black presence in the military.

At a later historical point, white flight to the suburbs was further promoted by educational policies and rulings. A bit of this history is instructive. In the late 1960’s/early 1970’s two Supreme Court decisions (Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, and Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education) declared that school districts had an affirmative duty to desegregate their schools, where there was a history of segregation. This could be accomplished by redrawing attendance zones, by closing some schools and building others, with an eye to ensuring a black-white mix of students in all schools. (Mexican American students were also segregated, and some court decisions ruled that this was impermissible; but the history is somewhat different from that of blacks.) These decisions had a dramatic impact on the South. In 1968, 78% of black students attended schools with over 90% black students. But by 1972 the former number had fallen to 25%.  A 1973 case concerning Denver extended this “affirmative desegregation” reasoning to segregated Northern cities where, although not created through mandates of segregated schools, segregation had “resulted in part from actions by school authorities and other government agencies.” (See C. Clotfelter, After Brown: The Rise and Retreat of School Desegregation, 26-27.)

These school integration efforts resulted in the most substantial closing of the achievement gap between blacks and whites in U.S. history, and I will discuss this in a later post in this series. What I want to emphasize here is how President Nixon’s intentionally and avowedly anti-integration appointments to the Supreme Court during his term in office (1968-1973) eventually led to a turnaround in the Court’s view of the role of government’s responsibility to dismantle racially segregated schools. The 1974 Milliken v Bradley decision—on a mere 5-4 vote—was an unfortunate watershed in this development. The majority rejected the idea that urban and suburban areas had to be combined in order to ensure that white suburbanites could not confine their bounty to their own children. This rejection of a “metropolitan solution” to race-based inequities in school resources was decried by the 4 dissenters, who pointed out that school districts and municipalities are not sacrosanct, but are created by state governments, who have the power to change in the service of important social goods such as desegregation that had been mandated by previous decisions. (G. Orfield, “Turning Back to Segregation,” 11).

This ruling provided a legal foundation and incentive for intensified “white flight”—a way for whites living in the cities to abandon mixed city schools for the better-resourced schools of suburbia. This white flight further starved the cities and their schools, and so further contributed to current school inequity, and continued to intensify the socio-economic disparities between suburbs/exurbs and urban centers. Decisions like this and accompanying cultural shifts have led many Americans to think that the ability to change one’s residence to escape school districts with undesired racial compositions is a fundamental right. But it is a product of policies and rulings that could have gone the other way, and for a period of time in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s did go the other way. And indeed a small number of US areas have continued to use metropolitan approaches to desegregation and equity concerns in schooling. In those districts having more money does not give you the right to opt out of school systems with your lower-income fellow citizens.

But by and large, policies, rulings, and private decisions encouraged by them have intensified residential segregation, especially among blacks and whites, which has further segregated schools, which loops back to further intensify residential segregation, and then back again—all having the effect of preserving and intensifying general inequality between blacks and whites (which has increased even more dramatically during the past two years of recession) [On the way that segregation causes inequality, see Elizabeth Anderson, The Imperative of Integration, especially chapters 2 and 3.] But the creation of black and brown inner cities with high crime and unemployment, racial stigma, communal disintegration, and related ills, contrasting with safe and secure largely white suburbs has, in part, been due to policy developments concerning education. In addition, federal policy has historically favored suburbs over cities. As cities became less white, white legislators increasingly ignored their needs. As everyone now acknowledges when they think about it, inner city areas served by inner city schools are sites of multiple disadvantage and dysfunction, causing great distress and obstacles to success in the mainstream economy to families and children. (W.J. Wilson’s More Than Just Race tells much of this story in an analytically sophisticated and readable way.)

This brief history helps us to see that policy choices and historical change, not inevitable economic processes, underlie today’s disparities. Educational disparities are intertwined with a range of racial disparities across all facets of life, and it is absurd to think that some change solely inside school buildings can exempt education from being affected by this outside world. But the historical view reminds us that just as we adopted policies that created these structures of inequality, so we could now adopt policies to ameliorate them and correct for this horrific injustice.


An essential criticism of Waiting for “Superman” is Diane Ravitch’s review of the film in the November 11 New York Review of Books: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/11/myth-charter-schools/?pagination=false

Here is a summary:

** The crisis in education is not nearly as great as the film implies, and it relies on a misreading of NAEP scores.

** The film implicitly touts charter schools as the answer to our educational problems. But the most comprehensive comparative study to date of thousands of schools (the “CREDO” study: http://www.credo.stanford.edu) finds that 17% of charters outperform their counterparts, 37% underperform them, and 46% are essentially at the same level.

** The particular charter schools, organizations, and operators portrayed in the film are not as successful as the film implies.

** The successes these schools, or chains of schools, often depend on hugely greater resources than their counterpart public schools.

** No poorly-functioning charter schools are shown, nor any well-functioning regular, traditional public schools.

** Other countries mentioned in the film who have in recent years greatly improved their school systems, especially Finland, have done so entirely through public efforts, through upgrading the teaching profession, and through a robust regime of social provision, without relying on privatization and “choice” schemes and with the support of teachers unions.

Also valuable is Barbara Miner, “The Ultimate Superpower”: http://www.notwaitingforsuperman.org/Articles/MinerUltimateSuperpower?action=download&upname=TheUltimateSuperpower_Miner.pdf

Analyzes the huge role of corporate money and power, and a corporate model of school reform, in the company making the film, the boards of some of the charter schools and companies featured in WfS, and the New York “pro-corporate” charter movement generally.

The website, NOT Waiting for Superman, has other useful articles, by Michelle Fine, Ira Shor, Rick Ayers, Stan Karp, and others, although these articles do not by and large engage with arguments in favor of the film’s point of view.

In later posts, I will address other issues:

(4) How WfS relies on a business and purely individualistic model of teaching, epitomized in Michelle Rhee’s remark “Some teachers are better than others and want to be rewarded for it.” The film assumes that some teachers just are better than others, and that the only thing to do about this is fire the “bad” ones. But many schools, including ones serving the same populations WfS features, have undergone significant improvement through collaboration, mentoring, and leadership, with cooperation of the teachers unions, and without firing people.

(5) The importance of civic and moral education in any adequate vision of schooling. The relentless focus on test scores in WfS and major currents of contemporary school reform, including that of the Obama administration, completely fails to recognize both civic and moral education, and this failure is connected to the failure to acknowledge the robustly public nature of schools, and the public purposes schooling has traditionally served, and still needs to serve.

(6) the role of the publicness of public schools and the unacknowledged dangers of the privatizing direction WfS aims us toward.

[1] The 5th child featured in WfS is a white, middle class girl in a suburban school, who, along with her parents, fears that the tracking system in the school will harm her education. By including her, the film implies that the “education crisis” is not so much about inner city schools but about the nation’s schools as a whole. By including the white child, the film seriously fogs the inequality issues facing inner city children, and thus further veers from a clear social justice perspective on education. However, this misleading view is not sustained in the film, which gives much more time to the problems of poor inner city schools. The “experts” interviewed are focused almost entirely on those schools and children.

[2] Tough mentions a 2nd aspect of KIPP schools that Canada did not like. Most of them were located in a building with regular public schools, and part of the motivational technique used to keep the kids from misbehaving was to tell them they were special, not like the ill-behaved kids in regular public schools. “The effect, though, was that KIPP students often became isolated from their community” (162). I have heard from other sources that KIPP shares with some other charter chains this almost cult-like emphasis that “what we do here is special and better than the teachers/students/parents in the public schools.” It is a far cry from what Ravitch reminds us was the original rationale for charters, that they would serve as laboratories for, and be closely connected to, regular public schools.

Tough interviews Terri Grey, at one time the principal of Promise Academy’s middle school, who mentions yet another “hidden difference” between the kids at KIPP and those at Promise Academy—another self-selection advantage. It is that KIPP places demands of support on parents, that they agree to as part of a contract if their child is admitted. This makes such parents much more involved in their children’s education than most of the parents at Promise Academy. But, Grey adds, at charter schools, if the school feels that the parent is not living up to the contract, or the child is otherwise not doing what the school expects, “the school finds a way to counsel parents out” (166).

[3] Need refs. One is National Educational Policy Center, “Doing Less With More? Taking a Second Look at New York City Charter Schools”, 2011.