Our schools rot while we’re “Waiting for Superman”

Summary: Signs of senescence in the American Republic appear in every day’s headlines. Most tellingly, our inability to fix problems that we all see and have obvious solutions (such as copying from the more successful systems of our peer nations). Here James Bowman reviews Waiting For Superman, a powerful film about the politics of our dysfunctional schools.

Waiting for Superman

Waiting for Superman (2010).

A new documentary by the director of An Inconvenient Truth.
Review by James Bowman.

Davis Guggenheim, the director of Waiting for Superman, also directed Al Gore’s Oscar- (and Nobel-) winning picture, An Inconvenient Truth back in 2006, and the new film resembles the earlier one in its attempt to stir people’s emotions about a matter of political interest without offering much in the way of a plausible course of action for dealing with it. Mr Guggenheim is apparently used to addressing people who want to think well of themselves for their concern, their empathy, their compassion towards the less-fortunate – or, in the case of An Inconvenient Truth, towards the whole planet. But he also recognizes that the way to drum up an audience, especially among the overwhelmingly “progressive” class of those who go to the movies in America these days, is to tell them that there is really nothing, or only trivial things, that they can do about the problem he is focusing on.

Fortunately, this appears to be easy for him in Superman, for it is exactly how he himself views the appalling state of vast tracts of our public education system. He starts, for instance, by telling us that, when he sent his own children to private school, he felt at least a twinge of guilt for “betraying the ideals I thought I lived by.” But, well, essentially a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Ideals are all very well in their place, it seems, but it doesn’t do to take them too seriously.

What this confession amounts to is a recognition that those ideals, which are also the ideals on which the American educational system has been constructed and which most of the film’s audience can be relied upon still to harbor, are incompatible with reality, an insight from which the rest of Waiting for Superman appears to be in headlong flight.

Waiting for Superman

The liberal reaction to the movie is nicely summed up by Gail Collins in her New York Times column when she writes that “by the time you leave the theater you are so sad and angry you just want to find something to burn down.” But of course, neither she nor “you” will actually burn anything down. Or do anything else to change things, apart (in her case) from asking those in charge of the coveted Charter School places to conduct their much-too-photogenic lotteries by post instead of in a public setting where they can upset her.

Certainly we may understand there is no chance that either she or, sadly, those whose misery she prefers not to witness, will ever fail to vote for the Democrats who are mostly responsible for keeping things the way they are. As Jonathan Alter (of all people) tells Mr Guggenheim’s cameras, the Democratic party is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the teachers’ unions.

Of course, as Ms Collins also laughably insists, “there’s no evidence that teachers’ unions are holding our schools back.” In this, she is probably being even more naive (or disingenuous) than Mr Guggenheim, whom she quotes as saying that his movie is “not ‘pro’ anything or ‘anti’ anything. It’s really: ‘Why can’t we have enough great schools?’” – even where the answer is as obvious as it must be for anyone without ideological blinkers on. For he, at least, cannot avoid showing some of the social evils that the teachers’ unions are responsible for, even though he doesn’t want to. For he told Trip Gabriel, also of The New York Times, that…

“he was dismayed to meet so many critics of teachers’ unions while filming, who argued forcefully that the unions protect incompetent teachers. ‘The hardest choice I made’ was to include that information, he said. ‘A part of me wanted to avoid the whole thing.'”

It shows. The film’s most chilling moment comes when Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers speaks scornfully of the much hyped Michelle Rhee as a “change agent” in the schools of Washington D.C., which are among the worst in the nation, by saying in matter-of-fact tones: “But it’s not going to change the schools.” And of course she appears to be right. With the recent primary defeat of Mayor Adrian Fenty, who was Ms Rhee’s hirer and protector, most people assume it’s she who will soon be gone, allowing the D.C. school system to sink back into its traditional torpor and complacency over the ruined lives of its pupils.

Ms Rhee implies that it is only after her run-in with the unions, who refused to submit her proposal to do away with tenure in exchange for large merit pay increases, that she realized the ed. establishment cared nothing for children: “It’s all about the adults” But who, watching this film or, indeed, with eyes in his head, can doubt it?

Mr Guggenheim can hardly ignore the central role of the unions, but he doesn’t focus on this as it needs focusing on and as The Cartel did a few months ago. Also like The CartelSuperman can’t resist the built-in drama of the lottery for a limited number of places in an even more limited number of high-performing Charter Schools. Five potential victims of the academic sink school he calls “drop-out factories” are shown putting in their applications for these schools, two in New York, both applying for Geoffrey Canada’s remarkable Harlem Success Academy, two in L.A. and one in Washington, D.C. As in The Cartel, their families’ tears of joy at success and despair at failure in these attempts at escape tell their own, unanswerable story about the system they hope to escape from.

But, unlike The Cartel, Mr Guggenheim is not angry enough or focused enough on the real causes of this national scandal. Nor does he go very far into the legal and cultural aspects of the problem – including the things that are not the teachers’ unions’ fault, such as the litigiousness of parents and the foolishness of judges in allowing teachers who want to get serious about discipline themselves to be disciplined or even prosecuted for assault on the little thugs who will soon be the big thugs preventing inner-city schools from doing any actual education

Though we see some of the private and charter schools that those in the bad ones are desperate to get into, we don’t get a look inside the bad ones to see what makes them bad. Instead, Mr Guggenheim focuses on the problem of tenure and other restrictions on school systems seeking to weed out incompetent teachers and on a few other things, such as jurisdictional disputes and bureaucracy, that are really a minor part of the problem.

Similarly, although there is a mention of the fact that America’s high school students test near the bottom of the international league tables in mathematics but are a solid first in the belief that they are good at math, there is no mention of the terribly destructive influence that education in “self-esteem” has been in contributing to this delusion, like so many others to which our young people are prey. Fixing what’s wrong with America’s schools, assuming it can be done at all, is a gargantuan project but Mr Guggenheim, because he shares so many of the illusory ideals their failures are based on, doesn’t appear to know where to start.


James Bowman

About James Bowman

Bowman is a Resident Scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

He has worked as a freelance journalist, serving as American editor of the Times Literary Supplement of London from 1991 to 2002, as movie critic of The American Spectator since 1990 and as media critic of The New Criterion since 1993. He has also been a weekly movie reviewer for The New York Sun since the newspaper’s re-foundation in 2002. He has also contributed to a wide range of other major papers.

Mr. Bowman is perhaps best known for his book, Honor: A History, and his essay “The Lost Sense of Honor” in The Public Interest.

See his collected articles at his website, including his film reviews going back to 1994.

For More Information

Ideas! For shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts by James Bowman, about education, about inequality & social mobility, about ways to reform America’s politics, and especially these…

  1. America, the land of limited opportunity. We must open our eyes to the truth.
  2. Growing inequality powers the rise of New America.
  3. The state of the American middle class: are we thriving or sinking?, 15 January 2014
  4. Warning: the income gap between races is widening in America.
  5. An anthropologist looks at America’s growing proletariat.
Honor: A History
Available at Amazon.

About Bowman’s great book.

It is about a lost but vital element from our culture. I recommend reading Honor: A History. From the publisher…

“The importance of honor is present in the earliest records of civilization. Today, while it may still be an essential concept in Islamic cultures, in the West, honor has been disparaged and dismissed as obsolete.

“In this lively and authoritative book, James Bowman traces the curious and fascinating history of this ideal, from the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment and to the killing fields of World War I and the despair of Vietnam. Bowman reminds us that the fate of honor and the fate of morality and even manners are deeply interrelated.”

20 thoughts on “Our schools rot while we’re “Waiting for Superman””

  1. I have two daughters; one went all three years to the top middle-school in my area. The other went there for one year an then switched to a mid-tier one (long story). Top school’s district has the highest per capita bachelors’ degrees in a major metropolitan area. When I went to the open house, some of us had to stand because both parents were showing up. The mid-tier school is a solid middle-class area, with few from upper-middle class. When I went to the open house, only quarter of the seats were taken. However the teachers were more approachable and friendlier. They seemed to care more about my daughter and because she had less competition, she moved from B+ to an A- grade…

    What I’m trying to say is that the kids and parents are the biggest factor (how big can be up for discussion) in success not the teachers. They are important but it is more symbiotic: better schools can get better teachers, etc.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      So you believe that American parents are among the worst in the developed world, and that the many (many!) dysfuncational aspects of the US school system – quite different than anything else in our more successful peers — are of little importance.

      Well, OK then.

    2. I’m inclined to agree.

      American parents are indulgent, apathetic, and permissive. We may be near the bottom of parenting skills in the developed world.

      The latest NEAP results break out academic performance by race. 18% of black 8th graders read proficiently, 28% of Hispanics, 45% of whites, and 55% of Asians. This correlates neatly with IQ scores by race. As our schools become less white and Asian, performance will suffer.

      Finally, teachers unions work hard to trap good students in with the bad. They constantly attack charter schools and homeschools while failing to provide different tracks based on student aptitude. Your smart student can be bored or homeschool or private school. A quarter of our states offer vouchers. Roughly a quarter of US students go to private schools. TEachers at our local public grammar school avoid the parents and rubber stamp, “YOUR STUDENT IS DOING EXCELLENT” on report cards according to another teacher who is able to look up the data.

      Many schools are just day prisons for dumb and dysfunctional students. Parents of kids in “good school” districts just don’t want to be bothered with their kids’ education other than to hear that their kids are doing well. When you mention that it’s very difficult to find out what your kids are being taught from tight-lipped teachers and administrators, other parents chide you to “trust the teachers.”

      Don’t shoot the messenger.

      1. Larry Kummer, Editor


        “We may be near the bottom of parenting skills in the developed world.”

        Do you have any evidence for that astounding statement?

    3. Larry – You simplified my response, so I simplify the post to: say, just get rid of the unions and suddenly everything will be fixed, good luck with that. I work in a good size “small” corporation, and we have quite a large group of incompetent workers without being union.

      I agree with PRCD about the IQ and that is mostly hereditarian, so comes back to the parent again…
      We do have an excellent school district and we have different tracks; they even started one up with the local community college to provide training for trades. This isn’t true for the rest of the country, though, so I agree with PRCD.

      How to fix the schools is complex and I wish I had an answer. One could be, to discourage single parenthood. Also discourage technology until high-school, it is more distraction than help. The disgraced William Bennett actually has a pretty good book: The Educated Child: A Parents Guide From Preschool Through Eighth Grade. I like his back to basics approach.

  2. The Man Who Laughs

    I’ve had friends and family members in education, and it’s hard for most people to grasp just how bad things have gotten. One friend of mine was converted to devout Republicanism when he learned that the class was using Mother Jones magazine as a text. (I’m not sure that devout big R Republicanism is the answer, but it was a part of his.) One of his daughters was told that the rich Romans had killed Caesar because he wanted to free the slaves. He decided to make lemons out of lemonade and spent a lot of time helping his children with their homework and correcting some of the more outrageous things they were being taught. Homeschool and private school weren’t options for him.

    He went to see the school board and raised hell about the Mother Jones and some of the other really egregious issues, and actually got some useful stuff done. But he was willing to go to the trouble of showing up at school boards meetings and raising hell. Local control of schools means that all that is necessary for things to keep getting worse is for good people to rely on someone else to fix the problem.

    The better teachers tend to get driven out. One science teacher I knew quit after she had the living hell beaten out of her by a fifth grader. (Well, he’d been kept back multiple times) If you have anything at all going for you, it’s hard to put up with what the field has become.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor

      The Man,

      It’s a commonplace for people who deal with our youth to have such stories. I have a great many after 15 years as a Boy Scout leader in a solidly middle class suburb in the San Francisco Bay Area.

      To mention just one – I was amazed to find that their knowledge of history was minimal. On treks I would tell them tales from western civ. Once I told them the Odyssey on a hike to the top of Pinnacles. They were enthralled. They had been taught that history was boring, an irrelevant set of stories about people less morally woke than us.

    2. another anecdote: a friend grew up in small-town Mid-West, their education related to WW2,consisted of watching Saving Private Ryan. I have heard from another person, that their history teacher was also their phy-ed teacher and in most classes, he was too busy prepping for the next big football game…

      interestingly, even The Man’s school changed because the parent (him)… just saying.

  3. I recommend “The Collapse of Parenting” by Leonard Sax. He has some studies in his book. Dobson also has some data. Murray also wrote “Coming Apart. It’s no secret that the American family is doing very poorly. COnsider what this also might mean for American parenting. It’s not possible that the American family is broken but American parenting isn’t.

    You seem to waffle between accusing commenters of blaming other people for their problems and outrage when we blame problems on ourselves.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      There have been worries about American parenting for a century, perhaps longer.

      “You seem to waffle between accusing commenters of blaming other people for their problems and outrage when we blame problems on ourselves.”

      No. I like evidence. Believing big claims with no evidence is the fast track to Hell.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      Are you perhaps leaving the page before clicking “send”? You have no comments in the spam bin. I don’t know what else could happen to it.

  4. “There have been worries about American parenting for a century, perhaps longer.”

    Fair point, but American religion has been in a slow collapse for about a century or more. The fundamentalist-modernist controversy took place in the 20s and 30s. The higher critical method destroyed the other mainline Protestant denominations around the same time. Religion was replaced with psychology. “Child psychology” replaced parenting as John Rosemond explains in his books.

    “No. I like evidence. Believing big claims with no evidence is the fast track to Hell.”

    Another fair point. I’m using inference and observation, but they are admittedly not data. Proxies of parenting quality abound: teen drug use and pregnancy, educational achievement, use of antidepressants, incidence of mental illness, death rates, age of financial independence, abuse. I suppose you can only measure parenting in the outcomes of children. Mark Regnerus has studied some of these problems. Buy his books before they’re illegal in California.

    1. I’m new to this site but it seems Larry is holding us commenters to the same standard as the posters, I don’t agree with that philosophy; however, this iisn’t my site and I accept that.

      1. Larry Kummer, Editor


        That’s an insightful comment. I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but is correct in essence. The internet overflows with people stating views without providing the slightest empirical support. It is, imo, one reason we’re in a hole and furiously digging. I believe there is room on the great virtual sea for one place where views are challenged for their logic and evidence – no matter what their political team.

        When we began the FM project in 2007, I thought comments would be debating values, priorities, visions of the future, and about the nature of things on the edge of the known. I’ve read all the 55+ thousand posts here. A large fraction are people asserting things pretty obviously false. Both Left and Right agree – about their foes, but don’t see it in their peers. Another large chuck confidently assert things that are possible, but for which they have little or no evidence.

        It is the indifference not just to evidence, but truth that imo is the distinguishing feature of modern Americans. Fixing this is the core of my recommendations for reforming American, and imo a prerequisite for any meaningful reform. See the posts about this.

        This from C. S. Lewis seems to capture the zeitgeist as I see it in detail in articles and comments today.

        “Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false”, but as “academic” or “practical”, “outworn” or “contemporary”, “conventional” or “ruthless”. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous — that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.”

        — Insights from the Demon Screwtape, from The Screwtape Letters.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      I do not believe the current US system follows the “Prussian model” in any significant sense. A few of the structural features remain — mass education, State (not Federal) control of education, the grade model, ideological goals for education, etc. It’s like a building built in 1800 but modernized and still used today. The structure remains, but the life within has radically changed.

      Describing our system as the “Prussian model” is typically done in education debates as a rhetorical device, to generate heat not light. It’s seldom used by people discussing actual features remaining from the Prussian Model. Such as the ideological goal of teaching the young (e.g., they just want to change the ideology taught).

      The foundation for almost all education methods used today is inspired guessing by the designers. If civil engineers built buildings that way, rather than using evolutionary developed & tested methods, our cities would collapse every generation.

    2. So how does the education system compare with classical education as expounded in the middle ages?

      1. Larry Kummer, Editor


        That’s a great question! But first, what was the “education system” in the Middle Ages? Priests learned a little, by our standards. Peasants had near zero formal education, excerpt what they learned from the pulpit.

        The higher orders, esp the aristocracy, received some formal education from the church. King Henry I of England (1068-1135) astonished his court be being able to read a diplomatic letter from the king of France.

        We don’t know what literacy rates were during the MA, and they varied both geographically and over time. There are lots of inspired guesses.

        Lots of articles about this on the Internet.

        A more interesting question, imo, is why we retain so many aspects of the ancient college systems. Lectures were used since books were cheap. Now people are expensive and texts should cost little (their cost is kept high as one of the many ways to fleece students). Online learning systems should have supplemented teachers to a far greater extent than they have. Etc.

        My guess at the answer: the current system works well for colleges stakeholders. Students and the people who pay for the system don’t count.

    3. Indeed. We also have a lot to learn from Classical Greece and even Rome. I hear about the Trivium and the Quadrivium from those proponents of classical education for instance. So it would be a worthwhile way of exploration.

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