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Waiting for 'Superman' documentary

Waiting for “Superman,” a new documentary by Davis Guggenheim, isn’t out yet, but it’s already been dissected.

It’s also at the heart of already heated education-reform debates nationally.

The movie chronicles the saga of five families forced to rely on winning lotteries to get their children into charter schools in Los Angeles, New York City, Washington, D.C. and suburban Palo Alto, Calif.

The film was the first to be acquired at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it also won an Audience Award, and it hits theaters later this week. The Hechinger Report takes a look at some of the intense reactions to the film:

Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education: “The movie is going to create a sense of outrage, and a sense of urgency. … Nobody wants to call a baby ugly. This is like calling the baby ugly. It’s about confronting brutal truths.”

(quoted in “Schools: The Disaster Movie,” by John Heilemann, New York, September 5, 2010)

Joe Williams, Democrats for Education Reform: “It’s a tremendous credit to Guggenheim that he was willing to go down this route—that I do not think vilified teachers. He clearly understood the difference between talking about union power and the importance of having great teachers.”

(in “Get ‘reel’ about education failures,” by Yoav Gonen, New York Post, September 17, 2010)

Nicholas Lemann, Dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism: “It should raise questions when an enormous, complicated realm of life takes on the characteristics of a stock drama. In the current school-reform story, there is a reliable villain, in the form of the teachers’ unions, and a familiar set of heroes … The details of this story are accurate, but they are fitted together too neatly and are made to imply too much.”

(in “Comment,” The New Yorker, September 20, 2010)

Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers: “The film … shows how tragically far we are from the great American ideal of providing all children with the excellent education they need and deserve. Yet … Waiting for “Superman” is inaccurate, inconsistent and incomplete—and misses what could have been a unique opportunity to portray the full and accurate story of our public schools.

One can’t help but be moved by the stories of the five children and their families Guggenheim follows as they encounter a lottery system for admission to the schools upon which they are pinning their hopes for a good education. Their stories, in a very real and emotional way, drive home the point that the opportunity for a great public education should come not by chance, but by right.

But the filmmaker’s storytelling falters in other key areas. The film casts several outliers in starring roles-for example, ‘bad’ teachers and teachers unions as the villains, and charter schools as heroes ready to save the day. The problem is that these caricatures are more fictional than factual.”

(quoted by Susan Sawyers in “Teachers Union v. Superman,” Huffington Post, September 9, 2010)

Joel Klein, New York City Schools Chancellor: “It’s gonna grab people much deeper than An Inconvenient Truth, because watching ice caps melt doesn’t have the human quality of watching these kids being denied something you know will change their lives … It grabs at you. It should grab at you. Those kids are dying.”

(quoted in “Schools: The Disaster Movie,” by John Heilemann, New York, September 5, 2010)

Thomas Friedman, opinion columnist: “It is intolerable that in America today a bouncing bingo ball should determine a kid’s educational future, especially when there are plenty of schools that work and even more that are getting better. This movie is about the people trying to change that. The film’s core thesis is that for too long our public school system was built to serve adults, not kids.”

(in “Steal This Movie, Too,” The New York Times, August 25, 2010)

Blaise Nutter, blogger: “This is a dangerous movie, particularly for the teachers’ unions. Guggenheim argues that the main problem with schools is bad teachers; but tenure, built into the unions’ contracts, prevents schools from getting rid of them. Tenure leads to the Dance of the Lemons, where bad teachers are passed from school to school, and to the infamous rubber rooms of New York City, where teachers under investigation for disciplinary reasons can spend years collecting full salary but not working.”

(in “With Public Schools a Mess, We Can’t Wait for Superman,” Huffington Post, June 25, 2010)

Davis Guggenheim, director of Waiting for “Superman”: “Any film is a simplification. I know the inside-baseball people in education will criticize it. I was always saying to myself: ‘Davis, you’re not an education expert. Tell the story from the point of view of a kid trying to find a good school.’ ”

(quoted in “Remedial Study for Failing Public Schools,” by Trip Gabriel, The New York Times, September 19, 2010)

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