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Review: Waiting for Superman

  • Posted on May 20, 2011 at 1:14 PM

Waiting for Superman is a thought-provoking documentary.  Artistically, I think the filmmaker did a good job of creating a narrative arc and providing a dense piece, full of information.  However, I would caution any viewer from “buying” the message entirely.  The film was full of information; some of that information was factual and some of that information was opinion.  The danger is that much of the opinion was presented as facts.  It’s difficult to sort the two out without extensive research, so the entirety should be viewed with skepticism.

One thing I find very important in this film is that they stress how essential good teachers are to the education of children, but how the system—including, but not limited to the teachers’ unions and politicians that keep bad teachers in their positions—is dysfunctional.  That focus, that differentiation is very important.

Before writing this, I read quite a few scathing critiques.  Not surprisingly, many if not all of these critiques were written by people who have a vested interest in the status quo.  I would recommend against “buying” their messages as well, for much the same reason.  Facts and opinions are not the same, and yet both sides present their opinions as if they were facts.  This is unethical and it is not done in the best interests of the recipients of these services, namely the children.  Furthermore, over-simplifying and filtering an opponent’s message in order to set up a straw-man—which is what most of the critiques I read did—is unethical and logically fallible.  We’re talking Critical Thinking 101 here, so it’s especially sad that it was done by our teachers and administrators who should know better.  Finally, while these critiques occasionally would admit the problem is real, none of them offered a solution besides pushing forward with what we know doesn’t work.  These people are barriers to change and, for the sake of our children, change is necessary.

That does not mean that the changes proposed in the film are as solid and successful and inclusive as the makers of Waiting for Superman would have us to believe.  The narrator of the film referred to “every child,” meaning that even poor children and children “lost” in the worst neighborhoods should have access to a top-quality education.  And that’s fine.  I’m on-board with that message.  BUT that message does NOT include every child.  This film failed in addressing the needs of every child with the filmmaker’s choice to exclude special education from the discussion and from his documentary.  The discussion of quality education must address the needs of all children!  That not only includes the poor performers, but also children with special educational needs that require educational services other children do not need. 

Granted, that issue is not the point of the documentary.  However, it is my opinion that it should not be a separate issue.  Successful schools are schools that can meet the needs of all their students.  Changes in education cannot exclude the needs of children with special educational needs, including those who are behind due school failure and those who need special services to succeed in any school setting.  We must acknowledge that “what works” for many children will not and cannot work for ALL children.  There is no single SOLUTION.   This presentation, this complete absence of all things special education, damages the credibility of the entire documentary in my opinion; and yet, reading so many negative critiques of the film that offer no solutions, no alternatives, and no change leaves me feeling that we’re right back where we started.  It was even in the film.  This dialogue is not about the kids.  Instead, it’s about the adults, each with their own bias and their own self-interest and their own ideas.