Diane Ravitch Says Guggenheim’s Movie, “Waiting For Superman,” Is UnFair Propaganda

Diane Ravitch says David Guggenheim’s new movie, “Waiting for Superman,” is effective — and unfair — propaganda: “a powerful weapon on behalf of those championing the ‘free market’ and privatization.”

Ravitch writes in the New York Review of Books: “Guggenheim presents the popularized version of an account of American public education that is promoted by some of the nation’s most powerful figures and institutions. — Public schools are bad, privately managed charter schools are good.”

According to Ravitch, the move is fatally flawed because it ignores the huge impact of poverty; it grossly overstates the success of charter schools. And, she says, the movie’s view that bad teaching is is the primary reason for bad education is patently untrue.

Ravitch says, “The message of this film has become alarmingly familiar:

  • American public education is a failed enterprise.
  • The problem is not money. Public schools already spend too much.
  • Test scores are low because there are so many bad teachers, whose jobs are protected by powerful unions.
  • Students drop out because the schools fail them, but they could accomplish practically anything if they were saved from bad teachers.
  • The only hope for the future of our society, especially for poor black and Hispanic children, is escape from public schools, especially to charter schools, which are mostly funded by the government but controlled by private organizations, many of them operating to make a profit.”

Ravitich points out, “No successful public school teacher or principal or superintendent appears in the film; indeed there is no mention of any successful public school, only the incessant drumbeat on the theme of public school failure.”

She asks, “Why did Davis Guggenheim pay no attention to the charter schools that are run by incompetent leaders or corporations mainly concerned to make money? Why propound to an unknowing public the myth that charter schools are the answer to our educational woes, when the filmmaker knows that there are twice as many failing charters as there are successful ones? Why not give an honest accounting?”

Ravitch writes, “The propagandistic nature of Waiting for “Superman” is revealed by Guggenheim’s complete indifference to the wide variation among charter schools. There are excellent charter schools, just as there are excellent public schools. Why did he not also inquire into the charter chains that are mired in unsavory real estate deals, or take his camera to the charters where most students are getting lower scores than those in the neighborhood public schools? Why did he not report on the charter principals who have been indicted for embezzlement, or the charters that blur the line between church and state? Why did he not look into the charter schools whose leaders are paid $300,000–$400,000 a year to oversee small numbers of schools and students?”

Other excerpts from the review:

  • Some fact-checking is in order, and the place to start is with the film’s quiet acknowledgment that only one in five charter schools is able to get the “amazing results” that it celebrates. … The proportion of charters that get amazing results is far smaller than 17 percent
  • Guggenheim seems to believe that teachers alone can overcome the effects of student poverty, even though there are countless studies that demonstrate the link between income and test scores. He shows us footage of the pilot Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier, to the amazement of people who said it couldn’t be done. Since Yeager broke the sound barrier, we should be prepared to believe that able teachers are all it takes to overcome the disadvantages of poverty, homelessness, joblessness, poor nutrition, absent parents, etc.
  • Hanushek has released studies showing that teacher quality accounts for about 7.5–10 percent of student test score gains. Several other high-quality analyses echo this finding, and while estimates vary a bit, there is a relative consensus: teachers statistically account for around 10–20 percent of achievement outcomes. Teachers are the most important factor within schools.
  • According to University of Washington economist Dan Goldhaber, about 60 percent of achievement is explained by nonschool factors, such as family income. So while teachers are the most important factor within schools, their effects pale in comparison with those of students’ backgrounds, families, and other factors beyond the control of schools and teachers.
  • Guggenheim skirts the issue of poverty by showing only families that are intact and dedicated to helping their children succeed. … Nothing is said about children whose families are not available, for whatever reason, to support them, or about children who are homeless, or children with special needs.
  • Guggenheim didn’t bother to take a close look at the heroes of his documentary. Geoffrey Canada is justly celebrated for the creation of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which not only runs two charter schools but surrounds children and their families with a broad array of social and medical services. Canada has a board of wealthy philanthropists and a very successful fund-raising apparatus. With assets of more than $200 million, his organization has no shortage of funds. Canada himself is currently paid $400,000 annually. For Guggenheim to praise Canada while also claiming that public schools don’t need any more money is bizarre. Canada’s charter schools get better results than nearby public schools serving impoverished students. If all inner-city schools had the same resources as his, they might get the same good results.
  • But contrary to the myth that Guggenheim propounds about “amazing results,” even Geoffrey Canada’s schools have many students who are not proficient. On the 2010 state tests, 60 percent of the fourth-grade students in one of his charter schools were not proficient in reading, nor were 50 percent in the other. It should be noted—and Guggenheim didn’t note it—that Canada kicked out his entire first class of middle school students when they didn’t get good enough test scores to satisfy his board of trustees.
  • Contrary to Guggenheim’s mythology, even the best-funded charters, with the finest services, can’t completely negate the effects of poverty.
  • Another highly praised school that is featured in the film is the SEED charter boarding school in Washington, D.C. SEED seems to deserve all the praise that it receives from Guggenheim, CBS’s 60 Minutes, and elsewhere. It has remarkable rates of graduation and college acceptance. But SEED spends $35,000 per student, as compared to average current spending for public schools of about one third that amount. Is our society prepared to open boarding schools for tens of thousands of inner-city students and pay what it costs to copy the SEED model? Those who claim that better education for the neediest students won’t require more money cannot use SEED to support their argument.
  • If we are serious about improving our schools, we will take steps to improve our teacher force, as Finland and other nations have done. That would mean better screening to select the best candidates, higher salaries, better support and mentoring systems, and better working conditions.
  • We should also insist that only highly experienced teachers become principals (the “head teacher” in the school), not retired businessmen and military personnel.
  • Every school should have a curriculum that includes a full range of studies, not just basic skills. And if we really are intent on school improvement, we must reduce the appalling rates of child poverty that impede success in school and in life.
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12 Responses to Diane Ravitch Says Guggenheim’s Movie, “Waiting For Superman,” Is UnFair Propaganda

  1. Eric says:

    How about a night out?

    Waiting for Superman, Nov 5

  2. Eric says:

    “Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim reminds us that education “statistics” have names: Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy, and Emily, whose stories make up the engrossing foundation of WAITING FOR SUPERMAN. As he follows a handful of promising kids through a system that inhibits, rather than encourages, academic growth, Guggenheim undertakes an exhaustive review of public education, surveying “drop-out factories” and “academic sinkholes,” methodically dissecting the system and its seemingly intractable problems.”

    Friday, Saturday, Sunday: 12:30, 2:50, 5:10, 7:30, 9:45
    Monday – Thursday: 2:50, 5:10, 7:30, 9:45

  3. Eric says:

    Why did Davis Guggenheim pay no attention to the charter schools that are run by incompetent leaders or corporations mainly concerned to make money?

    Because he’s looking for successful schools. The relevant question is: Why do teachers’ unions oppose reforms necessary to make more unionized schools successful?

    Here’s some lip-service in (more nearly) the right direction:

    Diane Ravitch makes some good points, but misconstrues the real message of the film: Children are cheated.

    Democrats take note: Not discerning the true lessons of this film is a recipe for making Barack Obama a one term president.

  4. Rick says:

    Here is a new philosophy that public schools should adopt, what every principle should tell his students:

    Wouldn’t it nice if all high schools in America adopted this philosophy?

    If every school principal gave this speech at the beginning of the next school year, America would be a better place.

    To the students and faculty of our high school:
    I am your new principal, and honored to be so. There is no greater calling than to teach young people. I would like to apprise you of some important changes coming to our school. I am making these changes because I am convinced that most of the ideas that have dominated public education in America have worked against you, against your teachers and against our country.

    First, this school will no longer honor race or ethnicity. I could not care less if your racial makeup is black, brown, red, yellow or white. I could not care less if your origins are African, Latin American, Asian or European, or if your ancestors arrived here on the Mayflower or on slave ships. The only identity I care about, the only one this school will recognize, is your individual identity — your character, your scholarship, your humanity. And the only national identity this school will care about is American. This is an American public school, and American public schools were created to make better Americans.

    If you wish to affirm an ethnic, racial or religious identity through school, you will have to go elsewhere. We will end all ethnicity-, race- and non-American nationality-based celebrations. They undermine the motto of America, one of its three central values — e pluribus unum, “from many, one.” And this school will be guided by America’s values. This includes all after-school clubs. I will not authorize clubs that divide students based on any identities. This includes race, language, religion, sexual orientation or whatever else may become in vogue in a society divided by political correctness. Your clubs will be based on interests and passions, not blood, ethnic, racial or other physically defined ties. Those clubs just cultivate narcissism – an unhealthy preoccupation with the self — while the purpose of education is to get you to think beyond yourself. So we will have clubs that transport you to the wonders and glories of art, music, astronomy, languages you do not already speak, carpentry and more. If the only extracurricular activities you can imagine being interesting in are those based on ethnic, racial or sexual identity, that means that little outside of yourself really interests you.

    Second, I am uninterested in whether English is your native language. My only interest in terms of language is that you leave this school speaking and writing English as fluently as possible. The English language has united America’s citizens for over 200 years, and it will unite us at this school. It is one of the indispensable reasons this country of immigrants has always come to be one country. And if you leave this school without excellent English language skills, I would be remiss in my duty to ensure that you will be prepared to successfully compete in the American job market. We will learn other languages here — it is deplorable that most Americans only speak English — but if you want classes taught in your native language rather than in English, this is not your school.

    Third, because I regard learning as a sacred endeavor, everything in this school will reflect learning’s elevated status. This means, among other things, that you and your teachers will dress accordingly. Many people in our society dress more formally for Hollywood events than for church or school. These people have their priorities backward. Therefore, there will be a formal dress code at this school.

    Fourth, no obscene language will be tolerated anywhere on this school’s property — whether in class, in the hallways or at athletic events. If you can’t speak without using the f-word, you can’t speak. By obscene language I mean the words banned by the Federal Communications Commission, plus epithets such as “Nigger,” even when used by one black student to address another black, or “bitch,” even when addressed by a girl to a girlfriend. It is my intent that by the time you leave this school, you will be among the few your age to instinctively distinguish between the elevated and the degraded, the holy and the obscene.

    Fifth, we will end all self-esteem programs. In this school, self-esteem will be attained in only one way — the way people attained it until decided otherwise a generation ago — by earning it. One immediate consequence is that there will be one valedictorian, not eight.

    Sixth, and last, I am reorienting the school toward academics and away from politics and propaganda. No more time will devoted to scaring you about smoking and caffeine, or terrifying you about sexual harassment or global warming. No more semesters will be devoted to condom wearing and teaching you to regard sexual relations as only or primarily a health issue. There will be no more attempts to convince you that you are a victim because you are not white, or not male, or not heterosexual or not Christian. We will have failed if any one of you graduates this school and does not consider him or herself inordinately lucky — to be alive and to be an American.

    Now, please stand and join me in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of our country. As many of you do not know the words, your teachers will hand them out to you.

  5. Eric says:

    I’m working through my copy of the “Waiting for Superman” companion book–collected essays from people in the movie.

    I hope you have an opportunity to see the movie. They nail several problems (though their solutions are mostly off target).

    If every school principal gave this speech at the beginning of the next school year, …

    … nothing would change, because there is no mechanism to translate the words (no matter how insightful and well-intentioned) into behaviors.

    This one is especially problematic: “I will not authorize clubs that divide students based on any identities.”

  6. Mike Bock says:

    Rick — Re your principal’s speech, Eric makes a good point — words, making demands, are easy. Actions are difficult. You’ve not dealt with the key question —“By what method?” A principal would be unwise to take the no-nonsense, “my way or the highway” dictatorial attitude that your speech communicates, unless he or she somehow had actual dictatorial powers to back up that attitude — had the total support of his teachers, local board, and overwhelming support of parents. Any person in positional authority, such as a principal, is crazy to make threats that he or she does not have the capacity to deliver on. So, it would probably be a safe bet that the most likely scenario to unfold from such a beginning of a year speech would be the erosion of support for such a principal — increased conflict and division in the school and community — and within two years the principal most likely would be fired, or, if he had the right friends, given a job in central office.

    This principal states a good goal when you have him say, “This is an American public school, and American public schools were created to make better Americans.” I appreciate the fact that the speech attempts to set a tone and rules for a school where education makes better Americans. I agree that this principal has a great goal, a great aim, for his school. The question of what education makes a great American deserves careful thought.

    The principal states, “Everything in this school will reflect learning’s elevated status,” but wouldn’t a principal of a North Korean school say the same? The educational goal driving the “Waiting for Superman” movie and the “No Child Left Behind” laws is measurable academic progress, but such a goal is one also embraced by totalitarian states. The definition of an effective school or an effective teachers, according to the powers that be, is exclusively determined by test scores. If “everything in this school” will reflect the need to raise test scores, it hardly seems that the principal has a good plan for implementing an education with the goal of making “great Americans.”

    The idea that the aim of public education in America is to make great Americans is an idea that deserves some in-depth thought. To accomplish such an aim, there must be given attention to every aspect of the system that seeks to deliver such an aim. Every school has a hidden curriculum — the values and outlook that determines how a school actually operates — that profoundly impacts every teacher and every student. Our bureaucratic school system seems intent on producing in students and teachers the attitudes and outlook of little bureaucrats. A principal with a dictatorial style would simply be an elaboration of the bureaucracy.

    Your principal’s speech raises a good question: What does it mean to be a great American and what is the education that could accomplish such an aim?

    Eric, you write, “Diane Ravitch makes some good points, but misconstrues the real message of the film: Children are cheated.”

    Ravitch, I’m sure, is well aware that many children in America’s public education system are cheated. But her conclusion is that “Waiting for Superman” is propaganda — designed to influence, not inform or educate — promulgated by powerful interests who see an opportunity to gain profit by taking over the public system. I’ve not seen the movie as yet, but Ravitch has a lot of credibility.

    But “Waiting for Superman” is focused on failing schools and failing students. The best chance for the needed authentic transformation in public education is not in those failing schools, but in those schools, like Kettering or Beavercreek, now bureaucratically deemed “excellent.” We need a film of the same propaganda force as “Wating for Superman,” that would examine so-called “excellent” schools, and would move public opinion to demand new thinking about excellence and demand authentic transformation of those systems now judged as being our best.

  7. Rick says:

    Lots of good points from Eric and Mike. Eric you stated: “This one is especially problematic: ‘I will not authorize clubs that divide students based on any identities.’” Why do you find that problematic?

    Mike, your point about needing support from parents and the community are quite correct. I suspect there would be a lot of support for such an attitude in many places. Other places, like San Francisco or New York would be horrified.

    Mike, you ask a good questions, “What does it mean to be a great American and what is the education that could accomplish such an aim?” There are a lot of things, a couple of which are teaching the Constitution and how afar our government has strayed. Why deficit spending is bad, for an individual or government.

    Anyway, thanks for the comments

  8. Eric says:


    How does your criteria apply to glsen.org:
    Gay Pioneers for grades 7-12:
    “This documentary focuses on the first public protests for equal rights for gay and lesbian people, staged at governmental offices and historic landmarks in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. between 1965 and 1969. Archival footage and interviews with the participants. 30 minutes.”

  9. Eric says:

    What does it mean to be a great American and what is the education that could accomplish such an aim?

    Any Democrats have thoughts to share? Republican input to Ohio’s social studies revision was ignored…

    Waiting for Superman continues at Neon Movies for another week; see:

  10. Rick says:

    I saw the movie last night and found it refreshing. Some of the comments above are important. If a charter school needs more than public schools, how does that negate the need for greater funding? What about the influence of family?

    I think that the central messages are:
    Children from poverty can learn a great deal more if they had great teachers.
    You need to have high expectations of such students
    Public schools cannot reward great teachers nor get rid of very bad teachers.
    Public Education is broken; it is broken at the state levels, the university levels, the national level and the local level. The blob always wins. I suggest you reread A Nation At Risk.

    By the way, how could anyone deny that a great many students drop out because the schools failed them.

    Does anyone deny that we need to be able to find a way to get rid of bad teachers?

  11. Eric says:

    I suggest you reread A Nation At Risk.

    Thanks for bringing that up. Perhaps Arne Duncan should have a look.

    Nation at Risk was produced by a stellar board, including at least one Nobel laureate. Not that we could expect the blob to read, understand, and adjust course.

  12. EB says:

    It is incorrect to think that this school addresses only poor schools and poor families. Emily’s high school is one of those “bureaucratically deemed” excellent schools. She lives in a very wealthy neighborhood and goes to what by all official accounts is a great school. The film attacks that school’s tracking system, whereby students are held to different academic standards (placed in different classes) based on their perceived ability. Emily wants out because she doesn’t want to be placed in a lower track.

    I know Kettering employs tracking. And I know personally that the level of material covered is very different between English Basic and English Honors. If the push is to get more kids college-ready, then tracking isn’t the way to do it.

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