NEA's Waiting for Superman Resources

A barrel-chested comic book character must save public education? Compelling soundbite to sell a movie maybe but when it comes to real education reform, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel gives the American public more credit than the backers of Waiting for Superman. “Nowhere in the film or its discussion have teachers’ voices been heard,” says Van Roekel. “If you want to know how to make a public school great, ask a teacher, not Hollywood.”

In his statement to the media, Van Roekel pointed out that director Davis Guggenheim and the film’s producers missed an opportunity to talk with educators about how to truly transform public education. Instead, the film — and the unblinking cheerleaders it found in such media figures as Oprah Winfrey — demonizes public education, teachers unions and educators. It’s simplistic messaging — charters are good and teachers unions are bad — thwarts thoughtful discussions about improving public schools.

So we’re dedicating this space to the voices of those taking a more even-handed look at the film — a courtesy the film itself does not extend to its subjects. These are the folks who didn’t manage to land an invite from Oprah. And we want to hear from teachers, education support professionals, parents and community members in the comments. What are your thoughts on the movie or its hype? Tell us in the comments.


Diane Ravitch, Assistant Secretary of Education to George H.W. Bush, The New York Review of Books
“The propagandistic nature of Waiting for “Superman” is revealed by Guggenheim’s complete indifference to the wide variation among charter schools… Guggenheim ignored other clues that might have gotten in the way of a good story. While blasting the teachers’ unions, he points to Finland as a nation whose educational system the US should emulate, not bothering to explain that it has a completely unionized teaching force.”

Arthur A. Benson II, Kansas City school board member, Kansas City Star
“As a little-disguised paean for charter schools, it amounts to little more than propaganda. No viewer could gather that around the country, as here in Kansas City, charter schools mostly fail in comparison to their public school neighbors… The schools in Finland are lavishly praised in this movie but without mention that they are all highly unionized. In Kansas City as elsewhere, the union knows that its future and the jobs of its members are tied to the success of public schools.”

Jonathan P. Raymond, superintendent Sacramento City Unified School District, Letter to staff
I came away from the movie with an overwhelming sense that we have to stop blaming teachers for problems that have multiple causes, ranging from poor administrative oversight and accountability to a lack of parent engagement. I know how hard teachers work to educate every child and challenge students at their ability level. We need to work equally hard to give our teachers the tools and supports they need to be successful. Let’s stop scapegoating and come together to find solutions that work.”

Harold Meyerson, columnist, The Washington Post
“In the world of Waiting for Superman, every public school is a disaster, every charter school is a rigorous (but nurturing) little Harvard or Oxford, and the blame for the plight of public schools and the paucity of charter schools can be laid entirely on the unions’ doorsteps. You’d never know from the film that charter schools produce test results that aren’t any better than those of public schools, or that the teachers at a number of charter schools — including charter schools that do produce high test results — are, horror of horrors, unionized.”

Brian Jones, teacher and activist, The Huffington Post
“Here we have a message honed to perfection… for the wealthy: the unions are the problem; the teachers need to be cheaper; give me money now for a few beautiful schools that can help break the unions and open up the education market; but don’t worry, we don’t want too much; we certainly don’t want what your children have. That’s what I learned from NBC’s Education Nation Summit. Beware CEOs who say teachers are the problem. And beware CEO solutions.”

Gail Collins, syndicated columnist, The New York Times
“The movie seems to suggest that what’s needed is more charter schools, which get taxpayer dollars but are run outside the regular system, unencumbered by central bureaucracy or, in most cases, unions. However, about halfway through, the narrator casually mentions that only about a fifth of American charter schools “produce amazing results.” In fact, a study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that only 17 percent did a better job than the comparable local public school, while more than a third did “significantly worse.”

Valerie Strauss, The Washington Post
“Forget the fact that the film’s assault on teachers unions is unfair; even Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a true believer in Rhee, has noted that it is silly to blame unions, pointing out that the problems exist in states without teachers unions… Demonizing teachers and traditional public schools, and showing charter schools as a solution to urban public education may make for great theater but it is a bad reflection of reality.”

Leonie Haimson, executive director, Class Size Matters on The Huffington Post
“Given the recent recession and the resulting anger at Wall Street elites, it would be hard to find any other field of public policy in which a few billionaires have so easily controlled the dominant narrative, convinced most of the politicians in both parties and the mainstream media that they know what’s best for our children. Yet none of these moguls have ever sent their children to an urban public school, and seem totally unaware of what really ails our urban public schools.”

Gerald N. Tirozzi, executive director, National Association of Secondary School Principals
“Most perplexing is the treatment of charter schools as the Promised Land of education. Not so, protests Guggenheim, who revealed in a New Yorker interview his intention of the charter lottery as “metaphor” and his fear that the film would be perceived as pro-charter. Yet, every school the film vilifies is a mainstream public school, from which the only hope of escape is a charter school. Contrary to the movie’s depiction, there are lots of high-performing public schools out there…”

Anthony Cody, California Teachers Association member and blogger, EdWeek
“Davis Guggenheim, the movie’s producer, intones, ‘Everybody gets it. It’s automatic. You show up for two years, you got tenure.That is a flat-out lie. In my district, which is known for a strong union, teachers do not get tenure unless their principal wants them to. Many teachers are released at the end of their first or second year. Tenure is by no means automatic. And there are indeed ways to get rid of tenured teachers, who do not have “jobs for life,” but rather have rights to due process.”

Gene Carter, executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
“Moreover, simplistically dividing a profession of 5 million people into “good teachers” and “bad teachers” misses an important opportunity to show how all educators must continue to learn, develop, and grow throughout their careers. Would we ask a proficient doctor to stop learning new technologies or strategies that may help save a life? No. Our most effective teachers are the ones who pursue professional development not only to sustain student achievement, but also to help teach other educators.”

Kenneth J. Bernstein, educator and blogger, Daily Kos
“Now consider the following. The Oprah Winfrey Show is distributed by CBS Television Studios (subsidiary of Viacom/National Amusements) and “Waiting for Superman” is  distributed by Paramount vantage (subsidiary of Viacom/National Amusements). Winfrey has been heavily touting the movie on her show. Winfrey has just announced that she is giving $1 million to each of ten charter schools.  Yet often charter schools already are getting money from outside sources which enables them to spend far more than an ordinary public school does.”

Aaron Pallas, professor of sociology and education at Columbia University and blogger, The Hechinger Report
“The film and book (yes, there’s a tie-in book, published before the movie’s release) ignore the voices of teachers talking about their day-to-day work. Had Guggenheim chosen to include teachers talking about classroom teaching, he might have further illuminated some of the contextual factors that make urban schools a problem — concentrated urban poverty; communities segregated by race, ethnicity and social class; the lack of high-quality programs for infants and young children; and families that lack the resources to support their children’s schooling, to name a few.”

Esther Wojcicki, Creative Commons board chair, The Huffington Post
“Yes, we need to fix our schools. However, the answer is not charter schools or getting rid of the teachers’ unions as suggested in Davis Guggenheim’s film Waiting for Superman that opened nationwide on September 24. The movie is an over-simplification of a complex problem. Teachers alone are not Supermen; even outstanding teachers cannot change the face of education alone.”

Nancy Flanagan, education writer, EdWeek
“So imagine my surprise to find, last night, this little gem in your publication: “Are Teachers Ruining Our Schools?”… Since your magazine is targeted at vibrant and energetic women with a little gray in their hair, I wonder if it occurred to you, in snagging some free content from the Superman media machine, that a whole lot of your readers are teachers — or former teachers, or sisters or best friends with a (“lousy,” “tenured”) veteran teacher. Would you print a little piece called “Are Nurses Ruining Our Hospitals?”

Education Notes Online
“The film’s premise and claims are uninformed and drastically miss the boat in terms of creating a narrative regarding the real issues our public school system faces. Further, the film completely neglects to engage in any meaningful discussion of the real reforms needed to improve educational opportunity for our children.”


Susan Graham, National Board-certified teacher, EdWeek
“Teachers are intervening in the lives of children every day and some of them have been doing it for 35 and 40 years under conditions that would crush the spirit of a mere mortal. They’re not out there trying to “fix” children so that they look more like little Bruce Wayne Juniors. Most teachers are doing all they can to empower children to define and pursue their own understanding of truth, justice and the American Way. All we ask is that we be allowed to do our job without the Kryptonite of manipulation by power brokers, exploitation by politicians, and denigration by the media.”

Waiting for Superman: An Insult to Educators — California Teachers Association member Amy Sullivan
“Waiting for Superman totally goes against everything I have ever experienced in my twenty-plus years of working with children and staff in regular public schools. The vast majority of other public school teachers I have had the honor to work with put in ten-plus hours/day on their job, work weekends, and spend thousands of dollars of their own money on school supplies/incentives for students. Despite being treated with very little respect and support and given very poor pay, they persevere because of their commitment to giving children the best education they can and because they want to battle against the inequalities inherent in our culture.”

An Upset Educator’s Letter to Oprah: Ask Teachers — Oklahoma Education Association member Britton Gildersleeve
“I wish someone who knew even a little bit about real classrooms, the heart-breaking challenges teachers face daily (teachers spend an average of $400 annually, out of their own meager salaries, to equip their rooms), had a national forum.”

In this New York Times Letters to the Editor round-up on Waiting for Superman, several current and former educators question the premise of the film.


While Waiting for Superman‘s promoters have been busy selling their movie, NEA leaders have been hard at work promoting the message of collaboration and innovation — the foundation of meaningful reform — in education. (Check out a complete video library of NEA leaders’ TV appearances here.) Both NEA president Dennis Van Roekel and Vice President Lily Eskelsen have been highlighting the work of educators through NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign and the need to have their voice at the table in order to transform public education.


NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign— See what real reform that begins with educators looks like.
Not Waiting for Superman
— From Rethinking Schools
Not Waiting for Superman — From the American Federation of Teachers
Not Waiting for Superman Facebook page
The Waiting for Superman Paradox — A closer look at the film’s central argument
The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman
Education Votes — Public education activists get energized for the November mid-terms
Speak Up for Education & Kids Facebook page
NEA’s Press Center
EdVoices — See what pro-public education bloggers are saying today


  • The film promotes nostalgia for a school system of years past, seemingly forgetting past inequities like segregated schools; institutionalization of children with disabilities; and marginalization of and discrimination against female teachers and teachers of color.
  • The film glosses over the negative effects of testing mania and Bush-era reforms (NCLB) and ignores the impact of these so-called reforms on certain student populations, such as students with disabilities and rural students.
  • The film promotes charter schools as the silver bullet to improve public education, even as it admits that only one charter school in five is more effective than a traditional public school.  There is absolutely no discussion of the research confirming that public schools generally outperform charter schools.
  • The film’s producer interviewed experts who are uniformly anti-union—mostly “reformers” who believe teachers’ unions are the main obstacle to great public schools.  Guggenheim does not interview a single superintendent or politician who has a collaborative relationship with the union where real transformation has taken place (like in Chattanooga, Columbus, OH, Denver and other places.)
  • The film blindly supports the Administration’s “reforms” without displaying any real understanding of the issues at hand.
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  • Pamela McNamara

    I saw “Waiting for Superman” tonight. I would like to hear:

    * What does the NEA think the movie got right?

    * What 1 year and 2 year actions are the NEA undertaking right now to improve kid’s academic performance, at the grade school level and high school level? Where can I find out this information?

    Thank you,
    Pam McNamara
    Oak Park, IL

    • Cynthia McCabe

      Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts. You’ll definitely want to learn more about NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign at That effort by the NEA focuses on turning around lower-performing schools by significantly raising academic achievement. NEA’s commitment to these priority schools finds them working side-by-side with communities and with policymakers in state capitals, in Congress and the Obama administration; partnering in pursuit of innovative programs to measure student success and teacher quality; and fighting to attract and keep the best educators and necessary resources for the schools of greatest need. You can find a state-by-state guide to the work NEA is doing with these schools.

  • Thank you to the NEA for gathering all of this information under one roof. It’s a great resource for those of us in education who are following the film and what is written about it. Wanted to mention that for educators who want make their voices heard, you can join the debate we recently launched at:

    We’re honored to have NEA’s Executive Director John Wilson weighing in on the topic of teacher tenure, as well as Geoffrey Canada, President of Harlem Children’s Zone, who is in the film. More than 900 people, many of them teachers, have posted their ideas and opinions since we put the debate up a few days ago. We welcome comments.

    Danielle Wood

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  • Yvonne

    I didn’t have the takeaway from the film that charter schools = good and public schools = bad. I think the filmmaker was just trying to point out that certain charter schools have been able to excel because they have not been restricted by some of the boundaries the traditional school systems have put in place. In fact, I feel the filmmaker meant the contrary. I think it was pretty clear the filmmaker felt the charter system was unfair and that we should provide a valuable education to all students. I thought he was merely suggesting that the public school system adopt some of the practices and “new ideas” of the successful schools in America, especially when they are producing results with kids who are regularly deemed “helpless.”

    I also disagree with the reaction to the films stance on teacher’s unions. While I agree that the film did not promote a positive image of the union, I don’t think the message was that the unions should not exist. I think many things that unions fight for are in the best interest of the institution, but when unions support things like tenure over decent salaries, they should not be surprised when they are questioned. If the union honors their profession, they should fight to keep its dignity by relieving it of those who do not withhold it. They will never gain respect in the community until they hold their profession to some type of evaluation/merit/standard.

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  • Stacey Allen

    I rented Waiting for Superman and watched it with my husband in my own home. He, not being an educator, believed the documentary to be correct in every aspect. I explained how misdirected the movie was to him. We live near a large urban school district which has many problems and mostly failing schools. Within that district there are a few schools which perform well. The reason those particular schools perform well is not because it has better teachers! It is because the students who go to that school come from better backgrounds and have parents who support their education. For example, my younger sister who has a doctorate in chemistry has tried MANY times to get a job at the high school in that area. The principal told her that the teacher he has is a weak teacher, but he cannot find a reason to fire him, because he still brings good test scores for his AP chemistry classes. My sister took a job at another school in the same district teaching inner city children. She spends hours planning lessons, making interesting activities to excite the students about learning, etc…. The students in her class hate her. They don’t want to learn anything she is teaching. They curse her, steal from her, and tell her all they want is a grade, not a lecture. The feel they are entitled to a grade without the effort to earn it, because this is what they have learned from their FAMILIES, not from their TEACHER. Needless to say, my sister is finishing the year at that school to fulfill her contract, and coming to my suburban district for less pay. We are 10 miles away and we make ten thousand dollars less than the teachers in the city make. Our school system gets top test scores across the entire county, but it’s not because we have better TEACHERS. We have a better COMMUNITY. We don’t have the crime, drugs, and unwillingness to work hard that the inner city has. We have hard working families who want what is best for their children. The children who struggle have parents who come in for teacher meetings to take advantage of the parent trainings we give them on how to work with their children AT HOME. They go over their child’s homework with him or her each night. They read to their children, and make sure they have the things they need each day. Of course, we do have some exceptions to the “norm” in our school system. We have a few parents who just think if they send their children into the building we will perform some kind of miracle and teach them everything they should have learned since birth in kindergarten. Those parents find out quickly that it will take their cooperation at home or an extra year of transition to get their child up to the standards we expect from our students. We have accountability for teachers, parents, and STUDENTS. That is what makes a school system work. TEACHERS are not and will not ever be super heroes. They cannot do it alone. Giving birth does not make a parent a parent any more than a college degree makes a teacher a teacher. It is what that person does that determines what they will be. I wish someone would do a documentary about how my school system works so that people can see it takes everyone working together to educate children.

  • Jeff H

    I can’t express how strongly I believe that public schools and dedicated teachers will form the solution to the education crisis we face in our nation. Nor how strongly I believe that the efforts of the NEA and AFT to promote employment-for-life of the incompetent and mediocre among teachers is the greatest stumbling block, with NEA’s local support of counterproductive, kid-damaging work rules embodied within teacher contracts coming in second place.

    Teachers must regard themselves as professionals. Such a view is inconsistent with union membership, which has at its core a collectivist mentality that impedes individual accountability.

    None of what I say here minimizes the many challenges you teachers face. But frankly, the issue isn’t how hard your job is – it’s how well you do it. Administrators need to support and guide teachers in your quest to be more effective, but at the same time they need the ability to eliminate ineffective teachers and replace them as necessary. And the NEA leadership knows full well that its clarion call has always been Tenure, Tenure, Tenure.

    The public will not accept this for long. Be prepared for public action to outlaw tenure, to outlaw unionization of professional public employees, and to mandate employment-at-will for professional public employees. Without these critical changes, mediocrity will continue to reign in too many public schools. We can’t allow that; our public schools are too important to our future, and our kids deserve better from us.

  • Carrie P.

    I also believe that the film did not have an evil plot against charter schools or teachers. I don’t believe the film was wholly against teachers’ unions either. The film was against what wasn’t working for students: lazy teachers attracted to the job for vacation time and health care, curriculum that doesn’t meet standards, contracts that limit what schools can pay teachers to do, and the boundless inflexibility in all situations. What Rhee kept saying is, “It always comes down to the adults.” Adults are the selfish ones. What is the point of education? To make the best, socially adept adults we can out of our kids. In order for us to do that, we need to put our needs aside. If you can’t do that, you are in education for the wrong reasons. I felt the film praised quality teachers. I felt that the film showed no matter where you live, or what your economic status, your child can learn with a good, caring teacher. The only thing I did feel the film left out was the students with learning disabilities, as this is a major problem in NCLB.

  • So, I watched the movie last night and wondered: If you think you’re right about the solution to the education problem, why are parents waiting in long lines and sitting in large auditoriums for lotteries to get their kids into the schools promoted by the movie?

    Why don’t you make your own movie as a response to the Superman movie? Surely, with all the resources at your disposal, you could put something together that offers a compelling rebuttal. I’d be happy to see what your response would be. Really. I want to know both sides, but I want to watch a documentary with real teachers talking about the issues presented in Superman and what you plan to do about them.

    Thank you.


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