It's A Bird! It's A Plane! No, It's The Superman Movement!
Yes, it’s the Superman Movement. Most filmmakers must secretly dream of a sequel that is bigger, better, and more important than the original. The makers of Waiting for Superman are apparently no different. "For us, the theatrical release is just the start of social action," says Jim Berk, CEO of the aptly named Participant Media, the studio behind the movie (see here). "When I started the company, it was to motivate the grass roots and really get people to embrace an issue, and the idea was that the politics would follow," confirms Jeff Skoll, Participant’s founder and chairman.
In 2009, these leaders decided Participant needed its own organizing arm, so they invented TakePart.com, a website tied to an extensive network of social action websites. TakePart, which constructs a special operation for every film, also offers advice to potential activists on their chosen issues – what to do and how to do it.
Charter school funders gloated and applauded when an early preview clip of Superman was shown at a Grantmakers for Education (GFE) conference in Baltimore last fall. GFE is made up of a wide array of education funders, ranging from powerhouses like Gates, Broad, and Walton, to community and family foundations of every stripe. (Full disclosure: The Albert Shanker Institute is an active member.) Participant was already drawing the foundation world into Superman’s policy and action orbit, hoping its dollars would follow the movie’s message.
Participant’s movies have served this purpose well. Its two most recent Academy Award winners, An Inconvenient Truth (2007) and The Cove (2010) – using TakePart.com/thecove and TakePart.com/ait – put remarkable political weight behind those movies’ arguments about global warming and illegal Japanese dolphin-killing.
The pro-Superman network already extends far beyond Participant and Takepart. Organization upon organization is nested one within one another and then tied to a vast network of the like-minded. DoneWaiting.org, for example, is managed by Education Reform Now, which is the 501(c)3 arm of Democrats for Education Reform. It is already supported by almost 100 organizations (mostly charters and pro-charter groups), and timed its launch to coincide with the opening of Superman (see here for more on this). And so on.
Well, okay. The use of film to move an agenda is fair enough. But when it includes real lobbying for legislative action and public policy, the mobilizing film needs to meet a stellar standard for accuracy and fairness. Most (though by no means all) experts in the relevant fields seem to feel that both The Cove and An Inconvenient Truth approach that standard. Most education experts, on the other hand – even those sympathetic to the movie’s agenda (here and here, for example) – agree that Superman is miles off the mark.
Given all the hoopla, I’m still stunned at how poor an example of documentary film-making this is. While its depiction of the children and their families are poignant and compelling, the broader message is hardly a convincing backdrop for a responsible education reform movement. Its simplistic message – Charter schools: GOOD. Public schools: BAD. Charter school teachers and leaders: GOOD. Their public school counterparts: BAD – is never tempered by an objective voice. The only discordant note is offered by the teachers’ unions, who are depicted as "defenders" of the status quo. (Lighting, music, and awkward close-ups are even used to depict AFT president Randi Weingarten, a noted education reform advocate, as a force of evil.) We never see a good public school. We never meet a parent or child who likes one. We never learn that most parents actually like their neighborhood public schools. And, although the fact that only one in five charter schools is better than comparable public schools gets a mention, this fact too is glossed over.
The movie’s only prescription for helping the thousands of poor children who are inadequately served by their school systems – more charters – is, in truth, pathetically inadequate. The Harlem Children’s Zone, KIPP, and the other successful charter schools highlighted in the movie notwithstanding, anyone even vaguely familiar with the research on charters knows this to be a bad bet – with only 17 percent of charter schools outperforming public schools, versus 37 percent that do worse and 46 percent that do about the same.
Besides, whether we are talking about charters or regular publics, what happens in schools only explains about 20 percent of student achievement outcomes (about 10-15 percent being teacher effects). This is in contrast to family background, which accounts for about 60 percent (see here). The Harlem Children Zone’s founder, Geoffrey Canada, knows this. He’s raised millions of dollars to surround the children in his schools and their families with all kinds of early childhood, health, and social service supports – to the tune of $19,000 per pupil in fact. Where is Superman’s call for these kinds of super services for all who need them? Where is the movement to adopt it as a public policy? Instead, the movie and its movement seem satisfied to take shots at the teachers who struggle – and often fail – to do as much, with much, much less.
Not surprisingly, the makers of Superman hope that, like An Inconvenient Truth, the movie will spur a mass movement for change. But I am less reminded of the environmental movement than the Tea Party movement – long on passion, short on truth, and bereft of useful ideas.