Waiting for Superman

“Waiting for Superman” (2010). Davis Guggenheim, director. Paramount/Vantage, 102 minutes. Documentary.
Reviewed by Jo Ann Skousen
“Waiting for Superman” created a sensation at the Sundance Film Festival this year, and is creating an even greater sensation since its limited opening in a few major cities this week. Its premise is the failure of what Geoffrey Canada, president of Harlem Children’s Zone, calls “our implicit promise to students: that the idea of public school could work.” Public schools did work for the first 50 years, but they are failing now. This film explores the causes and solutions as it follows the experiences of half a dozen young students trying to get a better education than the one offered by their local public school.
As the film begins, Canada tells the story of learning from his mother that Superman was not a real person. He began to cry, he tells us, not because he compared Superman to Santa Claus, but because it meant that “no one was coming with enough power to save us.” Even as a young child, he could see the problems of poverty, crime, and unemployment in his neighborhood. He needed a hero with power. As an adult, he realized the super power that comes from education.
The documentary focuses largely on minority kids attending inner city schools in neighborhoods that are in shambles. As one bright young boy, Anthony, leaves for school, his grandmother calls out, “Be careful.” Not “Have a good day” or “Behave yourself” or “See you this afternoon,” but “Be careful.” These are rough neighborhoods where education is not a priority for the majority of young people.
But the filmmakers also visit Redwood City, CA, a well-to-do neighborhood near San Francisco, where the percentage of students moving on to college is also dismally low. Here the problem is not poverty but “tracking,” the practice of determining which students should be sent along a college track and which should be sent on a vocational track. The problem is, once a student starts down a lower track, it becomes increasingly difficult to move up to the college track. As the filmmakers point out, this system was designed 50 years ago, when only 20 percent of students went to college and the rest provided a pool of labor for the robust post-WWII economy. Today, the kinds of factory jobs available to the Baby Boomers have been mechanized out of existence or sent overseas. Everyone needs a college education today. But not everyone is being prepared for it.
Dropout rates are high throughout the country, not just in the South or the inner cities. One school administrator admits that their freshman class normally numbers 1200 or so, but by their sophomore year the number has dropped to 300-400, an astounding loss of 75 percent! Over 2,000 schools are failing nationwide, causing many of them to be called “Dropout Factories” instead of high schools. Most are in poor urban neighborhoods, where the majority of young adults end up either dead or in prison. But the filmmakers ask a provocative question: Do failing neighborhoods produce failing schools, as conventional wisdom suggests, or do failing schools produce failing neighborhoods?
The real enemy, according to this film, is not the parents or the neighborhoods, but the teachers union that controls the supply and demands of teachers. Union bosses mandate uniform pay, uniform benefits, and a system of tenure that makes it virtually impossible to fire a bad teacher. Instead, the worst teachers are shuffled from school to school in what is derisively called “the turkey trot” or the “lemon dance.” In Manhattan, teachers awaiting disciplinary hearings cannot be fired, so they are sent to the infamous “Rubber Room” where they receive full pay for sitting all day, some of them for as many as seven years. The hope, of course, is that they will become so bored that they will quit and find a job doing something else, but most stick it out. After all, they get paid whether they work or not. Manhattan pays these teachers a shocking $100 million a year not to teach.
Under union rules, good teachers and bad teachers are paid the same wage. It is illegal in most states to give merit pay for a job well done. So why try harder? Teachers have been heard saying, “I get paid whether you learn or not” as they read newspapers or play games on the computer while students goof off. Try doing that in any other job or profession, and see how long you would last.
Schools have also become bloated with administrators and bureaucrats. In Washington DC, school superintendent Michelle Rhee was able to bring back music teachers, art teachers, P.E. teachers, librarians and nurses on every campus, by cutting central bureaucrats, eliminating some principals, and closing failed schools. When she offered teachers the potential of nearly doubling their salaries if they would give up tenure, many seemed interested. But the union would not even let it come to a vote. That’s how frightened they are of competition.
They are also frightened of losing their control over Congress. The documentary claims that teachers unions are the largest contributors to political campaigns, giving around $55 million per year to various politicians. About 90 % of that money goes to Democratic candidates. This has successfully kept teachers unions off the table when politicians discuss education policy. As Rhee comments sadly, “It’s all about the adults.”
So what’s the solution? According to this documentary, charter schools provide the best hope for improving education. Charter schools are not private schools; they are public schools, funded by public money, but run independently. Some charter schools have particular themes, like science or performing arts. But many are dedicated simply to teaching students the basics and preparing them for college. Admittedly not all of these schools are effective, but the top charter schools are sending an impressive 90% of their students to college.
Some argue that the success of these schools is related to cherry picking the students. However, charter schools are mandated to select students randomly, by lottery, so every student who applies has an equal chance of getting in, regardless of aptitude. Students apply for these schools knowing that there are often 30 or more applicants for each opening. Most have no choice but to return to their local public school.
Others argue that the success of these charter schools is personality driven–that they rely on the unusual talents of a few charismatic teachers who would be just as successful if they were teaching in public schools. Can their success be replicated? challengers ask.
The answer seems to be yes. The KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Schools, for example, started by Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, now have nearly a hundred schools nationwide, all producing successful, college-bound students. The KIPP schools are closing the achievement gap, with longer school days, shorter summer vacations, Saturday classes, and even inner city boarding schools. Other charter schools have the opposite approach; for a while my daughter attended a charter school designed for serious figure skaters, where classroom work took up very little of the day. The point is, charter schools give parents and their children the opportunity to choose what is best for them.
Why does this matter to those of us whose children have already graduated from college? Why should we care about improving education? The answer is obvious. This is our workforce for the future. As Bill Gates says in the film, “We can’t sustain a system of continued growth without an educated work force.” If they can’t get jobs, they’ll be living on welfare. This matters to all of us.
Although teachers unions are seen as the villains in “Waiting for Superman,” teachers themselves are portrayed as heroes. They are the Supermen and -women for whom too many students are waiting. The film ends with this paean to teachers: ” A great teacher is like a great athlete or a great musician. Teaching is a work of art.”
Unfortunately, for too many students, such great teaching is out of reach. Schools need flexibility, accountability, and competition in order to improve. I’m not sure that this documentary provides all the answers or that it sees all the causes of the problems. Certainly a difficult home environment contributes to the failure of many students. But I like Guggenheim’s notion that failing schools create failing neighborhoods, and not the other way around. Without a doubt we have perpetuated several generations of failure.
Moreover, Guggenheim’s assessment of the stagnating effect of unions and the tenure system are sound. Give teachers the risk of failure, the incentive of merit pay, and the freedom to innovate, and let’s see how quickly the best teachers rise to the top. Other teachers will soon follow, as they see that greater effort will garner greater pay. As this documentary makes it abundantly clear, it’s time to end the stifling system of tenure and unions in public education. Those who teach well have nothing to fear. Those who can’t teach effectively should go find another profession.

Mao’s Last Dancer

“Mao’s Last Dancer” (2009). Bruce Beresford, director. Great Scott Productions, 117 minutes. In English and Mandarin with English subtitles.
“Mao’s Last Dancer” is a wonderful little film that balances the horrors of communist China against the joys of dancing. Based on Li Cunxin’s autobiography of the same name, the film tells the story of a young peasant boy plucked from his village in a small village at the age of 11, transplanted to Beijing, and eventually taking root in the Houston Ballet as part of a cultural exchange program.
With no prior dance experience, Cunxin and other boys from around the country are selected purely on physique, flexibility and adherence to communist dogma to train in Madame Mao’s newly reopened Beijing Ballet Academy. Separated from his family and often homesick, Cunxin trains for 16 grueling but often unproductive hours a day. He finally catches the vision of dance when he watches a contraband video tape of Mikhail Baryshnikov, and his dancing blossoms. “Mao’s Last Dancer” juxtaposes Li’s experiences as a dance celebrity with the Houston Ballet against his austere upbringing in China, cutting between the two settings throughout the film. It is a fascinating piece of history as well as a work of art.
As Madame Mao’s thugs–er, I mean, representatives– enter Cunxin’s classroom, they order the children to sing. I suppose they were checking to see how vigorously the children mouthed the party propaganda, since it certainly did not help them know whether the children could dance. The irony of the children singing “Mao brings wealth to the people” is abundantly clear as we see the abject poverty in which the citizens of Quingdoa village exist, still living in huts and using pre-modern agricultural methods 150 years after the invention of the steam engine.
Cunxin (Chi Cao) experiences understandable culture shock as he arrives in Houston, where he lives for the summer with Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood), artistic director of the Houston Ballet. “You have all these rooms for just yourself?” he asks Ben incredulously. When Ben buys him some new clothes, Cunxin is upset by the extravagance. “My father works hard all day to earn $50 in one year. Yesterday you spent $500 in one day to buy clothes for me. Why do I need all these clothes?” Much of the film is spent watching Cunxin adapt to western ways.
But the most interesting part of the film takes place in China, where we see the young boys’ harsh training conditions and the drab world of Mao’s China. The boys are taught that the glorious goal of communism is to create a classless society. To that end they all wear matching gray pajamas and experience matching gray poverty. I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s wry quip, “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”
Yet China is anything but classless. Teachers have absolute authority over the boys. Soldiers have absolute authority over the teachers. Madame Mao dresses in the matching gray pajamas, but she arrives at the school in a stretch limousine, and when she doesn’t like the classical ballet she sees performed on the stage, the teacher who defends it is shipped out. Cunxin observes all this with rising consternation.
While living in Texas, Cunxin is required to visit regularly with the Chinese consul, who steels his mind against the temptation and corruption of capitalism. Nevertheless, Cunxin can’t help but see the contrast between the dire poverty of his school days and the wondrous freedom right in front of him. He falls in love with a sweet young ballerina (Amanda Schull), and they engage in a sweet, chaste romance that is refreshing to see in today’s cinema.
When it comes time for Cunxin to return to China, he does not want to go. Stevenson tells him that he must return; after all, that was the agreement from the beginning. He would come for a few months, and then return. If all went well, other students would be allowed to have a turn too. American companies could tour in China as well. If he does not go back, it will damage U.S./Sino relations, (and won’t be good for Stevenson’s tour schedule either). A lot rides on the shoulders and ethics of this young dancer who, having tasted the drug of freedom, is now addicted to it and unwilling to live without it.
Cunxin’s family back home is in danger too. If he defects, they might lose everything they have, including their lives. Readers may remember his plight becoming an international incident in 1981, requiring the intervention of then Vice President George Bush, Sr. The political and emotional tension of this section of the film is powerful and well developed, making it a film well worth watching, even for those who have no interest in ballet.
Nevertheless, what makes this film soar is the beautiful dancing, the intimate love story, and the longlasting family relationship between Cunxin and his parents, a relationship that remains strong despite their being pulled apart when Cunxin was just a boy. This film, about the triumph of the human spirit and the sovereignty of the individual, is one you will long remember.


Conviction, directed by Tony Goldwyn. Fox Searchlight, 2010, 106 minutes.
Convict. Verb: to prove or find a person guilty. Noun: a person serving a prison sentence.
Conviction: an unshakable belief in something without need for proof or evidence.
The title of the film Conviction is perfectly ambiguous, focusing on both the guilty verdict of the defendant in a murder case and on the unshakable belief of his sister that he is innocent. The movie is based on the true story of Betty Anne Waters, who spent 18 years earning a GED, a BA, and finally a law degree in order to get her brother released from prison, and now serves as an attorney for the Innocence Project. Along the way she lost her marriage and fulltime custody of her children; her brother Kenny lost his relationship with his daughter, who was a toddler when he was arrested. As presented in the film, the case involved dirty politics, suborned witnesses, and the rush to remove criminal types from the community, even if they are not actually guilty. And it demonstrated the indefatigable love of a sister and a brother.
The film opens with a walk through the bloody murder scene, reminding the audience that a brutal crime has been committed, and a victim is dead. It’s appropriate to remember the victim in any crime story. But convicting the wrong man is also a crime of violence, a crime often overlooked in the rush to convince voters that the district attorney’s office is doing its job to keep criminals off the streets.
After the murder, Kenny (Sam Rockwell) is immediately brought in for questioning, because he has a record as a barroom brawler and petty thief. Kenny takes the arrest with the wisecracking aplomb of a man who is constantly hauled downtown every time a crime has been committed. Betty Anne (Hilary Swank) arrives at the jail with the same longsuffering resignation of a sister who has done it all before. He is released, and all is forgotten–until two years later, when he is arrested for the murder and eventually convicted, with a sentence of life without parole.
The film uses flashbacks to show the kind of life Kenny and Betty Anne had as children. Their mother has nine children by seven men, and is often absent. As they grow up, they are in and out of foster homes and in and out of trouble, mostly trespassing and vandalism. Kenny in particular is seen as a wisecracking hothead, the kind of guy who has a biting sense of humor and makes everyone laugh, even when they’re exasperated. Because of their difficult background, the two siblings are unusually close.
When Kenny is convicted, Betty Anne vows to get him out by earning a law degree. She doesn’t even have a high school diploma, and she is often at the bottom of her class. Her husband leaves her, and eventually so do her sons, who choose to move in with their father because their mother is so focused on her brother. In many respects, when Kenny goes to prison, so do Betty Anne, her family, and Kenny’s daughter.
During her legal studies, Betty Anne comes across a brand new line of evidence: DNA testing. She contacts Barry Scheck, founder of the Innocence Project, and the search is on to gain access to evidence that has been locked away for 18 years and possibly has been destroyed. As the movie tells it, far from serving the cause of justice, police officers and prosecutors involved in the case do everything they can to stonewall the new investigation and prevent the truth from coming out. As Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) drily explains, “People don’t like to admit when they’ve made a mistake.”
One must recognize that this film is a dramatization, not an analytical report; one must allow for dramatic license in its telling of this particular story and its representation of the characters. Betty Anne Waters has said about the film, “The movie is so true to life. Not every scene happened, but every emotion happened.” But the family of Katheryn Brow, the woman Kenny Waters was accused of killing, have hired Gloria Allred to represent them in a suit for not presenting Brow in a better light.
The film emphasizes a number of problems that actually exist in the criminal justice system, especially as it is applied to poor people. Too often, police and prosecutors justify a swift arrest and conviction with the “unshakable belief” that “if he isn’t guilty of this, he’s guilty of something.” In the film, Kenny can’t afford the $25,000 to hire a private attorney, so he uses a public defender, whose case load is too heavy to give any real attention to his clients. The prosecutor takes one look at Kenny’s juvenile record and believes it is in the public’s best interest to get him behind bars. This is not untypical of the system. In addition, like many small-time criminals accused of hefty violent crimes, the Kenny whom we see in the film is at the mercy of police officers and prosecuting attorneys who have the power to coerce testimonies from petty thugs and frightened acquaintances willing to lie to protect their own freedom. Juliette Lewis gives an astounding performance as the pathetic, broken-toothed former girlfriend who testifies against Kenny after investigators threaten her with losing custody of her child.
A person who has been wrongly accused and convicted faces a double dilemma: the agony of knowing he did not commit the crime, and the knowledge that he will probably never earn parole. A person who is truly guilty can serve the minimum time, go before the parole board, express contrition and regret for the crime, and get out. A person who is not guilty must either lie and pretend to be sorry for the crime, or maintain his innocence and never get out, because parole boards never grant parole to convicts who do not acknowledge their remorse. Catch-22. If the inmate does decide to lie, that confession can be used against him if he ever earns the chance for a retrial. Consequently, convicts who have been wrongly accused of murder almost never get out.
The emergence of groups such as the Innocence Project, however, is having an impact on the system. Kenny Waters was convicted because he had the same type of blood as the perpetrator, Type O. But O is the most common of blood types. It was easy to convict defendants on the strength of matching blood types, but DNA evidence is much more precise and individualized. Since DNA testing became admissible as evidence, 254 prisoners have been exonerated and released from prison. I personally know three people who spent two decades of their lives or more in prison for crimes they did not commit. If it weren’t for the Innocence Project, they would still be behind bars.
But in many ways, they are still imprisoned. They have each lost 20 years of technology, job training, and social experience. Their children have grown up without them. Many such people have earned large financial settlements from the state, but no one can give back the time they lost. People like Betty Anne Waters and Barry Scheck are true heroes who understand the meaning of the word conviction.