Canards of Waiting for Superman






Oval Callout: Hello Superfriends,
A canard is an old French word that refers to a misleading story or statement. It literally means “duck,” referring to the way ducks lead hunters away from their ducklings by pretending to be wounded. We must use all of our superpowers to fight the powerful duck$ who would undermine public education!










aiting for Superman shows quite clearly that both parents and children care about their schools and their education. Also, we agree, as stated in the movie that “it’s a lie that disadvantaged kids can’t learn.” The point of the movie seems to be to make people believe that educators in public schools would disagree with this statement. Of course, they don’t!

Nevertheless, this sentiment can mislead. As concerned citizens, we must be careful not to allow this sentiment to shift the responsibility of education onto children. We must also be careful not to allow this sentiment to make us oblivious to the fact that socio-economic conditions do, in fact, impact learning.



Below, we highlight other misleading claims made in Waiting for Superman. (It is a movie after all, and, like all good movies there is some good staging of events.) As educators, we do not accept the primary lessons that this movie presents: teachers are bad and charter schools are good. There are, however, lessons to be drawn that, if taken seriously, can help to maintain the American legacy of a strong and effective system of free, universal public education.



Claims and Things to Think About


Claim: Charter schools outperform regular public schools.

Fact check: The video rightfully observes that only 1 in 5 charter schools outperforms comparable regular public schools. This is close to correct, but the real figure is slightly lower at 17%. More troubling is that 37% of charter schools actually do worse. In other words, choosing a charter school doubles the chance of your child receiving a poor education (CREDO, 2009).


We should also question how the 17% of charter schools that are making a difference achieve their results. Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Success Academy kicked out an entire class of students based on their test scores. In other words, Canada raised the “success” of his school by forcing out the very students he claims to serve because they couldn’t make the grade.


Despite the poor performance of charter schools, Bill Gates claims that the top charter schools send 90% of their students to college. But, as Howard Blume reports, "[Gates'] words are either too imprecise or simply mistaken. The actual stat is that some of the best charters get at least 90% of their seniors accepted to college. For the most part, there is no tracking of how many of a charter's fifth graders, or even ninth graders, will graduate high school, let alone attend college." In other words, it is not difficult to manufacture this kind of statistic if you don't count a lot of kids!



Claim: The video draws on the results of international test scores to characterize U.S. public schools as failing.

Fact check: Frequently unreported are facts such as the U.S. contributes the highest percentage of high-achievers “to the global talent pool” on international tests in science. In fact, if one examines the number of highest-scoring students in science, the United States has 25% of all high-scoring students in the world. Japan is a distant second at 13% (OECD, 2009, p. 21). As the late Gerald Bracey points out in his 2009 report On the Condition of Public Education, “Well-resourced schools…are showing excellent results.” Bracey's contention bears in the actual test scores cited to malign U.S. public education. The most recent results of two of these international tests -- Progress in International  Reading Literacy Study and Trends in International Math and Science Study -- break down scores according to poverty level. As Joanne Barkan reports, in schools where the poverty rate was less than 10 percent, U.S. students ranked first in reading, first in science, and third in math; where the poverty rate was 10-25 percent, U.S. students still ranked first in reading and science. But, as the poverty rate rose, students ranked lower and lower...the average ranking of U.S. students reflects this.




Claim: Seventy percent of students do not read at grade level.

Fact check: The study from which producers draw this figure actually demonstrates the inverse: 75% of 8th graders nation-wide read at or above the basic level required of their grade level (National Assessment of Education Progress, 2009).



Claim: The movie points out that, on average, we spend $9,000 per student in public schools nationally. (Tuscaloosa is at $9,570. Alabama is at $10,728.) Therefore, funding is not the problem.

Fact check: Interestingly, the very next scene after this claim shows an overcrowded public school in Harlem. Funding could change that; funding matters (Darling-Hammond, 2010). Furthermore, it could be argued that the achievement difference in the few charter schools that over-perform is attributable to funding. SEED (where Anthony applied), for example, spends $35,000 per student; Geoffrey Canada’s organization commands more than $200 million in assets and Canada makes some $400,000 annually (Ravitch, 2010).



Claim: Tenure precludes administrators from getting rid of bad teachers.

Fact check: The movie shows that this is not true. Michelle Rhee managed to fire 241 teachers in D.C. Tenure means the right to due process, not a lifetime appointment. It means that one cannot be fired for political reasons or differences in beliefs. A far more important problem is the teacher shortage and teacher attrition. Half of those who enter teaching are gone in five years, mostly due to poor working conditions. Did we mention that funding matters? Do we really want Rheeform? See the truth about many of Michelle Rhee's claimed "successes" at






1.                 Address poverty. We do not claim that there are not bad public schools and Waiting for Superman presents some real solutions. The Harlem Success School, for example, provides a full service experience that seeks to overcome the effects of poverty. This is a point that Waiting for Superman ignores. If we as a society address poverty, we will also be addressing education. Such non-school factors account for approximately 60% of the variance in achievement outcomes. In other words, the claim in Waiting for Superman that failing schools lead to failing neighborhoods and not vice versa is simply wrong.

Critics of public education are happy to cite international test comparisons and rankings to malign public schools, but they rarely cite comparisons and rankings that get to root causes. For example, the United States ranks 17 of 21 industrialized nations in terms of the material well-being of children and 24 of 24 in terms of the percentage of children growing up in relative poverty (UNICEF, 2007).



Social expenditures and child poverty—the U.S. is a noticeable outlier




2.                 Provide excellent and equitable educational opportunities for ALL children. One of the charter schools featured operated from a philosophy of detracking, allowing all students access to a college preparatory curriculum. Waiting for Superman makes it seem as though this is somehow not permitted in regular public schools. In fact, public schools can and should detrack. Many are doing so with great success.



3.                 Provide all students with credentialed teachers. Quality teachers, with proper preparation (not Teach for America) and advanced degrees, make a difference (Darling-Hammond, et al, 2005). Teachers can account for up to 20% of the variance in achievement outcomes. Waiting for Superman creates the illusion that our schools are overrun with bad teachers. They are not.



4.                 Give teachers time and instructional support. Despite popular belief, teachers have insufficient preparation time and opportunities to collaborate. In the highest needs schools where class size tends to be largest, teachers also lack instructional support such as teacher aides. Note that in Canada’s Harlem Success School, students in need of remediation were provided one-on-one tutoring.


5.        Follow Finland. Waiting for Superman highlights Finland as an exemplar of providing good education. Interestingly, the example of Finland contradicts most of Waiting for Superman. There are very few private schools in Finland and tuition fees are prohibited. Teachers in Finland have a strong union, are granted tenure, are highly educated, and treated as professionals. Additionally, families benefit from cradle to grave social welfare systems including universal day-care, pre-school, and healthcare all of which are proven to help children achieve better results in school. Only 2.8% of children in Finland live in poverty compared to 22% in the United States.  (See lesson #1)



6.        Free teachers to engage in more teaching and less testing. Michelle Rhee claims to be focused on “producing results for kids.” By this, she means raising test scores. However, a focus on raising test scores is not education. The most meaningful learning cannot be measured on a bubble sheet. Furthermore, such a focus (directed by, for example, No Child Left Behind) has led to widespread fraud and cheating (including in Rhee’s district). Our focus should be on a broad range of teacher assessments of learning and not solely standardized tests, as the National Research Council Evaluation of Rhee's schools recommends.


What we have learned from charter schools is that teachers can be effective and be more engaged when freed from the testing movement that currently drives education policy. The barrage of testing prevents teachers from focusing on the most interesting parts of the curriculum. The curriculum narrows as teachers are bullied into a focus on the all too important test score. Engaged students learn. And, in fact, quality teaching cannot be determined solely by the breadth or percentage of the curriculum covered (as claimed in the movie). Depth must also be considered.



Bill Gates claims that our economic success as a nation relies on a good educational system. Thus, while the economy struggles, schools and teachers bear the brunt of the blame. How many teachers received multi-million dollar bonuses and stock options when the mortgage firms were irresponsibly creating the financial meltdown that put America into deep recession?  When the economy was booming, did Gates thank our teachers?  Please, thank a teacher today!



Important Videos to Watch after Viewing "Waiting for Superman"

(important to watch even if you haven't seen Waiting for Superman):


Not waiting for superman: Who's Bashing Teachers and Public Schools and How We Can Stop Them

The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman



Eleven charts that explain everything that's wrong with America.