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Education Debate Continues Despite Oscar Snub

"Waiting for Superman" documentary sparked national debate, but failed to get an Oscar nod.

Since its Sept. 2010 release, Waiting for Superman stirred a national debate about America’s education system—and generated Oscar buzz for filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, who won an Oscar for his global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth. But when the nomination list was announced, Waiting for Superman was notably absent from the five films nominated for Best Documentary Feature.

Waiting for Superman follows five students from across the United States as they seek admission by lottery into successful charter schools. One of the film’s five profiled students, Emily Jones, 15, is a Redwood City high school student. The journey she faces as she seeks admission to is woven into the film’s larger narrative concerning the state of public education in America.

Diane Tavenner, founder of Summit Public Schools, said she supports the film because she thinks it has been successful in opening up the dialogue on the state of our nation’s public schools. In order to make progress, Tavenner believes that “we have to first believe that all kids can learn…on a pretty grand scale people don’t think that.” She added that Waiting for Superman has been successful in making the public believe that any child can learn.

Despite positive reviews and a multi-million dollar Oscar campaign funded largely by the Gates Foundation, Waiting for Superman failed to make the final cut. Though mostly well-received, the film had its vocal critics.

“We need another movie,” writes New Yorker film critic David Denby, “one that shows us why some charter schools work and others don’t.

The New York Times’ A.O. Scott called Guggenheim’s film "intellectually lazy and emotionally manipulative.”

The film is particularly harsh in its criticism of the American Federation of Teachers while offering charter schools as a part of the answer to the woes of public education in the United States. The focus of the film—America’s failing public school system—is particularly relevant today as several states (and the federal government) make tough budget decisions regarding education spending.

It is hard to know whether a few vocal critics of the film derailed Superman’s Oscar dream, or if the severity with which Guggenheim treated teachers’ unions was off-putting to Academy members (mostly unionized workers themselves). But even without a chance to bring home Oscar on Sunday night, Guggenheim’s film has brought new life and energy to a national dialogue regarding education, and has shown a spotlight upon the strengthening nationwide charter school movement.

Of the schools featured in Waiting for Superman, Redwood City’s Summit Prep seemed, to many viewers, somewhat out of place among four urban high schools in rough neighborhoods. Summit Prep strikes a modest pose near downtown Redwood City. The school, founded in 2003, sits adjacent to a large business park and is housed in an unassuming old title company building.

Summit Prep is, by most standards of measurement, a high achieving charter school. Students have a strong support system of dedicated, well-compensated teachers and mentors. Nearly half of Summit’s graduates go on to be the first in their family to attend college. Class size is kept to under 25, all graduates qualify for and apply to four-year colleges (compared with 40 percent statewide), and, in 2010, Newsweek ranked Summit as the 76th best high school in the nation. The success of Summit Prep, however, represents just one side of the bigger discussion regarding charter schools.

With relatively little accountability to the government, the quality of charter schools varies widely. Many offer students remarkable support and a strong college preparatory curriculum. Others fail completely and offer students worse opportunities than local traditional public schools. Still others are operated as profit-making ventures. Fewer than 60 percent of charter schools have a waiting list, and many operate below capacity. With many charters underachieving, the result is that waiting lists for high-performing charter schools are often very long. Successful charter schools—like Summit Prep and the other four schools featured in Waiting for Superman—only tell part of the charter school story.

But Tavenner said, “The film is a wasted opportunity if we don’t use it to make a change… Saying, ‘the information is wrong. Our schools are fine,’ would be a wasted opportunity.”

Todd Dickson, Executive Director of Summit Prep, admits that “charters are not the single thing to solve education,” but he strongly believes that the public’s increasing acceptance of charter schools in the last 10 years “has changed the dialogue.” One reason charter schools are increasingly being accepted by the public is due to the sustained successes of quality charter schools like Summit Prep.

At Summit Prep, a concerted effort is made to bridge the divide between administration and teachers.

“All teachers want to feel successful,” said Dickson, when asked about Summit’s philosophy on teacher retention, “like they are part of something with real, positive outcomes.”

Diane Tavenner echoed Dickson on the importance of teacher retention, emphasizing that competitive, merit-based salaries are only part of Summit’s strategy.

“The number one thing for teachers is not salary,” she said, “It is a really professional environment where they are set up to succeed.”

The demand for quality charter schools is high among Bay Area students and families. At Summit Prep, Emily Jones was among 455 applicants for just 110 spots. Meeting such demand, Tavenner admits, is no easy task. “We’re working as fast as we can, but obviously we can’t currently meet the demand.”

Emily Jones, the Summit Prep student featured in Waiting for Superman, was unavailable for this article as Waiting for Superman’s distribution company, Paramount, has placed an indefinite media embargo on all five of the film’s profiled students. However, in an October interview with the San Jose Educational Foundation, Emily Jones explained why she sought out Summit Prep.

“I wanted to go to Summit because it was different,” said Jones. “It was smaller so there was more classroom time with the teacher…. And it’s just really unique. And it’s diverse which makes it great because there are so many kids from so many different backgrounds.”

Woodside High School, the local public school Emily was zoned for, is also quite diverse. No single ethnic group represents a majority among the school’s nearly 2000 students, and 40 percent of the students come from socioeconomically disadvantaged homes. Woodside also offers quality facilities and a diverse faculty and staff. It has a tradition of great success in academics, athletics, music, and the performing arts. The school has repeatedly been included in Newsweek’s America’s Best High Schools list and has, for the past two years, been awarded a perfect score of 10 on the California Similar School Ranking.

“Woodside is a great school. I really liked it,” said Jones. But at Woodside, because of her low test scores, Emily believed that she would be placed on a lower track than her classmates with higher test scores. “I know that being in an environment where kids aren’t as willing to learn and the teacher doesn’t communicate as well with you would have set me up for disaster.”

Redwood City residents are in a unique situation in that they can choose between a traditional public school and several high-performing schools. Parents and students in many other cities are far less fortunate. Continued nationwide debate on education reform is important if the country’s public school system is to improve. And though it will not bring home a second Oscar for Director Davis Guggenheim tonight, Waiting for Superman has certainly helped fuel this on-going dialogue regarding the state of public schooling in America.

Elaine Park February 28, 2011 at 05:56 PM
How about some comments from Woodside Principal Dave Reilly to give this article some balance? Otherwise this article just reads like an advertisement for Summit. I'd also be interested in hearing what he has to say in response to this assertion: "But at Woodside, because of her low test scores, Emily believed that she would be placed on a lower track than her classmates with higher test scores. “I know that being in an environment where kids aren’t as willing to learn and the teacher doesn’t communicate as well with you would have set me up for disaster.”" I'd like to know if this is truly the case or just an assumpion. Thanks!
Joan February 28, 2011 at 06:32 PM
I think Waiting For Superman should have received an oscar nomination. I found the movie to be very fair and balanced. Critics picked one or two things to criticize without viewing the movie as a whole and viewing it as a set of ideas for change and for discussion -- not that one idea was the best or the solution. As a Redwood City parent I do not like the tracking system at all the high schools. That is why there is a "demand" for Summit. If there is a demand by families to end the tracking system, why doesn't the School Board realize that and either change the system or allow more capacity at the successful charters.
Tina Basler March 16, 2011 at 04:19 PM
I am glad this movie didn't get an Oscar nod. While their discussion on Charter Schools is interesting, the way they targeted Woodside was ridiculous. Apparently a driveby where they pan WHS parking lot was all they needed to draw all their conclusions. And perception is everything, even when it is wrong. I am sure that Emily is a wonderful girl, but just because a 13-year old THINKS something, doesn't make it so. My WHS senior twins have dyslexia/dysgraphia and thrive in AP classes. WHS doesn't TRACK kids based on TEST SCORES. It is common knowledge that a good % of kids are just bad test takers. WHS wants every child to rise to the challenge of education and nuture students on that path. Summit was never a choice for my family. My kids are in jazz, marching band, concert band and play pit in the musicals. Summit doesn't have music. Summit doesn't have drama. My kids play football, badminton and wrestle. Summit doesn't offer competitive after school sports programs. Public schools don't get to cherry pick their students. Our public school teachers dedicated and committed to their students. And they teach EVERY child, regardless of the challenges: poverty, language, special ed. Kids who have parents who shop for the best perceived education for their child are already way ahead of the game. At least they have a parent who is involved.
Jordan Wilson April 23, 2011 at 02:09 AM
I think its fantastic that your kids have succeeded and I think its good that they've gotten the support they've needed. However, they have going for them that they have you who is clearly involved in their education and is completely supporting you. There are a lot of students who come from schools that don't put them on AP track (which is nessecary for the AP track unless they can test high entering high school) and who have parents who aren't supportive, who are not succeeding at Woodside. Your children are the exception (of students who get extra support, but not the rule. In the Sequioah district, 1 in 11 students don't graduate high school. At MA, the class of 2007-08 graduated 351 students. The grade had a total of 435 students. That means 116 students did not graduate senior year. The class of 2007-08 entered freshmen year with 565 students. According to the California Department of Education, 211 out of those 351 had taken the required courses to achieve entry in California state schools. Only six out of each group will be able to attend college. That's the rule for the schools in the district. Summit offers Girls Soccer which is competitive- the team has never lost a conference game-- though they don't offer the sports your children play. Part of the issue, is Summit doesn't have money-- the school can't afford a football team, or a badminton team-- if they could, they'd probably have it.
Jordan Wilson April 23, 2011 at 02:10 AM
Summit doesn't cherry pick btw- its a random lottery, not a merit based one. The students who go to Summit represent the demographics and backgrounds of students enrolled at the district schools
Jack Hickey September 22, 2011 at 04:07 PM
Tina, you said: "Kids who have parents who shop for the best perceived education for their child are already way ahead of the game. At least they have a parent who is involved." Exactly! That's why I have promoted choice in education. Empowering parent's to be able to "shop" is the key. Education vouchers, property tax credits, etc. are some of the means I have proposed. See: http://pave2010.com/

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