'Waiting For Superman' Timeline Shows How the Education Documentary Became a Horror Film for Teacher's Unions

As a former liberal, I know exactly how punishing the left can be to anyone who goes off the reservation.

This is particularly true on the cultural left – the arts and creative fields. So when filmmaker Davis Guggenheim unleashed his take on the American educational system in 2010, I’m sure he had absolutely no idea what he was in for and how his film “Waiting for ‘Superman'” would lead rather directly to thousands of people protesting in Wisconsin during early 2011, as this timeline and list of links that I’ve put together pretty clearly shows that it did.

“‘Superman'” is available on Netflix streaming right now. If you care about the country’s future, you should watch it. I think the film occupies a nether region politically, because while most of the film’s message is conservative/libertarian, Guggenheim’s main claim to fame is his Al Gore climate documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” I think this may have caused many advocates of small government to take a pass on the film, but now that it’s out on video and Netflix, I urge you to reconsider that decision.

Back of March of last year, education reform expert Kyle Olson wrote here on Big Hollywood about his reaction to “‘Superman.'”

I’d gone in expecting Guggenheim to make excuses for the state of public education. Instead, Guggenheim grabbed the whole thing by the throat and didn’t let go.

He told stories of children who were victimized by a system that puts adults first. He told of union campaign contributions that go to politicians who, in turn, act as the teacher unions’ political puppets. He showed rowdy union rallies and rubber rooms and classrooms that were out of control.

I marveled that a mainstream (liberal) movie maker was exposing the sorry state of public education and the destructive nature of the well-heeled teacher unions.

Needless to say, Guggenheim’s film did not play well with the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. They set up websites to attack his film. They dispatched high profile speakers around the country to fight back. And they cheered when Guggenheim was snubbed out of a nomination for another Oscar.

Look at this timeline I put together of some key events surrounding the film and the issues it discusses. What you’ll see is a three-act drama playing out in real life. In the first act, the film by a director with an established liberal pedigree got the full star treatment: high-profile premiere in Washington, a slot on Oprah and even a screening at the White House for president Barack Obama.

The timeline also shows the second-act backlash that started almost immediately and then intensified after the November 2010 elections, a crucial election of great importance because it swept Gov. Scott Walker to power in Wisconsin.

As you read this timeline, try and put yourself in the place of the powerful teachers unions and imagine the growing sense of dread they must’ve felt to see their allies embracing a film that accurately points out the destructive influence they have in the education process. If you want to understand what happened in Wisconsin in 2011 — the anger, fury, and desperate flailings of public sector unions — this timeline lays bare a progression of events that I believe led to those raw nerves.

The third act is up to you, by the way. It’s unwritten. Watch the film, tell your friends and make it a happy ending.

September 14, 2010 : Waiting For Superman premieres in Washington, D.C. President Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gives the film high praises, calling it a “Rosa Parks moment.”

A number of other high profile liberal politicians were in attendance, as The Hollywood Reporter mentioned:

In addition to Duncan and several others from his Education Department staff, David Axelrod, senior adviser to President Obama; Melody Barnes, head of the president’s Domestic Policy Council; Heather Higginbottom, deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy; Rep. Jane Harman; Rep. Mary Bono Mack; Sen. Al Franken; Sen. Scott Brown; Sen. Christopher Dodd; and Sen. Frank Lautenberg attended.

September 17, 2010 : Rick Ayers (brother of Billy Ayers) publishes a blog at The Huffington Post called An Inconvenient Superman: Davis Guggenheim’s New Film Hijacks School Reform that’s highly critical of the film and makes a special point to defend the teacher’s unions. He writes:

After dismissing funding as a factor, Superman rolls out the drum-beat of attacks on teachers as the first and really the only problem. Except for a few patronizing pats on the head for educators, the film describes school failure as boiling down to bad teachers. Relying on old clichés that single out the handful of loser teachers anyone could dig up, Waiting for Superman asserts that the unions are the boogey man. In his perfect world, there would be no unions — we could drive teacher wages even lower, run schools like little corporations, and race to the bottom just as we have in the manufacturing sector. Imagining that the profit motive works best, the privatizers propose merit pay for teachers whose students test well.

September 20, 2010 : Oprah Winfrey devotes the Oprah show to Waiting For Superman; features Bill Gates and the film’s director Davis Guggenheim. Her website calls the film “The Movie That Could Revolutionize America’s Schools.” The Oprah website features a response from the Teacher’s Union which acknowledges issue of bad teachers but provides no solution.

September 24, 2010 : Waiting For Superman is released in theaters.

September 29, 2010 : Influential liberal film critic Roger Ebert gives Waiting For Superman a very positive 3 and a half star review. He writes:

One problem with most schools, Guggenheim says, is that after teachers gain tenure in two years, it is almost impossible to fire them. In Illinois, for example, one out of 57 doctors loses his medical license, but only one in 2,500 teachers is fired. Some teachers flatly inform their students they have no intention of teaching. Guggenheim blames the powerful American Federation of Teachers, which is the top donor to national Democratic campaigns and state Republican campaigns. Any move to discipline incompetent teachers is met with fierce resistance. A union teacher is a teacher for life. That teachers themselves accept this is depressing.

Ebert also mentions:

Of developed nations, American students rank last in math skills. When the students are asked to guess their standing, Americans put themselves first. Meanwhile, jobs in Silicon Valley go without qualified Americans to fill them, and tech companies must import skilled employees from India and other “poor” countries.

October 11, 2010 : President Obama screens Waiting For Superman and has a photo-op with the children from the film at the White House.

October 22, 2010 : Apple CEO Steve Jobs meets with President Obama to discussion education and employment. He told Obama:

“You’re headed for a one-term presidency,” he told Obama at the start of their meeting, insisting that the administration needed to be more business-friendly. As an example, Jobs described the ease with which companies can build factories in China compared to the United States, where “regulations and unnecessary costs” make it difficult for them.

Jobs also criticized America’s education system, saying it was “crippled by union work rules,” noted Isaacson. “Until the teachers’ unions were broken, there was almost no hope for education reform.” Jobs proposed allowing principals to hire and fire teachers based on merit, that schools stay open until 6 p.m. and that they be open 11 months a year.

November 4, 2010 Scott Walker is elected Governor of Wisconsin.

January 13, 2011 : Diane Ravitch writes a scathing review of Waiting For Superman in the New York Times Review of Books. She says:

Waiting for “Superman” is the most important public-relations coup that the critics of public education have made so far. Their power is not to be underestimated. For years, right-wing critics demanded vouchers and got nowhere. Now, many of them are watching in amazement as their ineffectual attacks on “government schools” and their advocacy of privately managed schools with public funding have become the received wisdom among liberal elites.


There is a clash of ideas occurring in education right now between those who believe that public education is not only a fundamental right but a vital public service, akin to the public provision of police, fire protection, parks, and public libraries, and those who believe that the private sector is always superior to the public sector. Waiting for “Superman” is a powerful weapon on behalf of those championing the “free market” and privatization. It raises important questions, but all of the answers it offers require a transfer of public funds to the private sector.

January 25, 2011 : Academy Award nominations are announced and Waiting For Superman is snubbed. Washington City Paper writer Benjamin Freed responds:

it was poorly argued and heralded charter schools as a silver-bullet fix to one of the country’s more complex problems, so I was quite pleased to find out this morning that it did not make the final cut for the Academy Awards.

In an end-of-year essay last month, A.O. Scott charged Guggenheim with ‘intellectually lazy and emotionally manipulative‘ filmmaking, and it was easy to see why. Waiting for “Superman” positioned former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee as one of the film’s heroes for her dogged moves against teachers’ unions and promotion of charter schools. “

January 26, 2011 : Roger Ebert recants his positive review of Waiting for Superman.