Oprah, Aspire and Waiting for Superman

At 4 p.m. (Pacific Time) today, James Willcox, CEO of the Oakland-based Aspire Public Schools, appears on the Oprah Winfrey Show along with Bill Gates and Director Davis Guggenheim to promote the much-hyped “Waiting for Superman” documentary by Guggenheim, who directed “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Oprah is giving $1 million awards to six organizations, including Aspire, which operates about 30 publicly funded, privately run charter schools in California, including seven in Oakland and Berkeley. Kids and teachers at Lionel Wilson College Prep, a middle and high school in East Oakland run by the charter management organization (API 797), are watching the pre-taped show at the school this afternoon. Here’s a quote from an Aspire news release:

“It’s an honor to be recognized by Oprah’s Angel Network as part of her call to the country to make sure every student has a chance to attend a high-quality public school,” said Aspire Public Schools CEO James Willcox. “The upcoming movie “Waiting for ‘Superman’” will challenge our country to do just that. Our success with the nearly 10,000 students Aspire serves across California is a tribute to our teachers and our team—and a reason to be incredibly optimistic about what we can achieve in every public school across the state and across the country.”

“Waiting for Superman” is about the failures of America’s public education system and why it should matter to the average American. Guggenheim makes the argument that those failures perpetuate societal ills, from national security and crime to poverty, and that it’s essential to “change the odds” for families who can’t afford a private education. He said the idea for the film stemmed from the guilt he felt while driving by his neighborhood school in Los Angeles while dropping his kids off to private schools.

It comes out on Friday.

From the clips I saw at the Education Writers Association conference in May, it promises to be compelling, provocative and heart-wrenching, if a bit simplistic. I don’t know how you produce a mainstream film about public education in America that captures the complexities of the system in less than two hours (and without putting people to sleep). But the central metaphor — the charter school admissions lottery — seems to imply that charter schools are the only ticket out for poor and working-class kids, as though neighborhood schools were something of a lost cause.

At the EWA conference, Guggenheim said the film is actually the product of two movies woven together. One strand followed a number of public school kids through the system; the other featured animated graphics and interviews with today’s most prominent education reformers and underwriters, including D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Geoffrey Canada, of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

This film will certainly get more people talking about public education, teachers unions, graduation rates and global competitiveness. Do you plan to see it? Have you caught an early screening? If and when you go, give us your review.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • J.R.

    Our kids aren’t doing too well right now, so is that some kind of threat? We should just keep any mouth breather because they take up space? Is that what you are saying?

  • Ms. J.

    My point is that “proven” in quotation marks suggests you don’t really think they are proven–quotation marks should be used either to quote someone or to show skepticism about their ideas. Your use of parenthesis, quotation marks, and other conventions is quite confusing. I think that using ‘proven’ around teachers whose worth is demonstrated by a standardized test is appropriate, and I wonder what proof you are relying on. You don’t know anything about me and to say “Although you may not think so” demonstrates further your ignorance.

  • On the Fence


    I follow you and agree with many of your points in post #45. However, you state that there are two different public school systems, sometimes even within the same school. Perhaps it is a different public school EXPERIENCE, instead of a different SYSTEM. Unfortunately, there are children who are not reaping an adequate education given the same exact environment. At Oakland Tech and some other schools, we can point to differences in ‘track’ or ‘academies’ or ‘programs’. But in many elementary and middle schools the adequately progressing children might track right alongside the kids who are not progressing adequately-same teacher, same school, same class, but different outcome. Why is this? Maybe it is not a function of the schools or the teachers at all, but the kids. You state that these kids often come from single parent homes, with little support and more emotional issues, more academic issues and lower morale/self esteem. If this is a large factor of why a child is not achieving, then why do you go on to state that those schools are failure factories, as if there were something wrong with the school/teachers.

    What if these issues could not be fixed with a charter or a ‘better’ teacher, or removal of the union, or millions in special grants? What if this had to do with the culture and the psychology and the values in the homes that cannot be adequately challenged or altered during the normal school day?

  • J.R.

    Seniority is a big pain in the *SS, and it needs to be abolished. There were two bills(AB955, AB1285) pending but were killed prematurely, and never voted on by all the representatives. This kind of political chicanery is being hailed as a victory by the CTA, and now you know what their real intentions are, they don’t give a damn about kids.

  • J.R.

    I don’t need to know you, the parents at your school should be taking care of that. Fairly soon you will have to stand on your own merit or leave, and I don’t care one way of the other.

  • J.R.

    That is “one way or the other”, and I don’t!

  • Cranky Teacher

    Sara, I don’t want to seem harsh but here is the reality: Social studies jobs are always by far the hardest to find. Only teaching art is a more difficult get. Did you not research this before? English is in higher demand than SS, multiple-subject (elem) is in higher demand, special ed is in higher demand. As for finding a job now, you are going to have to knock on some doors — did you visit middle schools in Oakland the first week of school? Introduce yourself? At our school, they RIF’d five and then, as every year, found they’d underestimated and had to hire 6 new ones the week before school. An old story. Efficient? No.

    J.R., you say “When it comes time for pay raise teachers are right at the head of the line, but when responsibility comes knocking they want to hide, why?” yet when I wrote on here that I’d be glad to trade job security protections for higher pay, did you endorse that? We haven’t had a pay raise in a decade, are working without a contract and you want to tell me we are the “head of the line”??? What planet are you talking about where teacher salaries are ahead of the line?

    You want seniority abolished BY LAW, but you aren’t proposing that it be abolished by negotiation as far as I can see. Has OUSD put anything on the table about abolishing seniority, in exchange for raising salary? Of course not, because it doesn’t have the cash.

    But I know, it’s all about the kids, so teachers shouldn’t even be asking for negotiations — arguments nobody ever makes about our royally paid cops, firemen, etc.

  • Cranky Teacher

    On the Fence,

    Sorry if I seemed to be implying it’s all the teachers. I write these in 10-minute bursts…

    In fact, I should have put “failure factories” in quotes, because that’s a cliche I did not create.

    Of course all those other things matter enormously (home life, etc.). That being said, even challenging kids deserve caring, trained teachers. The question we are arguing about is how do we get there. J.R. and many others think tenured “burnouts” are the CAUSE of the problem; I believe they are simply a SYMPTOM of systemic failure to prioritize education for “other people’s children.”

  • Katy Murphy

    If you haven’t read enough reaction pieces to Waiting for Superman yet, here’s an education writer’s take, by Beth Fertig:


  • J.R.

    I agree with you, firemen and police are royally (over)paid, but their job is very dangerous. Education still takes up about half of the budget, fire and police are not even close to taking up that much of the budget. Just so you know one of the big reasons I abhor bad teachers is that paying taxes toward salaries for anyone who doesn’t give their best is like “paying alimony to someone you are not and never would have married”. This is one one my favorite quotes and comes from a debate where this individual was asked if he thought is was fair to pay teachers union dues even when you elect not to be in the union. You pay $1000 per year if you elect to be in a union, if you elect not to be in a union you would be reimbursed $300 dollars. That’s right, you don’t get your money back, only part of it. The union can also get you fired for not paying union dues(they don’t care if you are doing a good job or not schoolkids dont pay union dues so they dont matter, but if you are not paying union dues that is a very serious matter, indeed). It is indeed all about priorities, and this debates puts to rest all of union contrived explanations for the current and longstanding mess. If you really want to learn from both sides watch this debate, and see who loses it


  • Gordon Danning

    Re: post #45: Cranky asserts that there are two public school systems: One which includes tracks at “Tech, OHigh and Skyline . . . with veteran teachers of high quality teaching college-bound students” and another “for POOR and lower-middle class children, usually from single-parent homes.”

    I don’t question Cranky’s general premise, but I’d like to note that, to the extent there is a “high quality track” at OHigh, it serves poor, largely immigrant, kids. Unlike Tech and Skyline, there are no white kids and virtually no upper middle class kids at OHigh.

  • D. Frederick

    I find it truly amazing that so many comments were exchanged and NOBODY mentioned John Taylor Gatto. He has done more to expose the ROOT of this imported and not serving our needs “Educationing System” than all the comments combined. Google him; you will be amazed and informed.

  • http://www.k12schoolsupplies.net Cara

    I was not familiar with the “Waiting for Superman,” until I watched Oprah several days ago. Wow, I am so excited to hear these discussions. I am a former elementary teacher, now stay-at-home mom. I have more teacher supplies than I know what to do with sitting in my basement, and I am not sure if I want to go back to teaching because of how the profession is changing. I will definitely keep up with this topic and hope some real solutions will come from these discussions. It is time for real change!

  • Chauncey

    Forget taking education reporters or others perspective about schools- the questions to ask are: do you have children? Where do your kids go to school? There have been many people who have lived in ghettos as some kind of mission. They paint thier home, or create urban gardens- then a kid is born and guess what? They move.Why?

    Some of us cannot move and are restricted to schools in the most terrible places. So the bottom libe is if there is a small, safe and effectice school nearby in the hodd- regardless of what the classification may be- my kids will go.

    So far OUSD has not dealt that yet.