‘Waiting for Superman’ stirs education debate at Harvard Kennedy School

2 min read

An advance screening of the education reform film Waiting for ‘Superman’ played to a packed house Wednesday evening followed by a panel discussion that sparked a vigorous debate mirrored the controversy the documentary has touched off across the nation.

Directed by Davis Guggenheim, Waiting for ‘Superman’ follows families across the nation in their quests to find better schools for their children. In so doing, the film promotes reforms closely associated with charter schools such as Harlem Children’s Zone, SEED and KIPP. Geoffrey Canada, Harvard Graduate School of Education graduate and Harlem Children’s Zone founder, and Michelle Rhee, M.P.P. ’97, chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, both figure prominently in the film as part discussion about how to transform failing schools.

Discussing the screening, Linda Nathan, the founding headmaster of the Boston Arts Academy, said she worried the film would feed into the misconception that reform requires a superhuman leader. “I really worry about that message—that innovation means you have to be a missionary or a hero,” she said.

Jim Berk, CEO of Participant Media (which funded and produced the documentary), was also on the panel and defended his company’s work, saying the its focus was on individuals and good storytelling.

“This film was not made for education experts,” he emphasized. “It was made to inspire an audience that doesn’t have a vested interest in the schools… The first [step] is to become inspired. Then we have a chance of sparking a movement.”

The panel was moderated by David Ager, co-director of undergraduate studies and lecturer on sociology at Harvard College. Second-year HKS student Thackston Lundy, M.P.P. ’11, former director of operations at the Williamsburg Collegiate Charter School in Brooklyn, NY, appears in the movie and also participated on the panel.

The Waiting for ‘Superman’ screening was hosted by the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School, and was a follow-on to CPL’s Gleitsman Social Change Film Forum, which brought movie industry professionals and students interested in social entrepreneurship together this past April to examine the power of film as a vehicle to catalyze social action.