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Waiting for Superman’

Adam Newman | Wednesday, February 13, 2013

“Waiting for Superman” may be one of the most important documentaries made in our lifetime. The documentary examines the failure of American education by explaining why the system fails and by sharing the stories of students who are failed by it.
The title “Waiting for Superman” comes from the gut-wrenching story of Geoffrey Canada, the founder of Harlem’s Children Zone – a charter school and social experiment that has produced jaw-dropping education outcomes in a 95-block area in Harlem – and a leader in the education reform movement. Canada recalls, “One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me Superman did not exist.” When his mother revealed that Superman was not real, he started crying “because there was no one … coming with enough power to save us [from the ghetto].”
Most Americans are also “Waiting for Superman,” but in a different way than Canada. Americans know our education system is bad, but instead of becoming active to enact positive change, they place their hopes in an elected official, such as President Barack Obama or a school chancellor such as Michelle Rhee, to “save” the American education system. 
The reality is in a robust democracy, one person, even someone as powerful as Obama or Rhee, cannot create the changes necessary to save American education on his or hee own. The size and power of this change can only come from millions of ordinary Americans who learn about the barriers to education reform, hold their politicians accountable and become involved in their local school districts. This becomes even more true due to the decentralization of America’s education system and the vast power of the special interests that guard the status quo.
I spend a lot of time trying to understand those who succeed in the public sphere and what separates them from those who do not.  My greatest realization is that the people that usually succeed in the public sphere and create positive change never got the message from critics that they were never supposed to succeed in the first place. 
In education, no one exemplifies this better than Wendy Kopp, whose name is known to few but whose organization, Teach for America, is known to millions. Teach for America is an organization that originated from Kopp’s 1989 senior thesis describing an organization that would recruit successful college students from top universities and place them in urban and rural school districts. Many did not believe she could succeed in her endeavors. Initially they were right, as the organization faced financial and logistical difficulties in its first few years. But today, Teach for America is one of the most popular service organizations that a young person can enter, with 10,000 current corps members and a 2011 application class of 48,000 with an acceptance rate of 11 percent.
While there are some legitimate critiques of its model, Teach for America has done an incredible job of placing highly talented young people, many of whom could have become investment bankers, consultants, doctors and many other respected professions, into education. Teach For America also inspires the next generation of education reform leaders by allowing its teachers to witness first hand the dysfunctions of American education and the politics that perpetuates it. Teach for America alumni include many prominent education leaders, most notably Rhee, who ran the Washington D.C. school system, and Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, who co-founded the Knowledge Is Power Program, the largest and most successful charter school network in America.
It will take thousands of Wendy Kopps running for local school boards, starting charter schools, managing school districts, teaching in urban schools and running for public office to get American education to produce the results expected of the richest country in the world.
When it comes to a decentralized issue like education, where special interests, backed by money and political power, guard the status quo, Americans have two options: one, we can continue to wait for Superman and continue to get the same mediocre results from the same dysfunctional American education system that has become an invitation to national decline. Or two, we can realize that, as Canada says, “There is no Superman coming to save [America’s kids]. All they have is us.”
Adam Newman is a senior political science major. He can be reached at
    The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.