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School, Activism and Politics at the Movies: Educator Reactions to the Film Waiting for “Superman”


by Christy Wessel Powell — 2014

Context:. The documentary film about U.S. education reform, Waiting for “Superman,” was met with acclaim and controversy when released to theaters in 2010, and again when launching its grassroots “host a screening” campaign in 2011. The campaign ran concurrent with 2011 state legislative sessions, during which several states (e.g., Ohio, Indiana, New Jersey, and Wisconsin) voted on education reform bills regarding teacher merit pay, probationary teacher contracts, school vouchers, changes to the school funding formula, charter school funding, and limiting teachers’ (and public workers’) collective bargaining rights—all issues touched on in the film.

Purpose: To shed light on the relationship between popular media, public opinion, and social action regarding education, I examine responses to Waiting for “Superman” across different viewer demographics and relate responses to educational policy stances. The following research questions are considered: 1. Why did people watch Waiting for “Superman”? 2. How did different education stakeholders (preservice teachers, current teachers, academics, community members, etc.) react to the film? Were some groups more likely to accept, negotiate with, or oppose the film’s message? 3. What role, if any, did the film play in viewers’ stances on education reform or intention to take social action in the education reform movement?

Participants: Participants include 168 self-selected audience members attending free public film screenings at a midwestern university.

Research Design: Mixed methods research design compares audiences’ descriptive statistics alongside open-ended survey responses and interview data.

Results: Viewers were majority young and female. Most attended because they were interested in the topic, wanted to learn more, or came with a friend. Audience responses were complex and nuanced, i.e., 38% volunteered positive reactions to the film and 30% criticized it in some way (not mutually exclusive). Emotional reactions were common (38%). Audience members tended to respond to the film based on their direct prior experience (or lack thereof) with the U.S. public education system. The majority of current teachers in the audience chose not to participate in the study, perhaps because of the contentious political climate. Fifteen percent of audience members were “inspired” to act after viewing, and half of those were preservice teachers, but none were current teachers.

Conclusions: In vilifying teachers’ unions, thereby marginalizing some great teachers, the film’s producers may have missed the chance to effect lasting change in the education system. While potentially polarizing, popular film may be an effective way to engage preservice teachers in complex education topics. Contextualizing discussion with a multiperspective panel afterward is recommended.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 116 Number 3, 2014, p. -
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17358, Date Accessed: 10/19/2017 2:14:59 PM

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About the Author
  • Christy Wessel Powell
    Indiana University
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTY WESSEL POWELL is a PhD student in the Department of Literacy, Culture, and Language Education at Indiana University. She began teaching through the Teach for America program, and taught K-2 for six years in public, private and charter school settings in Chicago, Philadelphia and Brooklyn, New York. She is interested in the intersections of popular media, policy, social action, and classroom practice, particularly with regard to education reform. Recent publications include: Husbye, N. E., Buchholz, B. A., Coggin, L. S., Wessel-Powell, C., & Wohlwend, K. E. (2012). Critical lessons and playful literacies: Digital media in PK-2 classrooms. Language Arts, 90(2), 82-92. Wessel Powell, C., & Husbye, N. E. (2013). Mediation Levels in a Preschool Playshop. In K. E. Wohlwend, Literacy Playshop: Playing with New Literacies and Popular Media in the Early Childhood Classroom (pp. 44-76). New York: Teachers College Press.
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