Riese’s Team Pick: Waiting for Superman & The Lottery

Hi. I am obsessed with the catastrophic widespread failure of the American Public Education system. If it was a category on Jeopardy, I’d probably beat the super-computer.

There are sososososo many reasons why most American schools suck but don’t have to and I understand that not ALL of you want to read Savage Inequalities right now, or listen to this episode of This American Life AND this episode of This American Life and read this Newsweek article about Michelle Rhee (Washington DC) or this one about The Legacy of Summerton or this GOOD article on 2010 in Education Reform or this article from The Onion (which is basically the true story of a friend of mine who Teach for America b/c our friends wrote for The Onion and so really it’s like a satire but also it’s TRUE)…

That’s why I’m so pleased to report two kickass documentaries that came out last year which I watched this weekend and you should watch immediately, because people like to stare at screens, right? Mhm.

1. Waiting for Superman

“Are our children learning? No — and here’s why, argues Guggenheim’s rousing documentary. It’s as smart and passionate as our schools should be. Guggenheim puts a human face on a red tape nightmare and argues that at stake is the future of our kids — and our country.”

-Box Office Magazine

This New York Magazine article about the film throwing “fuel on the fire” of the debate over our failing public school system.


2. The Lottery

“A new documentary by a 27-year-old filmmaker could change the national debate about public education.”
– The Wall Street Journal

Obviously I wish I was a CEO of Ideas for a middle school somewhere but instead I am not, mostly because as an adolescent rising every morning at 6am I couldn’t imagine waking up that early forever so I used my college tuition to study English Literature, which leads into a variety of career paths, mainly in food service. One day though I’ll get a teaching certificate and school y’all.

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Riese is the 41-year-old Co-Founder of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, video-maker, LGBTQ+ Marketing consultant and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and now lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in nine books, magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. She's Jewish and has a cute dog named Carol. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 3181 articles for us.


  1. At :29 in The Lottery trailer… that mother’s face just broke my heart. now i can’t stop crying at work :[

  2. Thank you for all these links and for caring about the public school system. If I had access to an education think tank, I’d want you involved.

  3. there is a reason i can’t do math and it’s my nyc public school education that never taught me how to do LONG FREAKING DIVISION

    i never learned standard grammar either! had to figure out what a noun was from mad libs. good thing i like to read or else i would’ve never figured out how to put a proper sentence together.

    • however, with that being said i was still fortunate enough to go to “good” public schools in the city and have supportive parents — I can’t imagine how it would’ve been if i’d gone to school somewhere else.

    • I also learned the difference between nouns, verbs, and so on from MadLibs! How fucking depressing is that?

      In college I was a TA as a senior and in grad school I taught an intro class all on my own for my department. I did my undergrad at U Wyo and I was absolutely astounded at the fact that about half the class (mostly freshmen and sophomores) were barely literate. IN COLLEGE. One graduating senior was almost entirely illiterate. I mean, I know she was an agriculture major and everything, but don’t they have to know how to, like, fill out order forms and read catalogs for cow-related merchandise? I went to grad school at OSU, so the situation was a lot better there. But even still, it was shocking how many basic things these kids didn’t know.

      My ex and I were talking about this one day (we’re still friends) and in our group of friends, we happen to have a bunch of teachers at different grade levels. So we asked the one doing her practicum in grade school if they teach grammar. She said no, they just focus on spelling and figure the kids will get grammar further down the line. We asked the one doing her practicum in high school if they taught grammar. She said no, they figured the kids learned that in grade school, so they focus on perfecting the 5-paragraph essay format. We asked the one who was in grad school for English who taught an intro composition class for the department if they teach grammar. She said no, they should have learned that in public school.


      And of course, the situation with math and science is even worse. In my high school, our science teacher (yes, we only had one. Fuck Wyoming, man) was a Creationist, so he skimmed right over…pretty much everything. No evolution, no geology, no prehistory, refused to classify humans with the rest of the animal kingdom and so made up a whole new classification for them, and so on.

      After my sophomore year, I dropped out, took some college classes and signed up with the Division of Indipendent Study (as it was called back then) and homeschooled my own damn self. Finished two years worth of high school in 6 months working at my own pace.

      • I am currently teaching a lab class designed for senior biochem undergrad. And i’m teaching at a supposedly prestigious school where in order to get in, you definitely have to have a 4.0 gpa and other stellar extracurricular activities.

        I’m flabbergasted by the fact that the majority of the students don’t even know how to write a report on what they did in the lab – they’re seniors!!! scratch that, some of them don’t even know how to compose a sentence.
        and what’s scary is that most of them are going to go on to med school, pharmacy school or other professional schools where other people’s lives are on their hands.
        This is really disturbing and i’m sad that i don’t know how to fix this

        • I know! It’s made even worse by this attitude in the sciences that because they’re in the sciences, they don’t need to know how to write. I don’t know if they still do this anymore, but some years back a friend of mine got a degree in English and his work-study job was as a proofreader/editor for the chemistry department. They actually hired a student worker to fix the spelling and grammar of the chem majors! They just flat out refused to learn that stuff themselves and were overwhelming the student writing center, so the department hired their own. That just blew my fucking mind. My friend got yelled at a lot for just circling mistakes and writing suggestions in the margins when the students wanted him to just retype the whole thing for them.


  4. I’m about to go to work in an inner city middle school, and I am in tears over these documentaries- my average 8th grader reads at a 4th grade level. Something needs to change.

  5. Rather than browbeat everyone here with my opinion, I’m just going to leave a few links that will hopefully open the door for others.

    The first is for people who are still currently trapped in school, and it is a way to help you out of your situation. It’s a PDF of “The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education”:


    The next is for parents and students who are looking for an alternative. It is the Sudbury Valley School in MA, and there are schools modeled after it in various countries. Unlike public schools, every kid who has ever graduated from there has been literate:


    Video of the Sudbury Valley School:


    This one is for anybody who has been through school, or is presently going through it, and is wondering what on Earth is going on. It is the Teacher of the Year acceptance speech of John Taylor Gatto, a New York City public school teacher who later quit his job:


    Here is John Taylor Gatto’s website, with an online version of his book The Underground History of American Education:


    Here is a video of Gatto with his students, prior to quitting his job:


    Here is what Gatto had to say about the Sudbury Valley School:


    If you are interested in teaching yourself about some topics rather than attending a school, here is a resource:


    • I read The Teenage Liberation Handbook and some stuff by John Taylor Gatto / John Holt when I was 16 and it made me feel even more jaded about school than I thought possible. I feel like I’ve said that here before. Anyway, another link:

      Librarian Chick – huge resource page

      • I felt the opposite – invigorated, because there were other people who were calling out government schooling for the sham that it really is, and who were saying that there is absolutely no need to follow that religion anymore.

  6. I am no doubt not as well informed as you Riese about this area and I have not seen either of these films. But I have heard some criticism of Waiting for Superman and generally I would like to see a fundamental overhaul of the system and I’m not sure if charter schools are necessarily the answer.

    Also, I am weary of criticisms of unions. I’m not dogmatic, I’m just weary.

    I just did some googling and found the following. I’ve only just skimmed it, but it certainly seems to be making some interesting points.


    • I haven’t watched Waiting for Superman yet either, but charter schools aren’t the answer. There will always be kids who don’t have the available resources to get to a charter school. The fact of the matter is, none of our kids should be scrambling for “resources” to get to a “good” school. All the fucking schools should be good schools. The end. It shouldn’t matter if that school is in the projects or Beverly Hills. I could actually make an argument that the school in the projects deserves more resources, because those kids need more help to being with. However, I’m thinking that Waiting for Superman is going to be a good watch anyways.

      • This! As someone who is going to school to become a public school teacher, I want to save the schools we have, not create a bunch of charter schools that get to handpick their student bodies.

    • That article is an ESSENTIAL reading companion to the movie.

      I love this site to bits but I have to admit I’m a little disappointed that a such a union-vilifying, charter school glorifying movie is being exalted here at this critical time of mass uprising for worker rights.

    • wtf? I didn’t have to read it in high school, but I read it just now. I have no energy to analyze why the hell the stone one person a year. What is the point of this?

      • Tradition! Because their predecessors had been offering up a sacrifice for so many generations, no one actually remembered the original reason…

        • Thanks, Petra. That’s so obvious now. I think I was just too tired to be bothered with it last night. It’s still ridiculous which is kind of the point, but I’m very wary of traditions since most of them don’t make sense.

  7. This seems to be a new hot topic. I got 4th place in a competition for a speech I wrote about the same thing.

  8. I went to one of the two “bad” schools out 5 total elementary schools in our system. My love of reading helped me learn about grammar more than anything else. I still have a little trouble telling you the actual rules. Also, I distinctly remember so many of my teachers saying they had to go back and teach us something we were supposed to have learned the year before. While I don’t think they meant it in a negative manner, I remember feeling like there was something wrong with us as a class since we hadn’t learned it yet. It wasn’t our fault. It wasn’t even entirely the fault of the teachers or the administrators or the school district. The system is broken.

    I got lucky. I got lucky, because I got into the AG (Academically Gifted) program and had parents with the resources to help me succeed. Being in AG meant that you got special attention. People expected you to do well and wanted to help you get there. I realize now that some other kids got the short end of the stick with that set-up. Kids rise to the expectations you set. If you set the bar low, they assume that’s as far as they can go.

    Out of the kids from my elementary school, I was one of a handful of students who continued on to take honors, AP, and IB classes in high school. I also remember feeling like I was playing catch-up with some of the other students who’d gone to the “better” schools.

    This entire subject makes me furious, sad, and weary all at the same time. I plan on working my ass off to help change this system as soon as I finish my elementary education degree. It’s a long, long road, but we aren’t getting anywhere if we don’t get started.

  9. Sorry for the naivety about to come out, but I’m in another country:
    what are charter schools?
    how are they different from public schools?
    what’s this lottery business?

  10. Waiting for Superman and the Lottery are shitty movies. I’m surprised that none of the (ample) criticism was addressed in this snippet.

    This article, “The Myth of Charter Schools,” should explain: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/11/myth-charter-schools/

    Some key arguments: 1. It’s not the schools that create bad schools, it’s poverty/living conditions in these neighborhoods (“according to University of Washington economist Dan Goldhaber, about 60 percent of achievement is explained by nonschool factors, such as family income”) 2. An overwhelming amount of money per student is spent in some charter schools, esp. those that address quality of living problems – that’s MUCH more than the public schools are given per student, yet the film blasts public schools as “wasting money” and being unworthy of extra funding 3. Charter schools, since they are private institutions, can and often DO kick out “low performing” students, artificially bolstering their test scores 4. Despite the extra money and pruning, charter schools actually AREN’T all that successful (the numbers show that the MAJORITY of charter schools are not more successful than their public school counterparts, and of those that are more successful, they are generally not radically so) 5. The film criticizes teachers unions but puts Finland on a pedastool – home to some of the strongest teachers unions in the world

    And a little history in what charter schools were SUPPOSED to do:

    “The film never acknowledges that charter schools were created mainly at the instigation of Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers from 1974 to 1997. Shanker had the idea in 1988 that a group of public school teachers would ask their colleagues for permission to create a small school that would focus on the neediest students, those who had dropped out and those who were disengaged from school and likely to drop out. He sold the idea as a way to open schools that would collaborate with public schools and help motivate disengaged students. In 1993, Shanker turned against the charter school idea when he realized that for-profit organizations saw it as a business opportunity and were advancing an agenda of school privatization.”

    Nowadays? The neediest students are kicked out of charter schools, and charter schools are sold not as collaborators but as forces that will drive public schools to the ground. Shanker is rolling over in his grave.

    Ultimately, public education is absolutely integral to our democracy. Charter schools are a threat, not a solution.

    • I don’t think anyone’s suggesting charter schools as an ideal solution — it’s impractical for starters and penalizes kids with lazy parents. There’s contrasting data on income levels in schools, that you mention there.

      The problem is not being able to fire teachers — the holding room for the new york board of ed is one of the most ridiculous examples of that — and also the board’s inability to redistribute some of the wealth differentiations between poor and rich neighborhoods. Charter schools or not, the system is fucked up. We need regular public schools to be good enough that charter schools aren’t needed to exist as a viable option.

      • I guess my point is that I don’t consider charter schools a VIABLE option. I think their usefulness and success has been vastly overstated, and movies like Waiting for Superman and The Lottery glorify them to the point of basically lying.

        As the author of the article said (I love this article, idk if you could tell haha): “There are good charter schools and bad charter schools, just like there are good public schools and bad public schools.” But at least public schools can’t kick out struggling students…….or suck up so much money…etc.

        Furthermore, I don’t really consider “bad, unfirable teachers” to be the heart of the problem with low performing schools. In fact, teacher turnover in these schools is extremely high because of difficult to deal with kids, etc. Honestly, we shouldn’t focus our efforts on trying to fire teachers or otherwise organize a teacher witch hunt. I believe the main problem with the schools we are talking about in these movies is the poverty and desperation many of the kids who go to them live in. Lack of parental involvement. Etc.

        I don’t know much about the NY distribution of funds between schools. In MD (where I’m from), the schools in the poorest neighborhoods get the lion’s share of funding. And that has been quite an issue in this state because they are seen as “black holes” in which money goes in, but no huge improvement results. In my opinion, that’s because the problem isn’t with the SCHOOLS or the TEACHERS. It’s with the neighborhoods, poverty, absentee or single or double-shift working parents, etc.

        • i think it’s a lot easier to blame disenfranchised people who have no political clout or economic power for their own unfixable home lives it is to look at what people in power are doing wrong! don’t you? kids can’t change how they got born. and here’s the thing: the government isn’t responsible for your family life. but they are responsible to give every child in this country equal opportunity and access. That attitude is very classist/Darwinist, yannow?

          I’ve worked with kids in juvenile detention centers and tutored at under-performing schools and i think we’re really doing these kids a disservice by blaming the life they were born into instead of seeing what we can do to change the life they have while they’re in class all day. That’s not what I see in those kids.

          my friends who taught in the bronx couldn’t even get a janitor to clean up vomit in the hallway ’til three days after it happened, couldn’t get TOILET PAPER, couldn’t get pencils, and when they couldn’t get books they weren’t even allowed to purchase their own books for the kids because it all had to go through the system.

          from the moment they enter the classroom these kids are told they deserve less and are worth less than the kids at the clean equipped suburban high schools they see on TV. then we’re surprised that they stop trusting the country they live in? everyone deserves equality, that’s like what equality means.

          i think i have too many feelings about this to even look at this conversation anymore, i don’t want to scare anybody

          • The government IS responsible for your family life to some extent. That’s why things like universal health care are necessary…safe and good housing is necessary…free breakfasts/lunch vouchers are important…early care and after school care are important…TRANSPORTATION from school to their homes is important (i.e. good public transport infrastructure). And YES, I am a strong proponent of giving public schools more money so they can purchase an adequate amount of supplies, pay their teachers and janitors more so they don’t lose them, etc. But I don’t see a problem with unfirable teachers. And I don’t see charter schools as simply an imperfect solution, but quite frankly a horrifying one. The last thing we need is the privitization of our public schooling if we’re worried about class inequalities. I simply don’t think giving people small class sizes because their name got drawn out of a bag is very fair. Giving people smart peers at the expense of tossing out their struggling ones. Etc. etc. It’s NOT easier to blame things like home life, neighborhood safety, etc. on school quality. It’s a LOT easier to scapegoat and say “oh, we just need better teachers” than it is to say we need universal health care or more progressive income redistribution. Pretty sure politics have proven as much….

          • And though I am a proponent of more funding for public schools, it’s not necessarily on the books and pencils front. I’m willing to bet there’s not enough books because kids lose or destroy them more frequently. I’m willing to bet there’s not enough pencils because kids don’t bring their own (isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?). I lived in a neighborhood where my father couldn’t plant a tree in front of my house because the neighborhood kids would destroy or vandalize it. Yes, my teachers and my schools got scapegoated. It wasn’t their fault though.

            This isn’t victim blaming, it’s the reality, and you aren’t going to solve it with charter schools or massive amounts of funding (as the studies on charter school effectiveness show, despite charter schools’ unfair test bolstering and sometimes illogically unfair monetary advantage). It’s not about “the public school system is broken” it’s that these neighborhoods are broken. And we need to direct our efforts to fixing those, not running public schools out of business.

        • The problem isn’t the kids, teachers, administrators, or even parents. It’s the system. It’s broken.

          Schools get the same resources available to their surrounding community. If you live in an affluent neighborhood, that’s all fine and well. However, if you live in a poor neighborhood, you’re screwed. Here in North Carolina, our funds are distritbuted based on property taxes which means that if you live in a poorer neighborhood, you’re getting fewer funds when really, those schools need more funds since parents are unable to contribute as much out-of-pocket. I agree with you. Charter schools aren’t going to fix that problem. Not at all. The only thing charter schools are good for is making the gap between the rich and poor even wider.

          There is a high turn-over rate in “low performing” schools. It isn’t the fault of kids who are “difficult to deal with.” These teachers come into schools where they have to be so much more than just a teacher. They have to be nurses and disciplinarians and guidance counselors just to name a few. Before you can even begin to get a kid to start the learning process, you must make sure he/she is fed, clothed appropriately/comfortably, and well-rested. You must address issues outside of the classroom that are effecting your students’ ability to focus. You have to teach and re-teach good behavior for those who haven’t been taught at home. You have to do all this and more with with a (probably overcrowded) classroom full of kids and with little outside support.

          How frustrating would it be to get your kids finally ready to say, read a novel as a class only to find out that they can’t even have books, because there just isn’t enough money in the budget? What does it say to our children when they are given severly substandard resources when last night they saw a school decked out with the latest technology on tv? The message is that you aren’t good enough. You aren’t good enough to put the time, effort, and money into, because you’re never gonna make it anyways. Even if these kids get past that and begin to make progress, something else always happens – whether it be within the school setting or at home – that throws yet another hurdle in their path. When the teachers don’t have a good support system, you can be damn sure the kids don’t have a good support system. How are they supposed to handle that? How many times would you get back up after being knocked down over and over and over and over again?

          Our schools have become separate and unequal. However, the dividing line doesn’t fall between races this time even though race is still a viable part of the discussion. The gap between classes continues widen. I mean, really, it looks like the Grand Canyon. If your parents have enough money, then you can have a good education. If not, then that’s too bad for you. Even if you rise above everything and fight for a good education, it is so much harder for poor students to the point that it becomes another hurdle in the road. This is the United States. We’re supposed to be a superpower that’s winning the future, but a college education is not guaranteed for every citizen in this country. There’s something wrong with that picture. Education is not something to be bought and sold. It is a basic right that should be distributed equally to all citizens regardless of your background.

          *This maybe came off as rude or combative. I’m not trying to be. I just have a lot of really strong feelings on the subject which I suppose is rather obvious.

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