The general message of the new documentary film, Waiting For Superman, by Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) is not a revelation: America’s schools are in bad shape. The rest of the world is greatly outpacing our educational progress. The majority of inner-city schools are chronically failing. Poor people have few choices when searching for a decent education for their children. And what stands in the way of progress is bureaucracy and bad teachers. Waiting For Superman drives home these points through a mixture of statistical and anecdotal evidence, interspersing research and interviews with educators with the stories of a handful of young children at that critical junction point – between first and third grade – when kids either set out down the path of a good education or get lost in an ineffective education system.
Guggenheim’s film is an effective piece of activist filmmaking, a carefully laid out case (if at times repetitive and meandering) supported with adorable children who tug on our heartstrings. By the time the prompt to text the word “possible” to a phone number that pops up on screen during the credits, you can see that Guggenheim hopes to give audiences a strong kick in the rear go out and do something about the state of education. The only problem is that his movie also seeds enough doubt to make us wonder if we will actually be able to anything about it.
Waiting For Superman takes on a number of myths about why certain schools don’t perform. The problems of impoverished area schools have often been blamed on culture, families, or economics, but the documentary culls from the evidence produced by a recent serge in successful charter schools to combat these assumptions. To this he adds the stories of five children, young kids from tough neighborhoods across the country who show a genuine interest in learning and achieving, and possess parents who are engaged and supportive in their education. Each day they go off to a bad school, and no one can be sure if what is happening during those many school hours. In a couple of effective scenes, Guggenheim follows a mother to her son’s public school and later to a charter school she is trying to move him into. The difference in mood and environment is night and day.
Guggenheim doesn’t candy coat his solution that charter schools, unfettered by bureaucracies and bad teachers, are successful. Even among charter schools, only the best ones work, and their recipe for success is usually the product of a rarified mix of key ingredients: funding plus great teachers equals smart kids.
The problem for public schools is getting good teachers into the classroom – that’s the message reiterated by a handful of education administrators, with founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, Geoffrey Canada, and superintendent of Washington D.C.’s public schools, Michelle Rhee, taking center stage. Both speak of the problems they have run up against in their efforts to reform education, from overloaded bureaucracies that suck funds from classrooms, to a complicated system of contracts and tenure status negotiated by teachers unions that disincentivize teachers. Teachers’ unions bear the brunt of the blame for America’s education problems in Waiting for Superman. When you can bypass the unions and bureaucracies that accompany them, as Canada has with his charter school in Harlem, good educators produce results, the film implies.
The teachers unions are easy targets here. It is easy to demonize an organization the can be fingered for keeping bad teachers in the school, but it would have been worthwhile to hear more of the union’s justification for the status quo. Guggenheim also builds a pretty good case for why the status quo will remain unchanged, drawing the lines of political power from the nation’s most powerful federal and state politicians to the unions, which contribute more campaign dollars than any other organization. Picking a fight with this Goliath seems daunting, to say the least, something that Michelle Rhee has learned the hard way in D.C.
But Waiting for Superman is an advocacy documentary, and its quality can only be judged by the kind of shift in public perception it achieves. Like An Inconvenient Truth, it is a potent piece of filmmaking, but is it strong or sexy enough to produce the same kind of popular groundswell? I hope so.
Photo: Francisco (right) and his Mom in Waiting for Superman (Courtesy of Paramount Pictures)