Waiting for “Superman” (2010): United States – directed by Davis Guggenheim
Rated PG by the MPAA – contains some mature themes
An initial fear when hearing about Davis Guggenheim’s documentary on public education might be that it is one-sided, heavy-handedly liberal, unabashedly Democratic. It is to the director’s credit that it remains centered, objective, and incisive, as it dissects a system that has evolved nearly to a point of no return. It is clear something must be done with public schools, but he offers few solutions short of moving entirely to charter schools. And maybe that’s what’s necessary.
I’m not an expert on public education, and neither is Guggenheim. What he does is examine the system, and follow five families whose children are directly influenced by their public schools. The premise is simple, but it rests upon the notion that these children will fail if left in public schools. They will fail at school, fail at life, and be condemned to an incomplete, unsuccessful life. To support this assumption he looks at a lot of statistics, using cute, old-school graphics to display pertinent data.
If this synopses sounds facetious, it is not supposed to be. Guggenheim’s starting point is that public schools are failing, and he has ample evidence to support his claim. His methods are not underhanded or dubious. Some have complained that he doesn’t offer any way to fix the current system, but he believes that the current system is too broken to be easily correctable. Better instead to bet on a new system, one pioneered by many charter schools.
The lives of Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy, and Emily will all be changed if they get into a charter school near (or not so near) their homes. Their cities have poor public schooling, and drop out rates increase the more time kids spend in school. Some of the kids are on track to attend notorious drop out factories, high schools in which only a small percentage of students graduate. To succeed in such an environment is exceedingly difficult.
But to get into a charter school is a challenge unto itself. Many of them have limited availability, and students enter a lottery. The film’s climax is the drawing of each child’s lottery, a rolling ball or computer program that may or may not give them the gift of adequate education, and a chance at a better life. These scenes provide the emotional crux of Waiting for “Superman.”
But it is the facts and the data that are more compelling and thought provoking. In many states, Guggenheim points out, principals shuffle their bad teachers between schools, in a “dance of the lemons.” The idea is to switch teachers around in the hope that they will either improve in a new environment, or will not be all bunched together at one school. In New York there is a rubber room, where suspended teachers go each day to play cards and read newspapers. And be paid their full salaries. New York spends $100 million each year on this.
Such a calamity is nearly unimaginable, but Guggenheim sheds light on it in a terrifying manner. These teachers are almost impervious to punishment, as they cannot be fired for fear of the teacher’s union. The union itself is presented as such a monster that the system can never change. When offered the chance to change, by new Washington D.C. superintendent Michelle Rhee, they reject her, even after she offers double salaries in exchange for the ability to remove tenure for awful teachers.
That the situation is bleak, and nearly unfixable, is not really in doubt. Guggenheim doesn’t shed much light on the fantastic teachers in the public school system, but they surely exist and try to change things for the better. Instead Guggenheim rests the future on charter schools, those havens of learning that have bucked every trend of public education.
In some ways, Waiting for “Superman” might be considered anti-Socialist, as it is the union of teachers that has created such a catastrophe. Guggenheim never draws this conclusion himself, but it is not inappropriate. He shows his work, citing sources for nearly every statistic he displays. There are only a couple of questionable statements, such as a comparison between the funds spent on prisons and those spent in private schools. For the most part, though, his research is admirable.
Whichever side you lean on, Waiting for “Superman” is one of the more terrifying films of the year. It paints a bleak picture, and offers hope in only one primary direction, even if others exist. If nothing else, this remarkably crafted documentary is provocative and will stir debate among those in charge of, and those effected by, the current education system in the United States.