Waiting for Superman

Last Updated: March 1, 2012By Tags: ,

I don’t like to pull out the phrases “important movie” and “this is the one movie you should see.” But if I had to describe a movie as important and had to say there is one movie you should see it’s “Waiting for Superman.”

That’s not to say it’s my number one film for the year. And that doesn’t mean it’s a future classic. In thirty years, this film isn’t going to matter. Our education system then will teach our children for the world of that time. Whether that’s producing graduates prepared to compete in the global economy or imparting the nuances of prairie dog hunting to survive winter on the freezing plains, we will get the education we deserve.

If there is one thing that left and right have agreed on all my life, it is the public education system stinks. In a democracy, in theory, such a consensus ought to mean that the public demands and receives successful reform. Yet in thirty-plus years we’ve barely seen a squirt of it, as the world gets more competitive and our test scores flatline. Davis Guggenheim, the director of the Al Gore documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” explains why.

Past documentaries about children and inner-city life—even very good films like “Hoop Dreams” or “Mad Hot Ballroom”—have emphasized the desire for escape. As such, they present their child subjects as exceptions with the skills or luck to escape tough realities. Underlying these stories is an assumption of fatalism about their situations, that tough lives are unavoidable and a permanent reality for children in these places. Guggenheim’s withering assessment stares right at this belief and refuses to let us buy it.

“Waiting for Superman” introduces two myth-busting challenges to perception. The first is that bad schools are the products of bad families and bad neighborhoods. Guggenheim points to evidence that the opposite might be true, that neighborhoods might well fail because their schools fail. The second is that we don’t know how to improve the education of these children and that perhaps there is no way to do it. Guggenheim asserts—and it makes the situation all the more damning—that twenty years of charter schooling have given us the solutions but that entrenched powers dedicated to protecting bad teachers prevent our society from putting them in place.

And that’s the thing, right? We can do something about this. Maybe not everything. Maybe not perfectly. But something. But we won’t. Narrating his own film, Guggenheim examines the success of some charter schools, public schools that operate independently from the rules governing the rest of the system. We visit places like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the KIPP schools that use innovative techniques to routinely produce top-level students. More importantly, these schools do not seem to be the products of a single terrific staff. They reproduce their results in numerous cities across the country.

These schools have been founded by teachers and administrators who were fed up with the failing system. One is Geoffrey Canada, a Harvard-educated reformer operating a charter school in the Bronx, whose childhood fantasies inspire the title. A second is Michelle Rhee. The driven chancellor has fired underperformers and introduced charter school techniques to the horrendous Washington D.C. school system. In real life, she is about to be fired despite her successes. Some writers, particularly on the Washington Post website, suggest Rhee is better at public relations than reforming schools. Whatever her performance, what she says makes sense. When she says we’re sacrificing the lives of children to preserve harmony among the adults, we all know that’s true.

We see the impact on lives by spending time with several inner-city children (and one suburban girl – that’s a third myth busted here, that suburban schools are immune). These students are hoping to escape the “dropout factories” of the public school system and attend charter schools. We watch them walk to school, play with dogs, and dream of becoming veterinarians. We listen to the parents speak their fears of their neighborhood schools and their hopes for their children. These aren’t original scenes, but they are necessary scenes. By the end, we feel a stake in the bouncing-ball lotteries that determine which of the hundreds of children will fill the thirtyish spots offered by the charter schools.

At first you’re sad because most of these children will miss out on a quality education. Next, you realize the absurdity of having futures determined by the bounce of a plastic ball. Finally you’re angry, because you know that as each child loses his or her future, our society loses something by refusing to give the best available education to the most promising among us. All because a stupid plastic ball didn’t bounce right. And all because we’ve abdicated our responsibility to a plastic ball to make these decisions for us.

Everyone knows who the villains are, bad teachers and those who protect them. Over the past few decades, the teachers unions—the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—have stifled reform and created employment contracts that make it nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher. Unions might have been great back when factory workers were being forced to work 73-hour days in between dodging bullets from Pinkerton agents. Nowadays, we know—heck, we even joke about—what happens when unions make ridiculous demands debilitating to the success of an organization. We’ve seen General Motors. In fact, nowadays we own half of it. But unlike car companies, public education systems don’t have to come begging to Congress when they fail; they just raise your taxes. Think of this country’s education system as one slow-motion legalized bailout.

Superman has a gentle delivery, even occasionally humorous, but it is made out of a cool anger. It’s a good anger. It’s the type of anger that gets something done. You know that stiff drink that people in movies take to steel their nerves before they deliver a baby on a plane, or otherwise fight the odds? “Waiting for Superman” is a cinematic shot of gin for a difficult but absolutely necessary task. Because yeah, our future depends on it.

Davis Guggenheim has previously won an academy award for “An inconvenient truth.” Visit Waiting for Superman, watch the trailer, pledge and get involved. Now showing in theatres.