Thought-Provoking Film Examines Public Schools
Published: August 5, 2010
“Waiting for ‘Superman’” is a remarkable new documentary on the troubling state of education in the United States. Using a combination of humor and pathos, director Davis Guggenheim (also the director of “An Inconvenient Truth,” 2006), who co-wrote the film with Billy Kimball, takes a hard look at what is working and, more often, what is not working in a variety of American school systems. This is not a dry lecture on what should be done, but a fascinating discussion-starter that is, by turns, disturbing, joyous and heartbreaking.
Guggenheim focuses most harshly on what he calls “drop-out factories” and “academic sinkholes”—schools in which students are underachieving and where dropout rates are staggering. The film makes the point that these schools are often in low-income/high-crime areas, but it questions the traditional wisdom that the schools are bad because the area is challenged. Instead, it makes the point that the neighborhoods are likely in trouble because of the ongoing systemic problems with education. Students who drop out will earn less and are much more likely to go to prison than students who graduate from high school. If the educational system produces generation after generation of dropouts and underachievers with no opportunity for advancement, of course that area will be prone to crime and poverty.
“Waiting for ‘Superman’” goes on to show how the problems with American education are much more far reaching than a few bad schools in a couple of low-income neighborhoods. Out of the 30 leading developed countries, American students rank 25th in math and 21st in science, which puts the U.S. at a severe disadvantage in an increasingly technical world. A shortage of scientists and engineers means that the country will not be able to keep up with the global economy.
The filmmakers put human faces on the problem by following the stories of five promising young students who are struggling in the system. Anthony is a young man who is being raised by his grandparents after the death of his father, a drug addict. He is motivated, but his grandmother fears for his future as he is about to start middle school in one of the worst school districts in Washington, D.C.; adolescence is the time when many children run into trouble and begin to perform poorly. Francisco, from New York, is having trouble getting his reading scores up. Although he seems to be making progress with tutoring after school, his teachers are not recognizing and promoting his development. Bianca is the only child of a single mother who is struggling financially to keep the girl in a parochial school. Daisy is a bright, ambitious elementary school student who dreams of being a nurse, a doctor, and a veterinarian, but her school system is funneling her to one of the dropout factories in Los Angeles, while her parents are struggling just to make ends meet. Finally, Emily’s story reminds the viewer that the problems with education are not confined solely to schools in inner city impoverished areas. Emily lives in a northern California suburb near Silicon Valley. Her high school is modern and well-funded, but because of the tracking system, Emily, who is an average student, will likely not get the opportunity to take the high school courses that will prepare her for college.
Each of these students, and their families, are pinning their hopes on a lottery—often with staggeringly low odds—to get into a charter school that will give them a better chance of making it through the system. The scene at the end of the film, in which the lotteries take place, the numbers are pulled and the names are called, is one of the most suspenseful scenes in any movie in recent history. The joy and the despair that come from what is essentially a roll of the dice are heartbreaking.
“Waiting for ‘Superman’” makes the point, however, that it should not come down to a lucky break. Every student in the United States should have the right to a decent education and not have to depend on the drop of a lottery ball to help them achieve their dreams. But how can this be realized? Not all private or charter schools are successful, and some standard public schools are doing a fantastic job. So how can the achievements be replicated and the failures minimized?
The film identifies two major indicators of success for students: parent involvement and effective teaching. It does not point a finger at students for issues with motivation or discipline. The implication is that if parents and teachers are involved and active, then motivation and discipline will follow. The filmmakers interview several resources on education to make their point. Especially effective are Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the successful Harlem Children’s Zone, and Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools. They give examples of programs that work and educators who are making a positive difference. Certainly, being a teacher is one of the most demanding careers possible, and the film demonstrates that good, powerful teaching is a work of art.
Although the film is decidedly political, it does effectively subordinate partisanship—this is not a Democratic or a Republican film. In fact, it shows every president from Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama pledging to improve education, then somehow failing to deliver on the promise. The major problem identified by “Waiting for ‘Superman’” is the bureaucracy inherent in the American school system. Public schools must answer to regulations from the national, state and local levels. This is compared to most European systems, which are governed by a single, unified national ministry.
If there is a villain in the film, it is the teachers’ unions. “Waiting for ‘Superman’” depicts them as too political and more interested in serving their own bureaucracy than in providing a quality education to the students they serve. “Waiting for ‘Superman’” takes on the tenure system, which makes it almost impossible to fire a teacher, no matter how poorly he or she performs. One memorable clip shows the so-called “rubber room” in New York state where teachers who are waiting for disciplinary hearing report, sometimes for two years, to sit, read newspapers, and nap, while drawing full pay. The film also gives the example of Michelle Rhee, who attempted to institute a system whereby teachers could earn merit pay up to twice their salary but would be subject to disciplinary action and dismissal based on their performance. The teachers’ union would not bring it to a vote.
“Waiting for ‘Superman’” was filmed two years, ago, but the issues it raises are more pertinent than ever today. President Obama’s “Race to the Top” program has been receiving a lot of attention for its focus on educators’ results and evaluation.
Education is an issue that affects everyone, not just the students seen waiting and hoping for a chance at a decent school. “Waiting for ‘Superman’” illustrates that idea forcefully and makes the viewer want to take action to make opportunities available for every student—not just those few with a winning lottery ticket.
Jane Wilson, a local writer and movie enthusiast, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia. She is a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, Conyers.