Waiting For Superman

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 10/01/10 23:00:00

"Effective, manipulative, flawed edu-prop."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

For decades, educational reform, specifically K-12 reform, has been the subject (and object) of intense debate, some predicated on policy differences, some on political differences, but most under data-driven assumptions that our educational system has failed and continues to fail students and not just in urban centers, but in suburban and rural ones as well. In "Waiting for “Superman”," Davis Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning director of the Al Gore-climate change documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," explores the reasons behind our failing educational system and, in a leap of faith, seemingly finds that answer in publicly funded, but privately run charter schools.

More than a decade after directing First Year, a public school teacher-centered documentary, Guggenheim found himself in an intractable situation. A self-identified liberal and a proponent of public education, Guggenheim chose to send his children to a private school where he hoped they would receive the best education money could buy. Confronted with the divide between his ideals and his decision to send his children to private school, Guggenheim decided to take a closer look at our educational system and convert the result of his research into a documentary.

Relying heavily on a combination of voiceover narration (his) and presumably unimpeachable statistics, Guggenheim paints a doomsday scenario for our educational system. Guggenheim discusses so-called “drop-out factories,” primarily urban high schools that have incredibly high non-graduation rates. Guggenheim, however, goes further, pointing to rapidly deteriorating math and literacy test schools across the United States, in urban, rural, and suburban areas, the decades-long slide into mediocrity (and worse) in relation to other developed and even developing countries, and the seemingly insoluble problem of how to fix our educational system.

Looking for heroes, Guggenheim finds them in Harlem Success Academy founder Geoffrey Canada, controversial Washington, D.C. public school chancellor Michelle Rhee, and Kipp: Knowledge is Power Program co-founders, Michael Feinberg and David Levin (exemplars of Guggenheim’s wish fulfillment though barely seen in the documentary). They’re his heroes, they’re the educational role models Guggenheim wants educational reformers to follow into a bright new future of engaged, content students, ever-rising test scores, merit-based pay for high-performing teachers, accountability, and a return to academic prominence relative to other developed countries. What he glosses over, however, is that only 1 out of every 5 can be described as successful.

He finds his villain (or rather villains) not in the increasing disparity between rich, poor, and an eroding middle class, the highest poverty rate in more than fifteen years, including, sadly, millions of children, defense spending and trillion-dollar wars, policies fostered by the Republican Party and centrist Democrats, but in teachers unions, unions, unwilling to alter or modify preexisting contracts with school boards to reward high-performing teachers through merit-based pay and limiting or altogether eliminating tenure. He uses Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), to personify everything that’s wrong with the teachers unions (i.e., self-interest vs. student interest).

From Guggenheim’s perspective, tenure is the single most important impediment to educational change. Sub-par teachers are difficult, almost impossible, to fire. Guggenheim leans heavily on New York City’s infamous “rubber room,” where suspended public school teachers are sent while they await the final disposition of their cases (it can take close to three years to resolve their cases). The rubber room has been discontinued, but the problem of suspended teachers still exists in New York. Guggenheim also trots out the “dance of the lemons” (called the “turkey trot” elsewhere): school administrators swap their worst teachers in the hope of marginally improving their respective staffs.

On the public school level, Guggenheim brings out Rhee. Rhee wanted to make radical changes, but met fierce resistance by the teachers union who, according to Guggenheim, refused to consider a switchover to a merit-based system based on student achievement scores, longer hours, and a flexible approach to tenure. As superficially reasonable as those demands may seem, Guggenheim curiously refuses to interview Rhee’s critics, instead showing her being harangued or looking forlorn at meetings with the teachers union.

That bit of emotional manipulation is nothing compared to Guggenheim’s use of four preteen children, three minorities from poor families and one from a wealthy, suburban family, to overwhelm the audience emotionally. Each child has a chance, even a slim chance, to transfer to a charter school, the panacea to our failing educational system in Guggenheim’s eyes, two in New York City, one in Los Angeles, and one in Redwood City, California. Guggenheim draws a moving portrait of the children, all bright and eager to learn, and their parents, stymied, in three out of four cases, by limited choices.

By the end of 'Waiting for “Superman”,' we’re actively rooting for the four students to win a place in the charter schools of their parents’ dreams (spots are allocated by lottery). The results are, as expected, mixed. Guggenheim wants the lottery system used for high achieving charter schools to stand in for the current state of our educational system where luck plays far too an important a role to academic success.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.