Film Review: Waiting for "Superman"

Controversy is already swirling around this powerful and important documentary exposing the shocking state of America’s educational system and vividly demonstrating how it is failing the nation and devastating the lives of individual families.

After his Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth and now Waiting for “Superman,” it’s obvious that director Davis Guggenheim knows a thing or two about using the power of film to stir up a national debate. But whereas in the former film he was, in essence, preaching to the choir—as its audience largely consisted of progressive types who held convictions on global warming similar to his own—in his newest effort, on American education, it’s as if he’s asking those individual choir members to step up so he can punch them in the gut.

Believe it. No matter what we’ve read or heard about the country’s broken educational system, most of us have no idea just how huge and complex the problem really is; we simply don’t know what’s been going on in our classrooms. That’s what Guggenheim tries to show us in Waiting for “Superman.” He offers no specific plan to fix what’s broken, and there’s very little said in the film about the “No Child Left Behind” proposals from George Bush or Barack Obama’s “Change the Equation” plan. Guggenheim merely lays out the parameters of the nation’s educational crisis in a way that carries a powerful emotional—and intellectual—jolt.

He does this in several ways. First, he pulls together a bunch of statistics about school dropout rates, rankings of math and reading skills, failing school districts and their relationship to failing neighborhoods (many schools fail first, it turns out), the ease with which teachers get tenure (and the virtual impossibility of firing them), etc. etc.—and he presents these stats in simple, hand-drawn (or so they seem) graphics that are inserted throughout the film. Much of this is not new but shocking nevertheless—e.g., in the last 30 years U.S. educational spending per student has more than doubled, yet our reading and math scores remain flat while virtually every other economically advanced country spends far less and gets much better results.

But statistics can’t tell the human cost of our failing schools. To do that, Guggenheim and his documentary team scoured the country to find some bright kids whose economic and social circumstances have kept them stuck in “dropout factories.” (Many dropouts correctly conclude that a diploma from these schools would be worthless; it couldn’t even get them in the door of a college admissions office.) The filmmakers picked five kids who try to change their dismal educational prospects by applying for lotteries to win places in higher-rated charter schools. The five are: Anthony, a Washington, D.C. fifth-grader who lost his father to drugs and is being raised by grandparents; Francisco, a first-grader in the Bronx, with a hard-working, college-educated single mom; Daisy, a fifth-grader in East L.A. who wants to be a doctor and has already applied to the college of her choice; Bianca, a kindergartener in Harlem, whose single mother can no longer afford tuition in the Catholic school right across the street; and Emily, an eighth-grader in affluent Silicon Valley, whose difficulties with math may put her on a remedial “track” of low expectations and thus severely damage her college prospects.

The cameras follow these students and their families for an entire year; they’re there when the kids get up in the morning, when they study in the afternoon, and, eventually, when they and their families sit and wait for the right little ball to drop—or the right ticket to be drawn—to find out if they’ll have a future. That’s exactly how all these families see this: Without a good education, their kids will simply have no future. The odds are mightily stacked against them, of course; for every opening in a charter school, there are literally hundreds of applicants. It’s heartbreaking to see that only two out of the five kids we’ve come to know here will win their lotteries, and more heartbreaking still to realize how often this is happening to kids we don’t know about.

The biggest controversies created by Waiting for “Superman” are likely to be the accolades it gives charter schools (many of them clearly have found the formula to turn out successful students) and the charges it levels against the major teachers’ unions. While praising individual teachers, the film comes down hard against some of the self-protective practices imposed by the unions. Forbidden to fire teachers, for instance, some schools swap their worst instructors in hopes of finding a better fit. (Heads-up, progressives: The teachers’ unions are among the biggest contributors to political campaigns, and 90% of their money goes to Democrats.)

But there is a third theme running through the film, and it is a hopeful one, for it focuses on some of the heroic teachers and administrators who have come up with new educational methods that work: Geoffrey Canada is the well-known president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a school district that has been called an “educational miracle” by President Obama; outsider Michelle Rhee is still hanging in there as the embattled chancellor of Washington, D.C.’s struggling schools; and David Levin and Mike Feinberg are the disillusioned teachers who formed KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) and forged a nationwide group of 82 free, open-enrollment and independent schools. Among the film’s other talking heads are Bill Gates, again speaking eloquently of the business world's crying need for educated workers; Eric Hanushek of Stanford University, who has researched the profound relationship between teacher quality, class size and student achievement; and Randi Weingarten, the formidable head of the American Federation of Teachers, who publicly advocates education reform while at the same time staunchly defending teachers’ interests.

Waiting for “Superman” may very well be the strongest polemic ever framed in a documentary film format. Won’t it be interesting to see if it succeeds in reshaping the national debate about how to fix our broken educational system? Wouldn’t it be something if viewers actually do what the filmmakers suggest they do at the very end of their film—go out and get involved! Do they give Academy Awards for that?