Waiting for Superman (2010)
Award-winning documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) tackles an even more alarming subject – the state of the nation’s education. Guggenheim, who admits to enrolling his own kids in costly private schools, felt bad about all those “other kids” resigned to public schooling. His film addresses a myriad of issues related to the disparity in education. The deluge of data and statistics is broken up by the heart-wrenching story of five children ranging in age from five to fourteen. These children are hoping to land a chance to enroll in neighborhood charter schools. These charter schools perform higher than their public competition, so there are more applicants than seats open. Far more. By charter guidelines, the applicants are given a number and a lottery is taken to determine who earns a place in the school. To these five students and their families, the random drop of a numbered ping-pong ball can determine the fate of all.
You’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel such powerful pangs of emotion by the film’s devastating conclusion. Guggenheim frames the overall demise of public education by telling the small story of five hopeful students who must look to the simple luck of the draw to get a quality education in their neighborhood; the bigger issue now has a face to empathize with. And you will. Obviously the odds are stacked against all five kids Guggenheim selected to follow. I think the best charter school lottery odds had 20 seats available and only 65 applicants. It should therefore be no surprise that there are many dashed hopes and crushed dreams, and you too will feel tears rolling down your cheeks as you watch shell-shocked parents try to compose themselves as their child’s number is never called. It’s flat-out devastating to witness. It is a profound embarrassment that these families are forced into a lottery system just to earn a quality education. The anguish and bone-shaking disappointment will long linger, which is exactly what Guggenheim wants. The concluding portion of the movie drops all stats and cogent rhetoric and just opens up completely to unashamed, yet highly effective, emotional appeals. Guggenheim clearly knew that the odds were against these kids being selected, which upon reflection, gives the montage of sorrow a slightly unpleasant exploitative aftertaste.
I wasn’t expecting a detailed manual on how to fix the nation’s educational woes, but at the same time I think Guggenheim is laying the blame a little too explicitly at the feet of intractable teacher unions. Now, full disclosure to my adoring readership: I work for a public school system and belong to a prominent teacher’s union, the National Education Association. I’m trying to be as impartial as possible in my analysis of a documentary that hits fairly close to home. It’s pretty impossible to not walk away affected from Waiting for Superman. You’ll be left shaken, red-eyed, and clamoring for reform, but what reform? Guggenheim tends to keep whacking at his target, the teachers unions, but a grave omission is that he never interviews a SINGLE teacher. He interviews retired teachers and numerous teachers that have become administrators, but a documentary about the concerns of a modern classroom might want to include the views of those teachers who are expected to get consistent results with inconsistent materials. There is enormous pressure on teachers, often the first to be blamed for circumstances beyond their control. Are teachers responsible for poverty and absent parenting? Are teachers responsible to fix all society’s ills? The modern educational environment has changed so much in recent years (I cannot even think of a life teaching before the distraction of texting and cell phones), and yet so much of our system is geared toward an outdated model. Tracking systems do more to segregate students into an educational caste system that tells a portion of students that nobody truly has high expectations for them. The summer recess was so that the kids could return to work on the farm in time for harvests. Hey, guess what, we stopped being an agrarian society for over 100 years.
Educational reforms like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) are mentioned, but the aftereffects are shockingly soft-pedaled by Guggenheim. The NCLB act was meant to make educators accountable, and in a way it does, but only to a single high-stakes test. The curriculum of many school environments is now entirely shaped to passing this test, which isn’t a surprise considering school funds are determined almost entirely by this single measuring device. There’s little room for enrichment when the test dictates all. I have spoken with several teachers and administrator, and I’ve heard horror stories where lower-performing students are tossed around in devious manners to keep the school’s percentage higher. The shame of NCLB is that its legacy may be that even more children are left behind. I’m flabbergasted that Guggenheim neglects to include any of the detrimental consequences of NCLB in his film. Now I’m by no means saying that teachers should not be held accountable and that unions can lead to abuses of power. Guggenheim references the infamous “rubber rooms” where disciplined teachers sit and collect full paychecks while reading the newspaper or playing cards. On the surface, naturally this excess is appalling and a waste of taxpayer dollars. But then if you stop and think, looking through the indignant broad strokes, you realize several of these rubber room inhabitants are simply getting the full measure of due process. Excess may be needed to ensure the rights of every citizen. Or do we start selectively choosing who is denied due process?
At the risk of sounding too ideologically defensive, allow me to lastly take aim with Guggenheim’s thesis that he carefully shapes. Charter schools become Guggenheim’s shining beacon of hope for his handful of student subjects. The film itself evasively admits that only 1 in 5 charter schools succeeds and that most perform at levels below public schools. I’m not knocking the success of charter schools and the dedicated professionals who operate them. It’s just another choice, and I suppose that’s what Guggenheim really boils it down to – choice. He shows us that lower income Americans are denied educational choices, which leads to a limited array of choices of opportunities in a lifetime. Charter schools are free from the Byzantine bureaucracy of the public school system, which I think is why Guggenheim lionizes them despite the 20% success rate. Waiting for Superman shows that the status quo is anything but for too many.
With all of my rebuttals, it may sound like I strongly disliked this muckraking documentary. On the contrary. Waiting for Superman is supremely engrossing, stirring, moving, devastating, illuminating, occasionally frustrating, but easily one of the best films of 2010. Most of the ills of the United States can be traced back to the epicenter of educational failure. The state of America’s education is in crisis. Just like Guggenheim’s Oscar-winning Inconvenient Truth, this is meant to sound the alarm of an impending disaster. If the educational system keeps failing students en mass, you can expect there will be far-flung generational ramifications. How can the richest country in the world fall behind so far in education? Guggenheim is passionate about a problem with no clear-cut solution. Nobody knows what makes a good teacher. There is no secret formula. And just as each child is a unique and different, so are the educational situations nationwide. Every school is going to have a different solution than another. Guggenheim has a handful of ideas on how to patch up our schools (take away the excessive power of unions, make it easier to fire poor teachers, better access to alternative schools), but the ugly truth is that there is no magic solution. Simplistic at times and perhaps a little too evasive, Waiting for Superman is nonetheless a powerful document that challenges a nation to do better.
Nate’s Grade: A-