Sunday, September 26, 2010

Waiting For "Superman"

Waiting For “Superman”
Directed by Davis Guggenheim
Paramount Vantage / Participant Media / Walden Media
Select Theaters September 24, 2010; Rated PG

Davis Guggenheim, Academy award winning director of An Inconvenient Truth, has made a sad and disturbing new film. It is timely and necessary, a polemic that must be seen by every American.

I first became aware of Guggenheim’s work with his 2001 documentary on education called The First Year. In that film, he portrayed the heroism of a group of new teachers as they made their way through their first school year. At the end of the documentary, when one of the new teachers goes home for a visit and sees the playground equipment and resources the local school has in comparison to the school where he works, his emotional breakdown had me in tears.

In his latest film, I found myself moved again by Guggenheim’s ability to tell an intensely important and emotional story. For me, the anger and sadness of the film comes from watching kids and parents who want a decent education and future be deprived of what they so desire because of chance. Why, in a first world nation like America, should any kid be denied an education because of bad luck, lack of funding, or residing in the wrong neighborhood? The students are the emotional core of the film, and Guggenheim hooks the viewer from the beginning with their stories.

Francisco is a first grader from the Bronx with a love of math and some wild hair that he insists on styling himself in the morning. His mother is the driving force behind his education, and throughout the film she is seen making phone calls and sending notes to her son’s teacher without response.

Emily is a high school student from central California. She wants to transfer from her public school in an affluent area to a charter school that has a better reputation and college acceptance rate.

Anthony is a fifth grader from D.C. who is being raised by his grandmother. He carries his father’s picture around with him, and is profoundly affected by his dad’s death from the consequences of drug addiction. He has struggled in school, and was held back in the second grade.

Bianca, a kindergartener in Harlem, wants to transfer from a Catholic school to Harlem Success Academy, a highly ranked charter school. Her mother is underemployed, and has trouble paying the tuition at Bianca’s current school; the charter would solve two problems: it is free, and the child will receive a top-notch education.

Finally, there is Daisy, a mature and focused fifth grader from East Los Angeles who tells us she wants to be a nurse, doctor or veterinarian. Her mother works cleaning hospitals, and her father is unemployed. She is remarkably driven for a kid her age, and has already written to the college of her choice asking for admission. She wants to transfer to KIPP LA Prep, an excellent charter school with a demanding academic program.

The film contains all the voices in the discussion: the union president, the education reformer, the controversial school chancellor, the parents and students. I would have liked to hear some teachers’ voices, but Guggenheim did cover that area exclusively in his first film. In Waiting For “Superman”, we do see teachers, some effectively teaching their classes and some being the very picture of failure. One particularly effective montage shows a room where teachers who are facing disciplinary action must report every day while awaiting adjudication of their cases. The film shows these teachers sleeping, eating, playing cards, and reading the newspapers, all while collecting their full salaries to the tune of millions of dollars a year. And what purpose does this serve in educating kids?

Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, will undoubtedly have an answer to that question. As a representative of teachers’ unions, she comes off as the villain in the film, and rightly so. Unions have been the substantial roadblock to school reform for decades. It is Weingarten’s organization that tries to cap successful charter schools so that their successes cannot be replicated elsewhere. If we are all so concerned about the education of children, as Weingarten claims her members are, why do unions lobby against success? And why do they fight to remove education reformers like Michelle Rhee, the embattled chancellor of the Washington D.C. school district? That group of schools in particular has one of the worst rankings of students in math and science in the country, right in the heart of the nation’s capitol, and yet Rhee, who has made substantial headway in firing tenured, miserably deficient teachers and principals, will probably lose her job when the new mayor takes over, a candidate who was given a million dollars in campaign donations by the teachers’ union.

Davis Guggenheim has opened a door for us with his film. He has inspired a discussion and lit a fire that I hope rages through the country. He tells us that although our students have dropped behind many other countries in math, science, and reading proficiency, American students still rank first in confidence. The only thing we have done successfully in schools is encourage unearned self-esteem.

Geoffrey Canada, CEO of The Harlem Children’s Zone, makes a profound statement at the start of the Waiting For “Superman” that gives us not only the title of the film, but also a metaphor for the educational situation at hand. There is no Superman coming to save the day. If we are to save American education, we will have to do it ourselves. We will have to be our own superheroes to safeguard our future. That is our only way forward.


  1. I can't really explain my feelings of disappointment in this film better than these writers can. I urge you to read them:

  2. Thanks for the heads up, Jared. I will check out your links.

  3. Thanks for the review; I definitely want to check out this film when it is released in my area.

    It seems like in each narrative the documentary follows, students are trying to get out of public schools and into successful charter schools. I wonder, does Guggenheim suggest in his film that charter schools are the answer to the broken public education system?

    As a very new teacher I haven't yet formed a strong opinion on the charter vs. public school issue. I understand that the public system is broken in many ways. But I've also read educational writers (like Jonathan Kozol) who suggest that charter schools are not the answer, and that public education is somehow more, well, democratic. When Kozol speaks of charter schools, he almost speaks of them as something that young teachers may be seduced into thinking are a good idea, but in reality these new teachers are missing light, the more important point that we should be striving for a free and equal public education. I'm sure we could all agree that such a scenario would be ideal at least.

    I really don't know what to think of charter schools, but I do work at a magnet school within the public school system. I can definitely see how all the outside funding coming into our school makes a difference -- money, in the end, always makes a big difference. When our district laid off 500 teachers this past spring, people at the school I now work for hinted that we should maybe become a charter school, outside the influence of the public system and their lay offs. But in the end, I think we get most of our funding because we are part of the public system.

    Does Guggenheim mention magnet schools at all?

  4. You really need to see the film, A.J. Guggenheim does suggest that charter schools might have the edge over public institutions, but he does make clear that not all charter schools are successful. And Randi Weingarten says this as well in her segment.

    I am a huge fan of Kozol's going back years. Have you read "The Night Is Dark and I Am Far From Home." A lesser known classic by this great social and cultural critic.

    Finally, magnet schools are really not given much attention in the national debate. They deserve more. However, I am in agreement that one of the great things about this country is a free public school system. But it must return to its former glory and not just be a warehouse for bodies until they can be pushed out into life. As so many people have written and said, we need to educate like we mean it and there are no shortcuts in the process.

    Thanks for the comment.


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