(2010)2.5Josh RalskeDavis Guggenheim tackles public education in the United States with Waiting for Superman. From an aesthetic standpoint, the movie is light years beyond Guggenheim's An Inconvenient Truth (aka "Al Gore's PowerPoint Presentation"). With its cute animated sequences illustrating various statistics, its effective, John Legend-assisted score, and its focus on five bright, adorable kids and their guardians' quixotic quest to improve their futures, Waiting for Superman goes down easy. The filmmakers deserve credit for addressing such a longstanding, complex, politically incendiary, and urgent issue. The movie has to be seen as a failure, though, in its examination of the public school system and how to improve it.
Guggenheim oversimplifies things. He offers simple solutions to a very complex problem. He has his heroes (reformers like Washington, DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and Geoffrey Canada of Harlem Children's Zone) and villains ("bad" teachers and the union that protects them). While Canada has done amazing work, and is a great interview subject, Rhee also gives a good interview, but her tenure has been controversial, and Guggenheim doesn't really address concerns about the allegedly autocratic manner in which she's run the school system, which has angered many parents.
Guggenheim's fashionable demonization of the teachers' union is more troubling. His essential point is that great schools need great teachers, and he suggests that the union and the tenure system are largely responsible for the "impossibility" of getting rid of the "bad" teachers. He doesn't spend much time defining what a "great" teacher is, or how we recognize that greatness, or train prospective teachers to be great. He doesn't analyze what makes a "bad" teacher, either, though we do hear about the infamous "Rubber Rooms" of the New York City school system (which were eliminated before the film's release), and we see some hidden camera footage of a teacher reading the paper in class. As this is one of his key points, and the stick he uses to beat Randi Weingarten and the American Federation of Teachers (which has been around since 1916, long before America's educational decline), it would have made sense to develop this part of his argument further. If he's going to say the system needs more good teachers and fewer bad ones (not exactly revelatory, that), he should explain how that might be accomplished, beyond making changes to the clearly imperfect tenure system.
Guggenheim also stumbles in focusing solely on the successes of a small number of charter schools. There are a lot of successful public schools (publicly run and union-staffed, unlike the charters) that Guggenheim could have highlighted and that would have lent some balance to the documentary. As it is, he presents charter schools as magical solutions to all the problems of public education, when in fact studies suggest that there are good charters and ineffective ones, just as there are with public schools.
Guggenheim has stated that one of the reasons he focused on charters was so that he could highlight the various school lotteries at the climax of the film. These serve as both a metaphor for the inherent unfairness of our educational system (which is irrefutably worse for those living in impoverished areas) and add drama to the film. By focusing on the lottery prospects of the five children we've been following throughout the movie, Guggenheim gives us a rooting interest in their success, which slightly undercuts his real point, which is that all of our children deserve a chance to succeed. Worse yet, he appears to be stacking the deck in order to strengthen his contention that the unions are largely to blame for the state of public education.
Guggenheim presents his solutions, which are embodied in the few effective charters he studies, but he doesn't explain how their small-scale successes could be implemented on the massive scale of American public education. He suggests that "good teachers" are a key element to successful schools, but gives little indication as to what makes a good teacher, let alone how a school system can produce them. He stacks the deck against the teachers' unions in favor of what is essentially the privatization of American public education. The film laudably points out that children can succeed at the highest levels, regardless of their background, but it also downplays the devastating effect of poverty on a child's education. It's valuable to bring these issues to a wide audience, but Guggenheim doesn't dig deep enough. In the end, Waiting for Superman is entertaining filmmaking, but shoddy, shallow journalism.
Documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim explores the tragic ways in which the American public education system is failing our nation's children, and explores the roles that charter schools and education reformers could play in offering hope for the future. We see the statistics every day -- students dropping out, science and math scores falling, and schools closing due to lack of funding. What we don't see are the names and faces of the children whose entire futures are at stake due to our own inability to enact change. There was a time when the American public education system was a model admired by the entire world. Today other countries are surpassing us in every respect, and the slogan "No Child Left Behind" has become a cynical punch line. Bianca, Emily, Anthony, Daisy, and Francisco are five students who deserve better. By investigating how the current system is actually obstructing their education instead of bolstering it, Guggenheim opens the door to considering possible options for transformation and improvement.