Waiting for ‘Superman’: One of the Most Persuasive Documentaries You Will See
Alternately heartbreaking and joyous, the film is a testament to the power of education and a critique of the adults who too often stand in the way.
October 17, 2010 - 12:00 am
Conservatives are loathe to admit it, but director Davis Guggenheim’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth impacted the national dialogue on global warming.
And all Guggenheim had to work with was a PowerPoint presentation led by a charisma-challenged former vice president.
Now, Guggenheim has turned his attention to our failing public school systems, a staggering amount of raw material for the Oscar-winning director.
He leverages every factoid for a movie far more persuasive than Truth. It’s a film both sides of the ideological aisle can embrace if viewed with an open mind.
Waiting for ‘Superman,’ now playing in select cities to brisk ticket sales, sounds the alarm over what it describes as a thoroughly mismanaged school system. We see children praying for the chance to attend charter schools, their parents teary eyed at the thought of another year in the current system.
Meanwhile, the powerful teachers’ unions retain the status quo at all costs.
It’s alternately heartbreaking and joyous, a testament to the power of education and a critique of the adults who too often stand in the way.
Guggenheim takes a personal approach to his latest film, but not in that intrusive way Michael Moore brings to his polemics.
The liberal director describes the internal dialogue he had regarding public education as he drove his children to private school. Other progressives might rationalize their actions, much like Al Gore must do when buying another energy-gulping home. Instead, Guggenheim investigated why he bypassed the public school system and why so many parents don’t have a choice in the matter.
The documentary introduces us to five children eager to leave their current public schools. They’re sunny-faced lads brimming with optimism, but their guardians know better. ‘Superman’ inundates the audience with sobering stats on dropout and literacy rates, figures sure to alarm anyone with a child near school-age.
Educational reform has been tried in some form by every president over the last 30-plus years. Even when President George W. Bush reached across the aisle to work with Sen. Ted Kennedy on “No Child Left Behind” legislation the results disappointed.
The film heaps much of the blame on tenured teachers who can’t be fired without the schools jumping through endless bureaucratic hoops. Some schools put bad teachers on hiatus, a process that stretches on for months while they enjoy full salaries and benefits. In New York, that process costs the state $100 million annually, the film reports.
We also see teachers caught on tape ignoring their students and other unforgivable actions, and even they can’t be easily dismissed.
The endless spools of red tape encouraged by teachers’ unions gives way to some startling practices. Consider “The Dance of the Lemons,” the process by which one school will pass off its lousy teachers to another school while taking that school’s rejects.
For years educators felt students from struggling towns could never match the scores of their more affluent peers. Failing neighborhoods yielded failing students, and even the best teachers couldn’t make a dent in the problem. Or so the conventional wisdom said.
Some modern charter schools trashed that belief system, offering hope for reformers willing to try a fresh approach.
A key player in ‘Superman’ is Michelle Rhee, who recently resigned as schools chancellor in D.C. One of her predecessors, a decorated war veteran, fled the job after 16 months, and six others took a crack at the near-impossible gig over a recent 10-year span. But Rhee made remarkable progress in a short amount of time. She fired flailing principals and shuttered under-performing schools. Student test scores spiked as a result, but the local teachers’ unions struck back — hard. They prevented Rhee from bringing merit pay into the system, one way reformers say can help bring accountability to the public schools.
Waiting for ‘Superman’ offers poignant vignettes, droll animation, and a soundtrack adroitly suited for the material. But it’s far from perfect. Guggenheim doesn’t give charter school critics their say, nor does he let American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten defend what seems like indefensible tenure policies. Weingarten is interviewed here, but she doesn’t fully address the glaring flaws ‘Superman’ spots in the system.
And some of the emotional notes hit when dealing with the five children feel off topic, as if the film demanded some heartfelt subplots and forced them in without concern for the narrative at large.
The “Superman” in the title refers to the Man of Steel, the hero who always arrives at just the right moment to save the day. The film thinks we’re all Supermen, citizens with enough courage to change a system that sometimes appears hopeless. Man once believed the sound barrier couldn’t be broken, but a brave pilot named Chuck Yeager proved otherwise, the film notes.
Waiting for ‘Superman’ is as persuasive as any documentary you’re likely to see, a stunning indictment fused with a credible call for action.