Education: Waiting For Superman Review


Originally Appeared at Rhode Island's Future on 10/3/2010

Last Wednesday evening, I had the opportunity to view a screening of Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman” hosted by Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership. What I learned was this: Watching a documentary about education reform with a bunch of Ed School students is a lot like watching a Sox game at the Cask’n Flagon. Everybody thinks they’re an expert, which means a good discussion can quickly turn into a heated argument.

But that’s not what Guggenheim’s film is meant to do. Its target audience isn’t people who receive education-related Google alerts. Its objective, contrary to what some may think, isn’t to inspire hatred for teachers, unions, lunch ladies, recess or that damn recorder so few of us ever learn to play. “Waiting for Superman” is simply supposed to start a broad conversation amongst the general public about a topic we should all be paying more attention to. In that respect, Guggenheim passes with flying colors.

The film has two distinct tracks – one focusing on a system filled with thousands of “dropout factories” across the country and the other following the heart-wrenching story of five children applying for admission into a handful of high-performing charter schools.

As we learn about a system that has more than doubled its spending per student over the past 40 years while falling far behind in performance compared with other developed nations, we’re introduced to two central characters: One is real-life superhero Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, who proclaims that while he was studying at Harvard, he figured it would take two, maybe three, years to fix education in the United States. That was over three decades ago. The other is D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, whose portrayal leaves little question as to why she is just as despised as she is revered. Often coming off more heartless than passionate, we see Rhee terminating a principal and displaying contempt for union leadership uninterested in bargaining with her.

If Canada is the visionary, Rhee is the Donald Trump-esque executive ready and willing to yell “you’re fired” when she doesn’t see optimal results. Together, the dynamic --and controversial—duo are the quasi-leaders of the new education reform movement in love with charter schools and convinced that a flawed system, with its rubber rooms and unearned tenure, is to blame for the majority of our students’ woes. That explanation oversimplifies things, of course. But the film does leave you wondering why traditional public schools aren’t adopting some or all of the tactics that high-performing charters have proved effective.

A documentary about education wouldn’t be nearly as thought-provoking without hearing from students, which makes the five children featured in “Waiting for Superman” the most important characters of all. Interestingly enough, only three of them are applying to charters because their neighbor schools are failing. For Emily, an eighth grader from an affluent family, it’s because she doesn’t want to attend a high school that uses a “tracking” system. And for Nakia’s mother, the inability to afford Catholic school any longer is the reason she hopes the stars align for her daughter.

Which brings us to the most disturbing part of the movie – the lottery. Hundreds of families huddling inside gymnasiums and auditoriums to find out if their children will be the chosen ones might create great drama, but the aftermath leaves you nauseous. And while a sigh of relief comes from knowing that the children are at an advantage simply because their parents or guardians took the time to apply for charter schools, you can’t help but feel like the deck has been stacked against the ones who don’t hear their number called.

In the end, “Waiting for Superman” leaves you with eyes full of tears, a head full of questions and most importantly, a topic you can’t stop talking about. The film is by no means perfect (its greatest flaw being that of all the educators featured, not one of them is currently in a classroom) but the kind of discussion it will undoubtedly create means Guggenheim has once again done his job.

Let’s just hope the sequel has a happier ending.


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