Davis Guggenheim's "Waiting for Superman" is a documentary, not a comic book film. But for many parents, I have a feeling it may play like a horror movie.
The film details the utter failure of the American public school system, in which inner city schools are called "drop out factories," bad teachers are impossible to fire, and the country's students place 26th in reading and science.The bright side? Their confidence is high: Nearly every student polled thinks Americans place No. 1 in those areas.
Guggenheim ("An Inconvenient Truth") knows audiences are well aware of the problems that have faced the education system for decades. We've heard stories of classrooms that have run out of supplies, teachers who sit back and do nothing, and idealistic educators constantly thwarted by district bureaucracy and governmental politics. He plainly states that in the inner cities, many middle schools fail to properly prepare kids for high school. In many urban high schools, freshmen start five years behind and half are guaranteed to drop out, ending up on the streets or in prison. Conventional wisdom, Guggenheim states, has always believed that bad cities were to blame for bad schools. However, he reports that just the opposite may be true.
I'd imagine that an entire Ken Burns documentary could be prepared detailing the myriad things that derailed the public education system. But Guggenheim places the lion's share of the blame at the feet of teacher unions that wield enormous political power and make it nearly impossible to fire teachers once they receive tenure, which can often happen in as few as two years. In some states, such as Illinois, the film posits that it is actually easier for a doctor to lose his license or a lawyer to be disbarred than to fire a tenured teacher. In many districts, bad teachers are simply transferred from school to school in a game known as "pass the lemon." In New York, disciplined teachers sit in an office building reading newspapers while awaiting hearings; they receive full salary and they can wait as long as eight years before their cases are called.
It's sobering, even for this critic without children in school. Bright students who are eager to learn can have that potential snuffed out by teachers who don't care or districts that don't allow them to flourish. While many suburban parents can send their children to private schools, many lower-income parents don't have that luxury and are at the mercy of their districts, watching as their children are sent off to buildings where the odds are stacked against them.
The film would likely still be shocking if it were just a parade of these grim statistics and district snapshots. But Guggenheim engages the audience by following five inner city students from around the country as their parents worry about the future awaiting them in the classrooms. Statistics are sobering, but it's even harder to take when they're placed with names and faces. His subjects - Francisco, Anthony, Bianca, Daisy and Emily - are bright, precocious children who want to become veterinarians, surgeons and teachers. They're young and excited about learning, even if they have their own struggles in the classroom. Seeing their optimism and also their awareness that a tough road awaits them is sobering, and creates an emotional bond to the problem.
There seems to be hope, Guggenheim states. There are idealistic, innovative teachers across the country interested in education reform. We meet Michelle Lhee, the Washington, D.C., superintendent who came in and fired underperforming principals and teachers, and came up with a proposal to do away with tenure and offer teachers merit increases - a proposal that could have doubled teachers' salaries if they performed well ... and was shot down when the union deemed it too threatening.
We also meet educators like Geoffrey Canada, who opened a charter school in inner city Harlem where teachers are involved in the education process literally from a students' infanthood. Naysayers told Canada that opening a school in Harlem was a lost cause; years after opening, however, his students are scoring higher on tests than students from even the best areas. The implication is clear: When good teachers are allowed to teach and engage students, students can succeed. When education is more focused on protecting employment or watching the bottom line, students fail.
Charter schools - public schools that operate outside of the district policies - seem to be an attractive option, one that offers students a greater chance at success. But the limited availability and high number of applicants mean students are accepted through lotteries. In the film's tense and heartbreaking final 20 minutes, we watch as each student Guggenheim's followed sits in on lotteries and basically has their educational future determined by chance. It's one of the most sobering and devastating moments I've seen on screen this year.
At the screening I attended, there were several angry and frustrated outbursts with every setback or new statistic. Guggenheim, as he did with global warming in "An Inconvenient Truth," is able to take complex statistical information, and make it immediate and relatable. Is it a bit manipulative to parade children in front of to hammer home a point? Perhaps. But Guggenheim's work never feels overly manipulative and the point of the matter is this - this is about children's futures. When you see how schools are failing and the impact it has on children's lives, outrage is the only emotion to feel.
But as with "An Inconvenient Truth," Guggenheim closes with an appeal for involvement, asking audiences to text if they want to help. I can't imagine anyone who hears about the nightmarish state of America's schools will want to stay passive as they walk out of the theater. Parents, educators and anyone concerned about the future of the nation will want to pay attention to this movie, and it's the rare film that could spur people to action and make a difference.
Or, as the title suggests, we could sit back and wait for someone to come in and fix it for us. But, as Canada reminds audiences early in the film, Superman does not exist, and he's not going to come and save the day.
Originally published in the Oct. 10 edition of The Source.