by Tim Ross
Read this review. Then read it to your school-aged child. Then have your child read it to you. Not because anything I write is so important but because what I am writing about in this review is.
Finding a good school and, more importantly, great teachers is the single most crucial thing you can do for your child. That is the central message of “Waiting For ‘Superman,’” a new documentary from Davis Guggenheim, the Academy Award-winning documentarian of “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Maybe this message is obvious to most parents, but if your child is not blessed with good teachers, which is far from a guarantee, their chances of having a career instead of just a job are very low. The job-versus-career line comes from one of the parents in the story. She knows her child’s future depends upon her education, but she is largely unable to help.
Enough pressure for you? It gets worse. Guggenheim tells a story filled with sobering facts about how fragile a child’s education can be. Chart after chart – crafted with interesting animation – illustrate how the odds are stacked against millions of American kids to even finish high school, much less graduate with grades sufficient to go to college or have a career.
The film opens with Mr. Guggenheim driving past three public schools in his neighborhood to take his kids to a private school. If the director of a documentary meant to increase awareness about reforming the public school system takes his kids to a private school, what does that say about his findings? At least he is candid about it and proceeds to paint a very ugly picture of our current public school system.
According to Guggenheim, America’s public schools were the envy of the world in the ’50s and ’60s, but now we are so far down the list in science, math and overall grades, we may never recover.
There were villains aplenty in this story, but first, the heroes. Guggenheim follows several parents and their kids, all of whom are on the razor’s edge that is life in a failing public school. From the Bronx to L.A. we watch as Daisy, Francisco, Anthony, Bianca and Emily try to navigate school at various grade levels. All of the children except for Emily live in the inner-city but even the California suburbs don’t insulate Emily from iffy grades and an uncertain future.
Guggenheim is consistent in choosing kids whose parents are dedicated to doing whatever it takes to get their children a good education. Most of the parents are, however, unable to spend much time with the kids outside of school and are left with a quest to find a school near home that is committed to excellence and has teachers dedicated to that mission. The parents – and the kids – are genuinely interested in finding a school and succeeding despite the odds.
Perhaps one of the most important lessons of “Waiting For Superman” is that inner-city kids and those from low-income families can compete with any other students in the nation if they are given the tools and resources to learn. The search for those opportunities, however, is heartbreaking, as are most of the results.
What may have been even sadder is that there were three people other than myself in the entire theatre. Four people attending what might be the most important film produced in recent memory.
The lack of mass awareness and commitment to education is one of the hurdles the hero figures must face. We meet educators fighting for reform, including Geoffrey Canada who opened a Charter School in Harlem and Michelle Rhee, embattled superintendent of Washington, D.C. schools.Canada and Rhee constantly fight the system and repeatedly try to devise creative ways around it.
As for villains – well, the system itself is the biggest villain, but Guggenheim takes an especially dim view of America’s largest teacher unions. He suggests that teachers unions have fought some of the most promising reforms such as eliminating tenure, expanding merit pay to more schools and resisting eliminating of underperforming teachers.
Even with some clear finger-pointing at unions and the system, nothing is black and white about why schools fail students.
The film does end on a note of hope. Although it’s a complicated equation and one that has no clear resolution, educators and parents are fighting for a better way to teach and plenty of kids willing to learn. Deep down, we all want to learn despite the conditions in our home or neighborhoods or schools.
There are schools that work, kids can learn under the right conditions and there are people looking for answers. Guggenheim argues that nothing short of an educational revolution will bring this goal to fruition. See the film and you may agree.