WAITING FOR SUPERMAN
By Gary Murray
Starring a bunch of kids and educators
Directed by Davis Guggenheim
Running time 105 min
MPAA Rating G
Selig Film Rating Full Price
I truly don't remember much of my childhood education. Just about everything before 5th grade is gone in the backwash of my mind. I know that I went the first two years of school in Houston before moving to Baytown. The major reason we moved was that my parents didn't want my older brother to go to the Houston middle school which was, because of forced bussing, in the bad part of town. Parents do everything they can for the betterment of their children. That is one of the major lessons learned in the education documentary Waiting for Superman.
The title refers to a story told by Geoffrey Canada, an educator. When he was a child, he was crushed to find out that there was no Superman. Being little, he believed that Superman would come to his ghetto and save all the boys and girls from the horrible education system he was a part of. Later, after graduating from the Ivy League, he dedicated his life to education, figuring that he could change the system in a scant few years. Then he ran into the two behemoths of education, the administration and the unions. He soon found that fixing the problem is much more complex than first thought.
Then comes all the statistics. America, once the shining light of education has become dulled We are ranked toward the bottom in just about every category of measure. We are failing the children in understanding basic reading, math and science. The kids are just pushed along, grade by grade until they eventually just drop out of the system. Money is thrown at the system and the more we spend, the worst it gets.
There is also the 'Lemon Dance; where principals send their worst teachers to another school while taking on the lemon teachers from that school system, but never firing any teacher due to tenure rules. In NYC, the school district pays over $100 million to detained teachers who are accused of crimes and cannot be left in the classroom. The teachers cannot be fired due to union contracts and tenure rules.
One solution that seems to be working is charter schools, oasis of academic freedom where teachers teach and students learn without interference from the outside. The problem is that there are few too many schools and far too many students. So the parents have a choice of sending the kids to expensive private schools or to go in a lottery where kids have to draw the right number to get into good charter schools. The stories of Waiting for Superman focus on the parents and the children.
We meet the kids. There is Daisy, a Hispanic girl who dreams of being a doctor, with either people or animals. She is a star pupil in her school but wants to get into the ten spots of the charter school. Francisco is a kid who is a bit behind and needs some special help but is just pushed through the system. Anthony is an orphaned child living with his grandmother and hoping to get into Seeds, a special college styled boarding school. The school is his best chance to break from the cycle of death and poverty that run his little life.
Michele Rhee is another educator with grand visions. As a supertendent, she takes over the DC school district, a district that gets some of the most money and has some of the poorest results. She takes on all the waste and corruption, wanting to make a clean sweep of the system. Then the finger pointing begins. Every group blames everyone else and circle the wagons around their group. The amount of money wasted is staggering. Since every special interest is lawyered up she finds that her job is a lot harder than imagined.
The ending where the kids are waiting, seeing if they make the lottery cut which is a heartbreaking experience. The kids are faced with the reality of the future as they just learning the basic skills of life. The wanting and hope on the faces of the parents and kids just tears at the heartstrings. By the end, the audience is rooting that everyone will get into these schools, but we know that the odds are very much against them. This film is made as a wake-up call for America, a call to action to save the next generation.
This is one of the most powerful documentaries of the year and a definite Academy nomination for Davis Guggenheim. I was not a fan of his Oscar winner An Inconvenient Truth because of the flawed science and guess work that portends to be science. Al Gore has no advanced degrees in anything and uses his celebrity status to push a viewpoint where the his hopeful outcome will net him millions of dollars. It is like a 'tiger rock', a magical rock that keeps away tigers. Hold the rock and do you see any tigers? No, then it works. The British government makes any teacher who shows An Inconvenient Truth present evidence that disproves major points. Here Davis does some of the same manipulations, forcing stats into his narrative and ignoring anything that doesn't fit his preconceived notions. It is the human stories that make Waiting for Superman a film one needs to see.