American kids, and thus the future of America, are imperiled by our crappy education system, so says Waiting for “Superman,” a documentary likely to leave you sad or angry or both.
Superman, personified here by George Reeves in clips from the TV show, is the person who comes to rescue the kids in the school bus, hurtling toward danger. Geoffrey Canada, now the head of Harlem Children’s Zone, a charter school in Harlem, says he cried the day he found out Superman wasn’t real and that no one was coming to his neighborhood in the South Bronx to right the many societal wrongs.
The movie follows other kids in other neighborhoods full of societal wrongs, the wrongest of which are the schools, “dropout factories,” as the movie calls them. The elementary schools leave kids behind on skills needed for middle school, which never catch them up on skills needed for high school, from which large percentages of kids in lousy districts in New York City, Los Angeles and other places never graduate. Forget college. Forget that family-sustaining job. And, for American companies, forget skilled workers.
Actually, forget skilled workers, whether they graduate from high school or not. The movie says that even our best students, the top five percent, are lagging far behind the best students of the rest of the world. Perhaps most eye-opening are not the examples of lousy schools in lousy neighborhoods but the example of lousy education in a neighborhood where the homes cost half a million dollars. Most of the students profiled are young minority students, kids in elementary or middle school who clearly have potential to make it but are neighborhoods were the schools are not great (or even pasable). But one is a white teenage girl in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Silicon Valley. You’d think — in a movie where the dramatic action is centered around lotteries held for charter school spots — this student had already won life’s lottery. But because her test scores aren’t good, her neighborhood high school will likely put her in lower tracks for her academics. She won’t learn as much, won’t have AP classes on her transcript when she applies to college, and won’t be as prepared for whatever college she does get in to. Her escape from a downward academic trajectory is, just as with the other kids, a charter school where all of the kids will take rigorous academics.
Charter schools are, therefore, the Superman of this movie. Get a spot in one and you aren’t shunted into the low-performing public schools. All of the parents here are shown to be deeply involved people who want desperately for their kids to get a decent education. You can’t argue that in these cases parents are the problem or that more encouragement at home is all these kids need — you instead feel the movie’s despair that all the parental concern and involvement in the world isn’t going to make up for the crummy schools that are the only choice for those who can’t afford private school.
So, if charter schools and their founders — Canada, David Levin and Mike Feinberg at KIPP Academies — are the Supermen, who is the Lex Luthor? The teachers unions — boo, hiss. In dramatic fashion, the movie paints the teachers unions as the obstructionists who would rather see a hundred bad teachers saved by tenure than one good teacher rewarded with merit pay. The teachers unions are special interest groups who stop national Democrats from doing anything on education and local politicians of all stripes from tackling the problem at the grass roots, the movie says. To illustrate this battle, it gives us Michelle Rhee, another Superman, the much talked about Chancellor of the Washington, D.C., schools and her efforts.
So, I admit, I’m a sucker for this kind of movie. It has the drama and subjects you can’t help empathizing with — the big-eyed children with dreams of being doctors or providing a better life for their distant-future-children; it has all sorts of nerdy statistics about how we suck at math but are waving around “we’re number one!” foam fingers when it comes to confidence; it has solutions, of a sort, in the work being done by the charter schools and Michelle Rhee. (And, yes, that’s a fairly limited example of solutions but it’s more than in, say, Food Inc., a movie that had all sorts of facts going for it but limited drama and even less in terms of “and here’s what we do now.”) This is an example of the very best of modern feature documentary making — documentaries that tackle an issue but also give you an interesting story.
It’s probably also an example of some of the worst traits of modern feature documentaries — specifically, as convincing as it is, I couldn’t help but think that Waiting for “Superman” was oversimplifying a lot. Michelle Rhee just last week resigned, saying she wouldn’t be able to work with the incoming mayor, who ran on a campaign against her. Not all charter schools are the model of academic achievement shown here. And the movie was missing the voice of public school teachers — what do they think about their unions? What would they change if they had a magic wand?
That doesn’t, however, negate what this movie has to say or how fascinating it is. As the movie tells us, it’s one thing to read a story about our lousy test scores or failing schools and it’s another thing to meet the kids directly impacted by these big public policy issues. Go see Waiting for “Superman,” argue about it with your teacher friends, argue about it with parents and get some context for the often dry coverage of education issues. A-
Rated PG for some thematic material, mild language and incidental smoking. Directed by Davis Guggenheim and written by Davis Guggenheim and Billy Kimball, Waiting for “Superman” is an hour and 42 minutes long and distributed by Paramount Vantage.