The dark side of the bell curve

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Robert Nott The New Mex­i­can

Wait­ing for Su­per­man, ev­ery-child-be­ing-left-be­hind doc­u­men­tary, rated PG, Re­gal DeVargas, 3 chiles

Ed­u­ca­tor and so­cial ac­tivist Ge­of­frey Canada still re­mem­bers that ter­ri­ble day when his mother told him that Su­per­man didn’t ex­ist. “I was cry­ing be­cause there was no one with enough power to come and save us,” Canada re­calls in the open­ing scene of Davis Guggen­heim’s new doc­u­men­tary.

That’s bad news, con­sid­er­ing this nation’s de­cline in ed­u­ca­tional achieve­ment over the past 40 years. But Su­per­man did play a piv­otal role in stop­ping a run­away bus full of school­child­ren from ca­reen­ing off a moun­tain­ous road in one of the early tele­vi­sion episodes of The Ad­ven­tures

of Su­per­man, fea­tur­ing the late Ge­orge Reeves. That clip makes its way into Guggen­heim’s film late in the pro­ceed­ings, pro­vid­ing some much­needed laughs, given the doc­u­men­tary’s mostly sober sub­ject.

Guggen­heim, who won an Os­car for his 2006 film An In­con­ve­nient Truth, ex­plains early in Wait­ing for Su­per­man that, hav­ing made a doc­u­men­tary in 1999 about teach­ers called

The First Year, he feels as if he be­trays his own ideals when he drives past three pub­lic schools in his neigh­bor­hood to take his chil­dren to a lo­cal pri­vate school. He wants to know why things don’t work and how we can fix them.

Wait­ing for Su­per­man’s strength lies in its abil­ity to re­veal the hu­man face be­hind those ques­tions.

Guggen­heim of­ten fo­cuses on the per­sonal sto­ries of five stu­dents — four in­ner-city ele­men­tary school kids and one sub­ur­ban mid­dle schooler — as he crafts a two-fold ar­gu­ment: in­tractable teach­ers’ unions pro­vide the biggest bar­rier to change, and char­ter schools of­fer the best chance for im­prov­ing aca­demic achieve­ment.

These are broad, bold ideas, helped along con­sid­er­ably by charis­matic in­ter­view sub­jects (in­clud­ing Canada), archival film stock, some­times-hu­mor­ous an­i­ma­tion se­quences, and in one case, hid­den­video footage of teach­ers in­dif­fer­ently goof­ing off as their stu­dents sit idly by.

The sto­ries of the chil­dren (and their pas­sion­ately car­ing par­ents) an­chor the film and pro­vide hu­mor and heart­break as they all strive to pull them­selves out of a sys­tem that seems des­tined to lead them to ei­ther drop out or be locked up. The kids — An­thony, Bianca, Fran­cisco, Daisy (who is al­ready writ­ing col­leges to tell them she wants in), and the mid­dle schooler, Emily (who, com­pared to the other four, gets short shrift, per­haps be­cause an eighth-grader isn’t quite as cute as a sec­ond-grader) — are en­gag­ing. They’re plan­ning their fu­tures while fig­ur­ing out how to read and do ba­sic math. For the four ur­ban kids, there is also an aware­ness of the im­bal­ance in their home lives caused by divorce, poverty, and fa­mil­ial death.

But Wait­ing for Su­per­man is a prob­lem­atic film in that its fo­cus veers from the per­sonal sto­ries of our five he­roes to the his­tory of pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion to the im­pact of char­ter schools (a throw­away line notes that only one in five char­ter schools pro­duces “amaz­ing re­sults” in terms of aca­demic achieve­ment; some na­tional sur­veys sug­gest it’s more like one in 15) to the prob­lems faced by su­per­in­ten­dents who want to fire in­ef­fec­tive teach­ers. Throw in statis­tics about na­tional achieve­ment lev­els in read­ing and math, a quick look at the No Child Left Be­hind Act, pro­files of ma­jor ed­u­ca­tion play­ers — in­clud­ing Washington, D.C., ed­u­ca­tional re­former Michelle Rhee and Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers pres­i­dent Randi Wein­garten — and you’ve got a mul­li­gan stew of in­gre­di­ents to di­gest.

Wait­ing for Su­per­man does have the power to jar you with in­di­vid­ual mo­ments of drama — as when young An­thony rue­fully notes that

Up in the air: teacher Ge­of­frey Canada

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