The dark side of the bell curve
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