Waiting for Superman
A young Los Angeles student named Daisy is one of five kids profiled in “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” a documentary about the public education crisis. Paramount Vantage

“Waiting for ‘Superman’” is a well-made film. It’s passionate and well-argued, and hopefully will bring a lot of people together to have a serious conversation about how to fix the education system in America.

Unfortunately, that conversation will likely have to start with refuting a lot of the conclusions drawn in the film. Director Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth,” “It Might Get Loud”) is so enthralled with one side of the debate that his film jumps to dangerously simplistic conclusions.

Wisely avoiding getting too adrift in the abstracts of education policy, Guggenheim grounds his film in a personal and emotional place. The film opens with Guggenheim himself, narrating his daily drive to take his kids to a private school in Los Angeles, passing three public schools on the way. How did it come to this, he wonders, that a staunch liberal is taking his kids to private school?

From there, Guggenheim follows five students and their families as they attempt to get into highly desirable charter schools, which have so many applicants that they use a random lottery system. One student is from a good suburban public school, but the other four are from inner-city schools with very high dropout rates, and for them the stakes are high.

Why are so many public schools in such trouble? Guggenheim bombards the viewer with a fast-moving and often engaging mix of interviews, animated interludes, archival clips and pop culture references to drive home his points about the grim state of public education.

But the reason public schools do so poorly? It’s not money, Guggenheim asserts, noting that we’re spending much more on average per student than we did in 1970. And it’s not the dumbing-down of American culture in general, or changing patterns in learning, or anything else that’s a little intangible.

No, it’s that trusty old scapegoat, the teachers unions. While the film falls all over itself to laud teachers, Guggenheim and his talking-head reformers blame teachers unions for blocking efforts to fire incompetent teachers who have tenure.

There’s some fuzzy math at work there. If incompetent teachers really are the reason that, say, 50 percent of Los Angeles high school students drop out, that would mean that a sizable number of teachers there (say, a third) deserve to be fired, right? Do we really think that a third of the teaching force is that bad? And if there were that many duds, couldn’t Guggenheim find more evidence of lousy teaching than 20-year-old hidden camera footage of a Milwaukee teacher reading a newspaper during class?

The truth is, you don’t see one positive depiction of a public school in “Waiting.” And you don’t see one negative depiction of a charter school either. From the Harlem Children’s Zone to the Los Angeles KIPP school, they’re all portrayed as innovative places that churn out startlingly high numbers of graduates that go on to college. But then Guggenheim mentions in passing that “only one in five charter schools produce amazing results.” Beg pardon?

That’s not to minimize the achievements of those charter schools; we should be looking everywhere for successful school models that we can replicate on a larger scale. But “Waiting” seems to suggest that the main reason they do so well is not their curriculum or their teaching philosophy. It’s because they aren’t traditional public schools with unionized teachers.

Guggenheim has said in interviews that he tried unsuccessfully to film in high-performing public schools, and that he doesn’t believe charter schools are a silver bullet. But his film suggests otherwise. Go see it, and then talk about it. But don’t necessarily buy into it.

 

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