This is a supremely important film, possibly as eye-opening on our nation’s education system as the director’s previous film, An Inconvenient Truth, was to global warming. My concern is that few people will see it. And those who do see it are those who are already tuned in to the importance of education and why we need to take dramatic steps to improve it. In other words, this wonderful documentary may end up only speaking to the choir. I hope I’m wrong.
The film uses a lively combination of techniques to tell its story. There are interviews with passionately motivated teachers, such as reforming educator Geoffrey Canada who thought when he started teaching that he would improve all the problems in a few years, that he would merely be “waiting for Superman” to come and save the day as he did when he was a child. Decades later, he’s still waiting for Superman–the educational bureaucracy and its systemic-problems too much to be solved in his lifetime.
Other interviewees are controversial educational innovators such as Supervisor Michelle Rhee who reformed Washington D.C.’s terrible educational record, one of the worst in the nation, and got her mentor, the mayor, booted out of office for her efforts. Then she quit herself, after only three years, finding the ingrained negativity response of the teachers too difficult to overcome.
The shameful educational statistics are cleverly presented in clever animation — which makes their message not only more understandable, but more shocking and shameful as well. No wonder we have a job problem in this country — we don’t have enough educated young workers to take good jobs and make better ones. Our nation’s record in science and mathematics is horrifying. And if anyone has seen a job application from a recent high school grad, with all its spelling errors and incoherent grammar, then you know how bad the average student’s reading skills are.
What’s so amazing about the information is that unless you have children, most people are not aware of the problems in our education system. Just as An Inconvenient Truth was a wake-up call about climate change, Waiting for “Superman” is a clarion ring for education reform. The controversial aspect of the film-and it is controversial, causing a lot of buzz–is the none-too-subtle criticism of the teacher’s unions and their protection of bad teachers. I’ve never heard criticism of the unions with such clear and passionate arguments. It may shock you.
The most effective part of the documentary is the story of five students and their families. The director (Davis Guggenheim) wisely gives the stories enough time for the audience to get to know the children and their hard-working single mothers or parents and to root for them. By the end of the movie, you’re either cheering or you’ve got your heart broken. One story, about a little girl whose mother couldn’t pay the last of the tuition at the parish school so the nuns wouldn’t let her attend graduation with the other children, still makes my blood boil, days after seeing it. And this little girl is supposed to grow up knowing that her hard work will be rewarded and that compassion is part of her religion? I don’t think so.
Education is of concern to all Americans. Even if you don’t have children in school, it’s someone else’s children who are going to be handling your bank accounts, finding the next cure for cancer, and creating jobs for all age levels. If you see only one documentary this year, let it be Waiting for “Superman.”