Last week, I attended an advanced screening of Waiting for “Superman” here in Miami. Though the film opened in selected markets on September 24th, the Miami official opening was slated for a few days after this screening. The preview was sponsored in part by Everybody Wins! South Florida, of which, in the interests of full disclosure, I am a supporter. The web site of Everybody Wins! USA presents the organization’s mission as, “Everybody Wins! is a national children’s literacy and mentoring nonprofit proven to build the skills and love of reading among low-income elementary students,” so sponsorship of this important (and controversial) documentary was a natural for them.
The film’s title comes from Geoffrey Canada, who as founder and CEO of Harlem Childrens Zone charter schools, is seen throughout the film. A dedicated and very successful educator who grew up in New York’s South Bronx neighborhood, Canada tells us early on, “One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me ‘Superman’ did not exist. ‘Cause even in the depths of the ghetto you just thought he was coming…She thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real. I was crying because no one was coming with enough power to save us.”
Directed, co-written and narrated by Davis Guggenheim ( An Inconvenient Truth), Waiting For “Superman” is making a lot of waves in the educational community, and rightly so. To begin with, Guggenheim takes on the powerful and influential teachers unions, the largest two of which, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) are together the biggest contributors to political campaign funds on a national level, and especially in Washington, with a combined total of $5.4 million in campaign contributions during the 2008 election season, 95% to Democratic candidates.
Guggenheim takes the two unions to task for their work rules, especially the concept of tenure, which he points out makes it almost impossible to fire teachers and which engenders the annual educational ritual of principals shuffling inadequate teachers from school to school in a vain effort to get rid of them. This exercise in futility is variously known around the country as the Dance of the Lemons, the Turkey Trot and Pass the Trash. As a taxpayer, I was particularly offended by the scene in New York’s infamous “Rubber Room,” where teachers who have been determined by their schools’ administrations to be utterly inadequate and failures as teachers spend their entire workdays at full pay, sometimes for years, awaiting the outcome of negotiations between their union and school authorities. As we see individual teachers reading the paper and even sleeping, Guggenheim’s narration informs us that the Rubber Room costs New York taxpayers 65 million dollars a year!
But Waiting for “Superman” is well balanced; Guggenheim follows the stories of five youngsters, ranging in age from kindergarten to eighth grade, and their parents as they struggle to receive an adequate education under very trying circumstances. One by one, we are introduced to Bianca, the kindergartner, who is from Harlem; Francisco, a first-grader in the Bronx; Daisy, a fifth-grader living in Los Angeles; Anthony, from the nation’s capital, another fifth grader; and Emily, who is an eighth-grader from Redwood City, California, and the only one of the five not from an impoverished family.
The kids, all but one living in disadvantaged neighborhoods and attending “failure factories,” are personable and engaging and, along with their parents (mostly single mothers), determined to better their lot in life, obtain a good education and succeed. They are the true heroes of this film, and toward the end, as their respective lotteries are held, we share their joy and pain as they learn their fates.
In addition to the kids and Geoffrey Canada, Guggenheim focuses his cameras on the Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public School system, Michelle Rhee. A dynamic and forceful administrator who admits in the film that she is not very popular among the District’s teachers, she is cast by Guggenheim as another of his heroes. Since becoming Chancellor, Ms Rhee has shaken up the DC schools, closing nearly a hundred of them, and firing a number of principals, and Guggenheim’s depiction of her is flattering but factual.
Waiting For “Superman” is not without flaws. Though as a film it is visually impressive and engaging, with excellent production values and a well-written script, especially the narration (Guggenheim’s voiceover is superb), where the documentary stumbles is in its treatment of the facts, not so much by commission, but by omission. A particular case in point: charter schools. The film emphasizes repeatedly (and deservedly so) the good that Geoffrey Canada and others are accomplishing with their charter organizations, but glosses over (but does mention) the fact that charter schools as a whole have a significantly high failure rate, as measured by student testing, which in some areas even exceeds the rates of competing public schools. Additionally, while Waiting For “Superman” correctly assigns most of the blame for the failure of US public schools over the past several decades to the teacher unions, it all but ignores (or gives very short shrift to) such factors as bureaucratic meddling and ineptitude, voter apathy on school tax issues (a major problem here in Florida, where a significant portion of the voting population are childless elders), apathetic parents, and inadequate education and preparation of educators.
All in all, Waiting For “Superman” is an important and timely film. Few thinking people in today’s America would disagree that our educational system is badly broken, and Davis Guggenheim’s well-crafted documentary takes an important and much needed step towards igniting a national dialogue on this issue so vital to our nation’s future.
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