Waiting for “Superman” takes a page from the catechism of Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone. He stars in this over-the-top look at public education in America. Canada knows the public schools of America well, growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s and attending a “failure factory.” The only difference is that these days there are many more from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles.
Waiting For “Superman” is a sharply focused, well-done documentary about three students who pin their hopes on gaining entrance by lottery into a public charter school. (The Harlem Children’s Zone is a boarding public charter school.) The applicants face tall odds with at best a 1:5 chance of acceptance. It ends with the lottery choices revealed. And it is no secret that the families followed did not win.
This somber film opens with a young black boy sitting on his bed recounting the little time he spent with his dad. When asked, “Where’s your father?” The young man stares, “He just died. He did drugs.” Young Anthony’s life mirrors the current crop of students who don’t live in single-parent household, but often one headed by a single grandmother, sister, cousin or aunt who gives them shelter because biological parents are either in prison, on drugs or dead.
This film depicts hard choices facing one black, one brown and one white student from east to west. Davis Guggenheim, director producer and co-writer (Lesley Chilcott co-writer), fills in the blanks with narration. He talks about the stark difference between classes: abundant choice for the affluent and luck for the less fortunate.
Michelle Rhee is profiled in a good light in the film. She does not have a Ph.D., taught for only three years, no administrative experience but appointed chancellor of DC public schools by Mayor Fenty. Her presence and her mission were not appreciated by the teachers whom she knows are dishing “crappy education.” They hate her. Why? Because she is brought in to fix by firing bad teachers in the nation’s capital. Their schools report some of the lowest scores in math and reading in the country. Randi Weingarten is cast in poor light and portrayed as the woman working for the system and against Rhee. High drama happens when Rhee sits in the audience and discovers that her plan on the teacher’s union table, with offer to increase pay to six figures, fire unproductive teachers, and tenure thrown out is met with a wall of silence. Rhee is crushed.
Timeline and storyline sifts in Waiting For “Superman” between real B/W footage from school days in the 1950s and 1960s; the three students who enter a lottery, and what’s wrong with education today bringing the audience up to date on the problems.
We know what works: more time on task, emphasis on math and science, competent teachers. We also know that fifth grade is the great divide. Canada emphases that students enter school with bright shiny faces, eager to learn but by fourth or fifth grade the score slide begins. And it is not just poor urban schools that are facing decline in performance.
There are great teachers out there, but in this film they do not make the cut. Teachers acknowledged are from KIPP (knowledge is power) or inside Canada’s charter. He likens a great teacher to “a work of art.” Canada also drives home the not-so-glamorous too; that teachers are just janitors, hired to take out the trash–low scores, low self-esteem, low IQ, and low achievement. Instead after “tenure” the status quo becomes checking the inbox and collecting a check. He pidgeon holes all unions (and principals) as protectors of the right of teachers not to teach. What about the rest of the teachers in this country?
An interactive, animated map of the USA tells us how the rest of the country is faring with facts and figures. We watch, not one single state on the map that can tout high scores in math and reading. Ouch. The old saw that failing neighborhoods produce failing schools is turned on its head by research according to this film. It is failing schools that produce failing neighborhoods. This part of the documentary nails the heart of the problem: what does this society value most? Prisons filled with the unschooled or fixing America’s public schools?
The prison industrial complex has no trouble filling seats. Numbers don’t lie and one swallows hard when confronted: it costs $132,000 for prisoner/year, compared to the cost of a private school at $107,000 per annum/student. As pointed out in the film, money goes only one way when schools become dropout factories and prison-feeder institutions. But wealth is created and recycled when schools work.
How this country relies on imported brain power is touched and juxtaposed with how students in this country rank with countries in the rest of the world. For me, I am not buying it because one only has to ask one simple question: how many countries offer public education from K-12 to 100% of its population without charge? How Asian countries manage to include far more math and science classes? And what countries have tiered systems that track and move the best and brightest to higher education? How many children are simply left behind? That’s more than one simple question but you begin to grasp the complexity.
One thing is sad and inexcusable: ninth grade students entering high school with reading levels as low as first grade. Again, I have trouble believing such figures about mainstream students without seeing the research for myself. It is explained by “social promotions” and tracking. How tracking works is shown, but there is no discussion about the role of special education and how their scores are treated. So we do find many gaps in this documentary but no outright lies.
The final question in this exam over failed schools: can we trust Guggenheim and Canada’s assessment of public schools? If not, can we afford to doubt the urgency of this film’s message: if one student fails in a silent school system will anyone hear the sound?