By WALLACE BAINE
There was a time, Davis Guggenheim’s enraging and moving documentary “Waiting for Superman” reminds us, when the U.S. public education system was the envy of the world.
That time, alas, has long passed. And there is no more vivid evidence of education’s sad state than a heart-rending sequence at the end of the film in which bright-eyed, promising young kids from a variety of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds are subjected to the cruel dictates of a charter-school lottery.
It used to be that Americans held dear to the notion that all children were entitled to a good education. Now we tolerate a system where ping-pong balls decide whether an underprivileged kid gets a lifeline, or gets thrown into the meat grinder of a failing school.
For teachers, parents, students or anyone with an interest in education (which should be everyone), “Superman” is peddling nothing new. But it’s a bracing wake-up call to a nation grown complacent about educational incompetence. Yes, it’s a jab in the ribs; when the film talks about such educational scandals such as “the Lemon Dance” and tracking, it fairly seethes in outrage. At the same time, by visiting the homes of a hand-picked collection of children caught in the maelstrom, it reminds us of what’s at stake by emphasizing the human dimension.
Guggenheim is best known as the director of the equally unnerving documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” and, in that respect, is forever tied to the public image, good or ill, of former veep Al Gore. It may surprise those who found “Truth” to be shrill, liberal propaganda to learn that this new effort is, fundamentally, a conservative critique of public education.
After establishing that the key to success in the classroom is a talented and devoted teacher, the film then proceeds to make a convincing case against the teachers’ unions whose ferocious defense of job security allows even the worst teachers to become essentially unfireable, and gives good teachers no incentive to get better. The unions and the entrenched bureaucracy built around public education are the clear villains in a story in which, despite earnest rhetoric that dates back a century, children clearly do not come first in the list of priorities.
Of course, when you grapple with a subject as vast as this one, you’re going to cut corners, and the film does fall for the seductions of oversimplification. It comes from a distinct point of view, and it’s not really designed to be an all-encompassing seminar on what ails our schools. Like most issue-oriented documentaries, this one had a choice to make: oversimplify, become a cacophony of ifs, ands and buts, or be nine hours long.
The star of the film is celebrity educator Geoffrey Canada, an activist who grew up in the school system of the South Bronx and went on to lead a successful charter school aimed to helping kids from Harlem. It is Canada who acts as the film’s impassioned conscience and beacon of hope. By its title, and its sardonic use of old “Superman” clips, the film implies there is no Superman to come to the school system’s rescue. Yet it kinda/sorta offers up Canada as just that superhero.
But as hopeful and the efforts of Canada and others are in establishing rigorous, supportive schools for underprivileged but motivated kids, scenes of various charter-school lotteries bring into sharp and painful focus how small and rare those schools still are.
On the other end of the spectrum, Guggenheim offers up some public schools as “failure factories” that, the film maintains, are not only symptoms of devalued communities, but an active agent in creating them.
As long as the failure factories outnumber the successful charter schools, and as long as kids are subject to the fate of a friendly ping-pong ball sliding down the chute or not, a great public school system will forever remain something we used to have.