Waiting for Superman does one thing right above all else: it gets a conversation going. Then something else has to matter, which is how much the people who get to talking really know about the education system in America, which has been making students fall behind compared to others throughout the world (i.e. USA ranks 25th among students for math and reading, albeit we’re #1 when it comes to confidence! yey we’re #1!) David Guggenheim’s documentary shifts between personal stories of (mostly) inner-city kids whose parents want their kids to do well but are doubtful for good reason about whether their kids will get the fair chance, and try ultimately to get them into charter-school systems that rely on a lottery system of picking who gets in and who doesn’t.
This makes up the emotional core of the picture, and it’s a good one. Where things get both interesting and tricky is when Guggenheim gets into the main issue at hand: what’s wrong with our countries schools, especially in inner-city/urban ones like in Harlem and DC where there are “Drop-Out Factories” created in part by students in bad neighborhoods but more-so by teachers who just don’t give a good-damn about teaching. Guggenheim rails against the teacher union’s seemingly monolithic nature when it comes to sacking bad teachers (we learn about the “Lemon Dance” system done with teachers who are tenured who are just bad period). Meanwhile he paints a very rosy picture of the Charter/private schools, and why not? They show how the teachers do give a damn about the students, and the better attention paid – and as we see teaching is a kind of art form that one can master – the better the students.
But doing a little research before or after the film shows that Guggenheim, for all of his good (and they are good) intentions, omits or shallowly covers certain things, such as the Kipp charter schools (it’s mentioned only briefly in the doc but 1 out of 5 Charter schools really work best at what they do, and not mentioned is how kids that don’t keep up in the first couple of years just get kicked out, period), and about the nature of public school teachers. The call for reform is not unwarranted, and I became saddened by the DC Chancellor’s idea of giving double to teachers who don’t take tenure being shot down, not even addressed, by the NEA. At the same time that Guggenheim gives some strong attention to the flailing public school/public-school-union system, and to how good though competitive Kipp and schools like it are, little attention is paid to what the urban/inner-city neighborhoods are really like that kids like this are in. I question the statement a person interviewed makes about the school system negatively affecting the neighborhoods more than the other way around. To me it would appear to be a vicious cycle where both sides need reform for true change.
But Waiting for Superman, a film meant to rile up the audience into attention like Guggenheim’s previous doc An Inconvenient Truth, is useful as a way to get people who have no idea what’s going on what is going on, at least the cliff-notes version of it. It isn’t the digging-deepest look at the subject, yet I did feel moved by how the people trying to get by with their kids are good people wanting the best for their kids. Probably the big irony that Guggenheim does, after giving so much positive hype for how charter schools work (i.e. 96% of students go on to college who attend), is showing the lottery system as the climax, and how very few spots there are in the schools. The doc could go even further with being an activist-style position trying to affect change, or give clearer facts; there’s a lot of cute-quirky animation to bring along the information, though the interviewees selected are kind of cherry-picked for its ultimate effect.
It is, in short, a good documentary but not quite a great one, and will be a big upper or a big downer depending on who you are in the audience, if you have kids, if you’re a teacher, or if you’re in the “rubber room” in one of the NYC schools. – doctorlightning