Review: WAITING FOR SUPERMAN
WAITING FOR SUPERMAN is the second best documentary I’ve seen this year that ends with low-income families nervously awaiting the outcome a lottery determining whether their child gets a coveted spot in a charter school. Documentarian Davis Guggenheim, best known for the Oscar-winning AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, is a self-identified liberal and a vocal supporter of public education. Guggenheim is also at the top of his field and can afford to send his own children to an expensive private school where he knows they will receive the best education money can buy. Pragmatist or hypocrite, Guggenheim does indeed seem like an unusual choice to make WAITING FOR SUPERMAN, a damning indictment of the dismal state of America’s broken public school system that focuses on key examples of how things can improve. Much of WAITING FOR SUPERMAN is told through the eyes of five children, all students in failing urban schools. There’s New York first-grader Francisco, Washington D.C. fifth-grader Anthony, East L.A. fifth grader Daisy; Harlem kindergartener Bianca, and California eighth-grader Emily. These children’s stories make up the bulk of the film as Guggenheim follows them through school systems that actually seem to discourage academic success and only exist to enrich overpaid bureaucrats who purposely maintain a defective system that bestows them with mountains of money and a level of job security incomprehensible to most working people. WAITING FOR SUPERMAN is a maddening review of public education, exposing “drop-out factories”, “academic sinkholes,” and the ‘rubber rooms” where underperforming teachers sit all day (often for years) playing solitaire and collecting their inflated salaries and benefits because no one wants to stand up to the teachers unions that own them. The film is already kicking up a hornet’s nest from the unions because of what they consider a broadside attack, but this reviewer thought Guggenheim was way too guarded in his condemnation.
WAITING FOR SUPERMAN works best on an emotional level when it focuses on these families seeking good schools for their children but the most inspiring character is Michelle Rhee, the feisty Chancellor of the Washington D.C. Public School system. An inspiring voice of reason, Rhee has been determined to purge public schools of incompetent teachers and principals. Her idea to end teacher tenure and promote merit pay made so much sense that the teachers unions, who reflexively reject anything that smacks of accountability, wouldn’t even put it to a vote. Rhee’s story is interesting and under her chancellorship, D.C. Public Schools have greatly improved student achievement. She comes off as the real ‘Superman’ of the title and I would have liked to seen an entire documentary about her. Another hopeful reformer profiled is Harlem Children Zone’s Geoffrey Canada, a consistently entertaining speaker and endearing idealist who admits he once believed it would take him “two, maybe three years” to straighten out the education system single-handedly before he encountered the bureaucratic obstacles that dampened his will. The film’s awkward title comes from a testimonial by Canada but seems more an excuse to show, as a heavy-handed metaphor, a clip from the old ‘Superman’ TV series where the caped crusader saves a runaway schoolbus loaded with children careening down a mountainside
The teachers union isn’t the only elephant in the room regarding WAITING FOR SUPERMAN. The other is THE CARTEL, a less-prestigious but more honest documentary from earlier this year (read my review here) that tackles the same subject and has some nearly-identical sequences. Where THE CARTEL was sloppy and obvious in its politics, WAITING FOR SUPERMAN is slick, glossy and nuanced. But sometimes anger can be a passionate motivator, and THE CARTEL, though often clumsy in its rage, zeroed in on the corruption, greed, and selfishness of the NEA and was a far more effective expose. There is some damning of the unions in WAITING FOR SUPERMAN, but Guggenhiem is clearly pulling his punches and even tries to make a vague and feeble point (for ‘balance’ I suppose) about their contributions to republicans on the state level which is laughable. The political activity of the NEA has been a major reason for its existence and it’s carpet-bombed the political landscape with hundreds of millions of dollars, making them (and the AFT – American Federation of Teachers), the largest contributors to members of Congress, spending more on campaign contributions than ExxonMobil, Microsoft, Walmart, and the AFL-CIO combined. 95% of those donations go straight into the coffers of Democrats who recognize if they wish to move up in the party’s ranks they must toe the NEA line on education policy. That means supporting ever-escalating spending, opposing school choice, advocating smaller class size (i.e., hiring more union teachers) and blocking all efforts at accountability, such as merit pay. Many Republicans shy away from speaking the truth on these issues as well but more out of fear and recognition of the power the NEA wields.
The appalling public schools have made inner-city parents and their children desperate for a better option and both WAITING FOR SUPERMAN and THE CARTEL (and apparently a third doc, THE LOTTERY, which I have not seen) end with an open lottery for coveted places at a charter school. These sequences are hard to watch as the joy of the parents whose children are chosen is clear while the tears of those who aren’t are heartbreaking. This conclusion works better in WAITING FOR SUPERMAN because we’ve followed five of these kids throughout the film and have some emotional investment in their well-being. No one (not even THE CARTEL) is saying that all public school teachers are bad, that all charter schools are good and that teachers’ unions are completely to blame for failing schools as that would do a disservice to the many good teachers in our schools who work their hearts out every day. WAITING FOR SUPERMAN argues convincingly that all children should have the right to a good education, not just those lucky enough to have their number on a little ball.
3 of 5 Stars