Waiting for Superman (PG)
Davis Guggenheim, the filmmaker who brought us An Inconvenient Truth, offers a searing, surprising look into America's education crisis in Waiting for Superman. He dutifully provides the grim statistics — among 30 developed countries, the United States is 25th in math and 21st in science, and the numbers are falling fast — and brings on all the expected talking heads (philanthropist Bill Gates, Harlem Children's Zone president and CEO Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee, chancellor of Washington, D.C.'s, public schools are all featured prominently). But to get to the heartbreaking core of the story, he brings us intimately into the lives of five students.
Anthony, whose father died of a drug overdose, is a Washington, D.C., fifth-grader hoping to get a coveted spot at a public boarding school. Daisy, who one day wants to be a doctor "to help people," is stuck in a Los Angeles middle school with dismal math scores; Francisco, who is in first grade in the same Bronx school system his mother grew up in, has parents who would give almost anything to get him into a school with a better reputation. Harlem kindergartner Bianca's mom can no longer afford her Catholic school tuition, but the public options are poor. And Emily, from an upper-middle-class district in Northern California, wants to avoid being "tracked" as a student, which means she could end up on a lower intellectual track with fewer resources and poor teachers. All these kids are motivated to learn and come from homes where their caregivers support high-quality education, but what’s keeping them from getting it is a dice roll. We watch as they enter lotteries for admission into publicly funded charter schools, when the odds of winning are sometimes worse than five to one. The lottery wheel turns, and numbers are pulled at random.
Guggenheim points the finger at teachers' unions — and, specifically, at Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers — for allowing mediocre teachers to remain in classrooms while our kids fail. Unfortunately, the filmmaker doesn't show bad teachers in action, which would have helped drive home his message. Guggenheim does point out that throwing money at the problem isn't enough — increasing per-student spending has not proven to deliver results. Still, the film's distributor, Paramount, has partnered with various corporations and nonprofits to drum up support for schools in need. If you sign an online pledge to see the film, you'll get a $5 gift code to donate to the classroom project of your choice at DonorsChoose.org, which helps teachers across the country with everything from color markers to microscopes. (To sign the pledge, go to WaitingforSuperman.com.)
Good teachers, according to Guggenheim, are the supermen we're waiting for, but, unfortunately, Waiting for Superman doesn't offer many more specific paths toward a solution. Still, while some action plans would have left moviegoers feeling more empowered, if this documentary succeeds in launching a national dialogue about how we can fix our schools — in the same way that An Inconvenient Truth started a national conversation about global warming — it will have made a mark as one of the most important movies of the year.