Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Waiting For 'Superman' (**1/2)

Directed by Davis Guggenheim


I grew up in a suburb outside of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and spent my entire education in a public school system that I was convinced was teaching me close to nothing. I graduated from McArthur High School in the Class of 2007, in which only thirty-two percent of the seniors actually were able to pass and get their diploma on time. I'm currently a senior at the University of Central Florida, and according to the new documentary Waiting For 'Superman', this makes me a statistical marvel. The film takes aim at the American public school system and exposes some grave gaps in the institutions that teach our children and presents very poignant examples of children and families that are bucked by the system. It also gives us a bevy of information that pushes a specific agenda led by good teachers.

The film begins with its director, Davis Guggenheim, talking about he film he made in 1999, entitled The First Year, which chronicled the year of three dedicated public school teachers in an attempt to prove the values of the American public school system. But these days, with his own children, he fears placing them in mediocre schools with dilapidated buildings and sub-par teachers. He'd rather shell out the extra cash to put them in a private school and secure that their education is first-rate. But how did his ideals change so drastically? As a man who preached the value of public school, how could he not practice his own sermon? Guggenheim explains that he has the advantage of having the choice, and in Waiting For 'Superman', he attempts to show the stories of families that aren't so lucky.

We see three children and their families. All of them come from disadvantaged neighborhoods, and all three kids have parents or grandparents who have trouble raising money just to put food on the table, let alone take their children to a private school. They seem doomed to a public school system that pushes less then intelligent students early on without proper attention, and allows them to fester once they get to the tougher grade levels. There is one hope, though, and that is the publically financed, but independently owned charter schools that rank amongst the best schools in their respective districts. Because these charter schools are high in demand, there are not enough open spaces for all the applicants, and students are chosen not by performance, but by a random lottery.

At the end of the film, we watch five separate children as their academic lives are held by the random sequence of either a lottery ball or Tupperware box filled with names or a computer that picks names through an equation. It's the emotional high-point of the film, if only because we know that its a documentary and the happy ending isn't confirmed like it is in narrative films. We become relatively close to these children throughout the film, and it seems almost humiliating that their opportunity for getting into a good school is showcased by a public display that is guaranteed to send close to all the families home disappointed. Should being able to attend a good school be this difficult? Why are the odds be so stacked against lower-income families? These are the various questions that Guggenheim attempts to address in his film.

Much like Guggenheim's 2006 Oscar-winning film An Inconvenient Truth, the filmmaker is able to show us a plethora of graphs and statistics to prove how disfigured our public school system is. When giving us a stat that says over sixty percent of high school dropouts end up in prison, he also summizes that simply sending that same sixty-percent to a better school for four years and giving them a proper education would not only be better for society, but it would save over $100,000 in government money. Now, I'm not crazy about the concept that all high school dropouts are going to prison (we have tons of evidence that shows otherwise), or that any criminal given a proper education can be rehabilitated, but some of the statistics that we are shown are flabbergasting.

We are shown interviews with various interviews with education bureaucrats, including Michelle Rhee, the public school Chancellor of Washington, D.C. - one of the worst counties in the country for education. She made news by closing twenty-three schools and firing nineteen principals, and while her radical methods were heavily criticized at first, but slowly her ideas were adopted and D.C. students are slowly getting better educations. We also hear from Geoffrey Canada, a pioneer for the idea of charter schools. He's established 'Kipp Academy' schools across the country, usually in the poorer neighborhoods in the country. Canada's love for teaching and children is obvious and infectious, and though the charters are forced by government law to accept students via random lotteries, basic stats show that students going to these independently run charters are getting exceptionally better grades.

One thing is obvious to everyone inside the film and outside the film: what makes a school work is good, passionate teachers. As Canada explains, a great teacher is as rare as a professional athlete; it needs dedication, work, and consistency. Too often, Guggenheim's film takes aim at the Teacher's Union for sticking up for mediocre teachers and public school tenure (isn't that what a union is for?), instead of adopting Canada's line of thinking. Not that teachers can't be blamed, since I know first hand that a bad teacher's damage could be irreversible. I'm just not in agreement with the idea that breaking the strong Teacher's Union holds the key to making public schools better. Too much of Waiting For 'Superman' shows teachers slacking off, waiting for tenure, and then taking it easy. Not nearly enough time is shown of good teachers working hard for their students, who not only earn their tenure, but continue to work hard after they get it.

If we're looking for a sole reason as to why education has dipped in our country, one stat that Guggenheim shows us seems shine some light on it. Compared with thirty major nations across the world, we rank near the bottom in almost all school subjects. But we rank first in confidence. I guess the children of our country need a serious humbling. Guggenheim has shown his ability as a filmmaker, and Waiting For 'Superman' has some incredibly touching, occasionally crushing moments. All of that, unfortunately, has to do with the children whose hope dangles helplessly in a random process. It's when Guggenheim tries to use statistics to push his own misguided agenda where the message starts to get muddled. Schools can be better, I agree. But I went through that same system, and I came out okay.

No comments: