Waiting for “Superman”

Waiting for "Superman"Waiting for “Superman” directed by Davis Guggenheim, Paramount Vantage, 2010.

Although we have always reviewed books in the Professional Shelf, here is a new film that we thought worth bringing to the attention of librarians.

How did the U.S. go from being an educational powerhouse that was the envy of the developed world to sinking perilously near the bottom of the industrialized nations in just a few decades? What are the ramifications of a workforce ill-prepared for the information age? What toll does a disenfranchised generation take on the nation and its resources?

These questions are certainly examined but Waiting for ‘Superman’ takes a more microcosmic approach. Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim follows five children in different parts of the country as they and their families search for ways to help their kids get the best education possible. We see Anthony in Washington DC, Daisy in Los Angeles, Bianca in Harlem, Francisco in the Bronx, and Emily in Redwood City, California as each child’s particular issues are clearly laid out. Many of the schools feed into high schools that are termed “drop-out factories.” What happens to a poorly educated young person with no prospects? A drive by the penitentiary may seem a bit heavy-handed, but it is no less powerful at communicating the stakes.

If there is a villain in Waiting for ‘Superman,’ it would seem at first glance to be the teachers unions yet the filmmaker gives their development and purpose valuable screen time. The real villain is a bureaucracy that has become about the adults running the system rather than the children they should be serving. And the home truth is that the quality of the teaching makes all the difference for both good or ill.

Visionary educators such as Geoffrey Canada at Harlem Success share their frustrations but also their personal recipes for success. Take-no-prisoners administrator Michelle Rhee is followed from her introduction as Washington DC’s new chancellor of schools to the controversy over firing one third of her principals to the resulting modest gains and finally to a decisive showdown with the unions. Her proposal seems both merited and reasonable – teachers can choose a safe path with a guaranteed salary or they can opt for a merit-based salary that can be twice as much. How many teachers are offered a six-figure salary? It seems like a win-win. The unions won’t even let the measure come to a vote.

One device employed by Guggenheim gives his documentary structure and serves as a reminder that the odds are stacked against these five students that we have come to care about. As each parent identifies a potential school with proven success, the number of spaces available are flashed on the screen along with the number of applicants. The climax comes at the lottery, where each school draws the names of the students who will be accepted. We have become invested in these children getting into their chosen school but the filmmaker never lets us forget, for example, that Harlem Success has 35 slots and over 700 applicants.

Waiting for ‘Superman’ is a wake-up call to parents, educators and anyone who cares about the future of the country. There are educational success stories and these have been duplicated – the Kipp Academies stand out, for example – but it will take a common will at the local level to initiate change. One is left with the message that though Superman is never coming to save the day, each person can be a change agent and collectively, we can move the mountains of self-interest, inertia, and indifference that plague our educational system. Waiting for ‘Superman’ is not content to just expose the problem but also seeks to be a catalyst for the solution.

To find out more, visit waitingforsuperman.com and take action.

– Reviewed by Ellen Myrick