Susan Granger’s review of “Waiting for Superman” (Paramount Vantage)
After the success of “An Inconvenient Truth,” Oscar-winning, politically progressive filmmaker Davis Guggenheim was deluged with ‘causes’ to tackle. What pushed him into this exploration of America’s educational system was the realization of why his own kids were enrolled in private school.
“That was betraying the (liberal) ideals I though I lived by,” he explains.
The provocative title of this controversial documentary comes from Guggenheim’s charismatic cohort, education reformer Geoffey Canada, CEO/president of the Harlem Children’s Zone, who recalls that when he was little he believed in the comic-book hero Superman and was dismayed to discover that “there was no one coming with the power to save us.” So, he contends, we must save ourselves. Failing schools can’t always be blamed on failing neighborhoods; failing neighborhoods can be blamed on failing schools. But there are hopeful solutions.
The narrative traces the stories of five eager, vulnerable children, differing in age, race and family circumstance. Realizing that their regional public schools are inadequate, they and their parents are desperately hoping that a lottery will gain them admission to a high-performing magnet or charter school, of which there are all too few.
Accompanying the melodrama and pathos of the individual families is a scathing, indictment of the dysfunctional yet arrogant educational hierarchy which has allowed public education to fail, particularly the teachers’ unions which often prevent schools from retaining their best teachers and firing others because of seniority and tenure protections. Under the American Federation of Teachers contract in Illinois only one in 2,500 teachers with tenure (typically given after two years) will lose his/her job, and the cost to fire him/her is staggering. And every time an administrator like Washington D.C.’s Michelle Rhee or Pittsburgh’s Bill Strickland tries to weed out idle, incompetent teachers, AFT president Randi Weingarten defends them, complaining that Guggenheim’s conclusions are “unfair,” “misleading,” and potentially “dangerous.”
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Waiting for Superman” is an agitating 10. Everyone interested in the welfare of children and the future of our country should see it.