The night before I saw Waiting for Superman, I talked to my childhood friend Jake on the phone. “So, what are you up to these days?” I asked. “Chillin’,” he said. “Are you going to school? Do you have a job?” I asked. “I was working at the KFC/Taco Bell,” he said. “But I got fired.”
Jake doesn’t go to college. He dropped out of high school in 11th grade. Like many kids from his rough neighborhood in Mishawaka, Ind., at some point Jake turned a corner in his educational career and didn’t come back. But when did this occur? Not in high school – by that time, it was already too late. It probably happened closer to the time I met him, when he was 10 years old. This was the average age of the children featured in David Guggenheim’s new documentary, Waiting for Superman. It follows the lives of five young students – Francisco, Daisy, Bianca, Emily and Anthony – all of whom live in neighborhoods with bad public education and are entering lotteries to attend charter schools.
Charter schools are elementary and high schools that are publicly funded but independently run. They are the focal point of this documentary created by Guggenheim, the director of An Inconvenient Truth. Other sticky topics tackled in this film are tracking, the practice of monitoring which kids perform well in school and rewarding them with better teachers and treatment; the No Child Left Behind Act, which started our national wave of measuring students’ performances with standardized tests; and Michelle Rhee, the controversial chancellor of public schools in Washington D.C. who vowed to instill radical change by closing schools and firing incompetent principals.
The overwhelming question of the movie is: Why? Why are our children trapped in this system that is malfunctioning, where they run the risk of receiving a bad education? Why are so many children doomed to attend a failing school just because of the district in which they live? Why is it so hard to change this system, so frustrating to even try? Even Guggenheim admitted to “betraying [his] ideals” by sending his kids to private school.
Though a large portion of the film is spent detailing how flawed the American public school system is, Guggenheim emphasized that there is a solution for those who can’t afford private education: charter schools.
“One of the saddest days of my life was the day my mother told me Superman didn’t exist. I cried because there was no one coming with enough power to save us.” These are the words of Geoffrey Canada, who founded a charter school in 1990 that covered a 97-block area of Harlem’s worst neighborhood. He made a promise to the local parents: If your child attends this school, they will go to college. This was the ultimate goal of the parents included in this film. “You go to college,” said Bianca’s mom. “You don’t get a job; you get a career. And there’s a difference.”
Included amid the personal stories is an array of overwhelming statistics. One stated that since 1971, the country has doubled the amount of money spent on each child’s education, yet has seen no improvement in their overall test scores. Meanwhile, far more of our federal money goes to maintaining prisons. This fact is especially chilling when you consider that many of the students who attend failing schools will eventually become inmates.
Waiting For Superman emphasized the importance of good teachers in a system that often protects the bad ones, thanks to fast-track tenure and the impossible bureaucracy of the teachers’ unions. It also shed light on how measurements of teachers’ performances can be flawed, which brought to mind the recent suicide of a 5th grade teacher in Los Angeles who jumped off a bridge when he was rated “less effective” by a public educator-rating database. The film’s cornerstone idea, though, was this: In an educational system that has increasingly focused on appeasing the adults in charge of the schools, we must remember the children whose lives this will effect.
In the end, it is the story of these children that makes Waiting for Superman such an effective documentary. The linear time frame of their application process – from frustrated parents investigating alternative options to public education to the heart-wrenching climactic scene in which the families sit in a packed room, listening as the lottery numbers are called for admitted students – gives this movie a lively pace and dramatic tension. We become emotionally invested in the kids, an effective technique that motivated me to think more deeply about the issue at hand. In addition, Guggenheim augments the real life footage with animated clips portraying different statistics and with old recordings, including footage of several past presidents waxing poetic about how they will be the one to change education in America.
Overall, this film was educational, entertaining, moving and extremely socially relevant. Whether you went to Exeter or to a huge public high school, every Williams student should go see this film.