Thursday, September 23, 2010


Working class hero: Geoffrey Canada in Waiting for Superman.

Waiting for Superman


By John Esther

Focusing on five endearing underprivileged children -- Anthony, Bianca, Daisy, Emily and Francisco -- plus teachers, dedicated educators like Geoffrey Canada, administrators, teacher unions, parents and a plethora of mixed meritorious experts analyzing the dismal conditions of a public educational system, the Oscar-winning documentarian of An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Davis Guggenheim, takes a look at how the United States of America fails to educate a lot of its children.

Applying a somewhat rather simplistic narrative based on a lot of empirical evidence, some startling documentation, and the questionable attributes of teacher unions, co-writer and director Guggenheim (It Might Get Loud) and others not only can cite what is wrong with the U.S. educational system, but also offer possible methods to make it better. And it does not require a superman, just the social and political will.

It is a lot to take in and it is a lot to get mad about. There are people, including precocious schoolchildren, who truly want kids to receive a great education but, due to a barrage of circumstances, they will never get it. For starters, kids have problems at home, schools are overcrowded, children lack respect for legitimate forms of authority, kids are passed on in the name of government funding, too many teachers are undeservedly tenured and resources are not properly allocated to education.

It is also heartbreaking to the point that you could, or wish you could, attain that teaching degree, get to that needy school and show the other teachers how it is done.

Sure to be a darling in politically conservative circles, Waiting for Superman certainly works on an emotional level and often an intellectual one as well. However, Waiting for Superman is not without its shortcomings.

The documentary creates a brief historical narrative on the role of education in 20th century America, talking about how superior it was until the 1970s when it started to deteriorate. What happened in the 1970s is not discussed. California’s Proposition 13 (1978) may be a good start.

(Guggenheim’s father, Charles, the most honored documentarian in AMPAS history, directed the 1983 Oscar-nominated documentary, High Schools, which looked at the public educational system in the 1980s.)

Another problem is the documentary’s failure to address a country with a notorious history and au courant dose of anti-intellectualism. In an era where an Ivy League education is often viewed as a flaw in character (and I do not mean in the Gore Vidal sense where an Ivy League education is still an under-education or a mis-education or a miso-education), superstitions supersede science, real intelligence is met with suspicion, and a fool (or propagandist) is allotted the same amount of space in the media to spew out nonsense on a matter as an expert on the same subject has made making a responsible case (i.e. climate change; healthcare reform; capital punishment), the public education system can only do so much.

Then there is the issue of influence in politics. Waiting for Superman takes its time tackling the American Federation of Teachers for its considerable influence in politics, and not without undue course, either. But what it fails to account for is those other special groups whose monetary interests depend on the continuation of an undereducated working class. These special interests lobby hard in state and national capitals for such policies as lowering those taxes funding public education, preventing the school year from expanding, Wall Street bailouts, handing over public programs to the private sector and maintaining the prison-industrial complex -- which goes hand in pocket with low education standards. (As of 2007, the very blue states of Vermont, Michigan, Oregon, Connecticut and Delaware, respectively, have the dubious distinction of spending more money on prisons than state colleges.)

To be sure, although Waiting for Superman is far from addressing it, the educational system of America and everything else weak about our nation will never significantly improve without drastic campaign finance reform.

Waiting for Superman also takes a rather kindhearted, if not whitewashed, viewpoint of charter schools. The documentary glosses over the poor achievement of most charter schools despite ample research illustrating that most charter schools perform lower than or just as comparable as general public schools. It would also be interesting to know how non-union charter schools fare against public schools (and union pay) over time. Do they work better in the long run or not? I would imagine the latter. At any rate, Waiting for Superman, like many parents and students who have little or no options, considers non-union charter schools to be the answer. This is good publicity for some highly respectable educators at charter schools, but it may just be wishful thinking for the parents whose children will wind up just as intellectually impoverished as their parents whether the kid’s name is drawn in a charter school lottery or not. (As the director readily admits in Waiting for Superman, his wealth permits choice.)

A documentary sure to stir up some heated debates, especially amongst those with more disposable income than others, Waiting for Superman is an important yet flawed discourse on the current courses America’s public educational system is taking, making, faking and breaking.

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