Upon exiting the theatre after seeing Davis Guggenheimâ€™s documentary Waiting for Superman about the education system in America, I had a very critical mindset. I noted how he occasionally failed to ask tough questions of his interviewees and the camera frequently cut away from a participant too soon. The film was certainly affecting, but my initial opinion was that it wasnâ€™t anything revelatory; simply another well-structured documentary.
It was after the movie when I sat down for a late dinner with my wife, Katie, an 11th grade English teacher at a suburban high school, where I realized why the film was so remarkable â€“ the stakes could not be higher. Katie was moved to tears several times throughout the film as she saw that the system she has worked so hard to improve is broken. The education of the children in America is falling miserably behind the rest of the world and it doesnâ€™t matter how well their story is told, but it is incredibly important that someone tells it.
Throughout the film Davis Guggenheim focuses primarily on the countryâ€™s K through 12 education. He smartly allows the story to play out through the perspective of 5 children who are applying to be a part of one of their neighborhoodâ€™s few successful charter schools. Each child faces either promised success at a tuition-free charter school or certain doom at a failing public school. Guggenheim lays out his argument for the bad performance in public schools by presenting drop out rates, 4-year college preparedness, and general student and parent satisfaction. Itâ€™s not a secret that schools are struggling, but where the movie really succeeds is by showing how inept we have been at attempting to solve the problem.
Much of Guggenheimâ€™s criticism is reserved for the national teachersâ€™ unions, specifically the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). One of Guggenheimâ€™s primary interview subjects is charter school director Geoffrey Canada who states that a good teacher is a gem, but teachersâ€™ unions are nothing to treasure. Their most egregious policy, according to the film, is their process of tenure wherein teachers receive guaranteed job security after a few short years and then become almost interminable. Several times proposals have been put on the table to offer more money if pay was based on merit, rather than seniority, but the unions constantly reject such offerings. Guggenheim presents the union leaders in still images with the camera panning slowly, Ken Burns style, while ominous music plays, creating a look that almost resembles a political attack ad. He does so intentionally to prevent associating the corruptible union leaders with the fantastic teachers who they represent.
A good teacher is like a great artist and Guggenheim is sure to point that out. He does not single out any individual teachers, besides the school directors who formerly taught, but he does point out the statistics that show engaged teachers are more likely to produce a prepared student. Similarly he never criminalizes an individual bad teacher; the movie is never about the individuals that make up the system, but the system itself.
When it is time to focus on individuals, he turns his camera on the five students who are stuck in the system that is constantly failing them. Guggenheim purposely chooses to follow students who are unremarkable in academia. There are no piano prodigies, no budding young authors, and no privileged youth. The students represent the norm in their respective academic systems, which makes the final lottery scenes all the more bittersweet. Not every student gets their name drawn and when we see those who donâ€™t the camera cuts to random faces in the crowd that are wrought with the same disappointed look. Guggenheimâ€™s storytelling expertise successfully does exactly what a documentary should â€“ put a human face to the numbers and statistics.
So what is the solution to our public education crisis? According to Guggenheim the answer lies within a few charter schools that put more emphasis on the student with longer school days, fewer class separations (i.e. no advanced or honors), and smaller class sizes. However, the proposed solution, which is highly praise-worthy of the charter school model, is counter-intuitive to an earlier statistic â€“ 1 out of 5 charter schools are failing. The intended message of hope feels very restrained and, whether intentional or not, that is exactly what a movie about our educational system needs. The downward trajectory is not slowing and while there may be answers ahead, any progress should be greeted with cautious optimism.
Waiting for Superman deserves to be seen by a wider audience than the art-house, intellectual crowd. It should be required viewing for every student, teacher, and school board member in the country. Change can come to our education system. With superb educators like my wife and the thousands of other teachers who wake up in the morning and put their students first, I firmly believe change can come. However, in order for this to happen it will require more than teachers and politicians to reform education; it will require everybody.
Bottom Line: See Waiting for Superman and take notes. Then write two letters â€“ one to your representative asking for change and another to your favorite teacher thanking them for making a difference.