WAITING FOR SUPERMAN
Directed by: Davis Guggenheim
Appearances from: Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee
It order to keep things as objective as possible, let me again disclose that before I began writing for VeryAware, I was a high school English teacher, who due to the extreme budget cuts in California, did not survive my first year. I also come from a family of educators. My mother has been teaching elementary school for almost thirty years and my aunt (my mother’s sister) has taught special education and at-risk students for the majority of her career. Going into this film, I already knew, both from my own experience and from growing up in and around the major changes of the last decade that have ravaged public education in California and done just as much damage if not more around the rest of the country.
That being said, WAITING FOR SUPERMAN, is a well done documentary that tackles an incredibly complicated and multifaceted issue in a way that doesn’t offer any simple or even clear answers, but it does effectively encourage the audience to become more aware of the problems in public education without explicitly advocating for options like charter schools or private school, which is what Guggenheim himself admits he chose to do, even after his experience making THE FIRST YEAR, his 1999 documentary which follows a group of first year teachers working in LA Unified, one of the largest and most troubled school districts in the country.
The film has two sections to it, which alternate back and forth. One is the more informative or logical half, which explains some of the issues that have put public educational system in the place where it is currently as well as outlining how it got there and why changes didn’t happen sooner. These problems include the No Child Left Behind initiative created by the Bush Administration, tenure, conflicting sets of educational standards at the federal and state level and teacher’s unions.
The second section is the emotional half, which follows a group of students from around the country, all of whom are in elementary and middle school. All of the students are bright and motivated, but the schools that they are attending are underperforming and overcrowded, so their parents are trying to get them into character schools or hoping they are eligible for scholarships in private schools, where the odds are overwhelmingly against them. Perhaps the child whose story spoke to me the most was Maria, from East LA. Both her parents are immigrants, but they both know that education is the best way for Maria to move up in the world. They apply to get her into a school with impossible odds: there are forty spaces in the second grade at this school with over 700 families applying for these spaces. Not only does this create sympathy for the insane circumstances that now exist in order to get a child a quality education, but it is also incredibly shocking and, hopefully, frustrating so they audience starts to answer the call to action that the film presents.
Part of what makes the film really successful is the presence of Geoffrey Canada, a legendary educational reformer whose Harlem Children’s Zone program of schools in New York has revolutionized people’s ideas about what public education is and should be. Canada is charismatic and incredibly passionate not only about giving children quality education, but of the effect that good teachers can have not only in the classroom, but on the communities that their students live in.
Michelle Rhee, the Chancellor of the Washington DC Public School District, one of the worst performing in the country, also plays an important role in the film. If Canada is the impassioned emotional reformer, Rhee’s take on reform is based in harsh pragmatism, which has not made her a favorite among teachers and especially among the teacher’s union. I think both of these perspectives are important in helping the audience decide what to think because what both Rhee and Canada do is the same thing that the film does, which is what good teachers do: make it about the kids.
WAITING FOR SUPERMAN is the most important documentary you will see this year. I have no doubt that once this film gets a wider theatrical release, it will become, or it definitely should become the topic of conversation around the dinner table. I would expect someone like Oprah to do a special on this film in order to spread awareness on the subject. The thing about WAITING FOR SUPERMAN is that the world is, and arguably has been, on the brink of crises of several kinds for the past few years and that if we do not educate our children, they won’t be able to help us solve them.
If you are a student, ever were a student, are a parent, a teacher, or ever had a teacher impact the course of your life, see WAITING FOR SUPERMAN and bring as many people as you can.
4.5 out of 5
Take the Pledge to help reform and save our schools at the Waiting for Superman Official Website