In “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” documentarian Davis Guggenheim surveys our failed public-education system, detailing how public schooling in this country has lost its way to a degree that constitutes a national tragedy.
Guggenheim, best known for his global-warming documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” again addresses a mammoth urgency in a multiplex-friendly package that is informative, hard-hitting and enlightening.
Co-writing with Billy Kimball, Guggenheim combines big-picture analysis with intimate stories to explore the education crisis and to shatter the conception that disadvantaged kids can’t learn.
Their take on the problem: Children’s futures depend on the quality of schools they attend, yet there aren’t nearly enough decent public schools to accommodate them.
The statistics are troubling: Among school achievement in 30 developed nations, the United States ranks 25th in math and 21st in science. Seventy percent of eighth-graders read below grade level. By 2020, about
123 million U.S. jobs will involve high skills and high pay, but only 50 million Americans will be qualified to perform them.
Guggenheim’s culprits include government bureaucracies and union contracts that make it nearly impossible to fire bad tenured teachers.
More brightly, we meet reformers whose methods have proven effective. They include Washington, D.C., chancellor Michelle Rhee, who made headlines with her decision to close low-performing schools, and Geoffrey Canada, the dynamic former teacher whose successful Harlem Children’s Zone emphasizes college preparation.
Trapped in the mire are the kids. They’re represented by Anthony, Bianca, Daisy, Emily and Francisco — elementary- and middle-school nuggets of potential.
For these children, the future hinges on a lottery drawing in which scores of families hope to win a precious slot at a high-performing school. Guggenheim cuts back and forth between several such nail-biter lottery drawings in a sequence more tense than anything found in most action thrillers.
Guggenheim doesn’t cover everything. We get little sense of what precisely occurs in the classrooms of high-performing schools, for example.
The film also suffers from its halos-and-horns approach. Teachers’ union leader Randi Weingarten receives almost-cartoonish villain treatment.
All told, however, this is a compelling and significant documentary that both underscores the critical condition of our education system and leaves us feeling stirred by the knowledge that hope exists and that remedies are working. You don’t need to have kids of your own to be moved.
The title comes from Geoffrey Canada, who recalls how, as a boy, he was devastated to learn that Superman wouldn’t be flying into his troubled South Bronx neighborhood to save things.
Waiting for ‘Superman’ ???½
With Geoffrey Canada, Michelle Rhee, Anthony, Bianca, Daisy, Emily, Francisco
Written by Davis Guggenheim, Billy Kimball
Directed by Davis Guggenheim
Running time 1 hour 51 minutes