You would be a fool to think that the public schools in this country weren’t massive embarrassments, churning out student after student who is not fully prepared to succeed in college or the suddenly booming technology sector. If you don’t believe me, just ask any politician or watch the fourth season of The Wire, to see how bad things have become, especially in inner-city schools. For most of Waiting for “Superman”, director Davis Guggenheim provides the audience with faces and names that humanize this tragedy. It’s during these scenes that the film scores major points underlining the urgency of fixing the public school system.

Following five children from different cities around the country, Guggenheim shows how the public school system is failing them. Most of the kids have great aspirations: Young Daisy, from Los Angeles, wants to be a doctor or a veterinarian; Francisco, a first grader in New York, wants to be a reporter; Emily, the sole suburban kid in the bunch, wants to be a teacher; Anthony, a ten-year-old being raised by his grandmother in Washington, D.C., just wants to build a better life than the one he has known. Only Bianca, the young child of a single mother in New York, seems to be drifting, a fact her mother realizes and is trying to stop by enrolling her in a private parochial school she can barely afford. Whether the lofty goals that the children espouse to carry are theirs or were planted in their heads by their parents doesn’t matter. The point is that the kids have reachable ideals that can be achieved through a good education.

As long as Guggenheim focuses on the children and their stories, the film works as a heartbreaking documentary about the unthinkable collateral damage of political bickering and an outdated education system that has failed to evolve since the 1950s. It’s when he turns to graphs, charts, and a glut of statistics (much as he did with the global warming documentary/PowerPoint presentation An Inconvenient Truth) that the film loses its sincerity and becomes a boring lecture.

This is frustrating not just because it takes the film away from its focus on the children, but it also is redundant. Much of the same information is provided by on-camera interviews with radical educators like Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee. While they occasionally come close to being too sanctimonious, they are making salient points, with Canada’s special charter school in New York proving that it is possible to turn the tide and educate poor children with unstable home lives. They are also both far more entertaining in their interviews than the dry graphics Guggenheim relies on to back up their arguments for doing away with teacher’s unions and shuttering failing schools.

The film climaxes with a special lottery for the various charter schools that the kids are hoping to attend. While Guggenheim recognizes how unfair a system it is, he’s not above milking the drawings for suspense. Considering the film has spent the previous 100 minutes explaining why these schools are the best shots for these kids to have a decent life, it’s not surprising that the results are both heartbreaking and elating as some make it in while others don’t.

Even though the finished film makes a good case for some relatively simple steps that have produced results by charter schools across the country, it never has quite enough fire to work as a call to arms. Outside of a few moments of honest frustration shown by the parents, the film lacks the angry edge that it needs. I’m all for making logical, reasoned arguments to solve a problem, but sometimes, you need an emotional fire to sell it to people refusing to make changes for the better. Guggenheim does a good job of laying out the blueprint for what needs to be done; he just needs to improve on his ability to shout it to the world.

Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.

Comments (2)

On November 8, 2010 at 1:03 PM, Bennett Lovett-Graff wrote...

Hi, Matt,

Quick comment. As has been pointed out, another problem with the movie is the deck stacking — the suggestion that charter schools are a panacea and what a shame so many children are shut out by lottery.

Yet statistics clearly indicate that charters perform no better than public schools and that the key problem is not charter vs. public (which implies union vs. non-union) or even private vs. public money, but teaching culture, school-wide planning and goal-setting, internal performance measurements, and administrative support.

The best case study is Brockton High School, profiled here: http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2010/09/27/us/20100928_SCHOOLS.html.

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On November 10, 2010 at 1:00 AM, Matt Wedge wrote...

I cut some slack for the deck stacking. No documentary is unbiased, no matter what the documentarian claims. In Guggenheim’s defense, he does (very briefly) mention that charter schools as a whole are only doing slightly better than regular public schools when it comes to test scores. The thrust of the narrative that concerns the kids followed as they try to get into successful charter schools that are scoring high. It’s not as though the parents are trying to get their kids into any random charter school because anything is better than a public school.

I did find the article about Brockton to be interesting because it addresses something that I wondered about while watching the film, but didn’t bring up in my review. Namely, the fact that the charter schools singled out as being successful seemed to measure their success by math and science test scores. Very little was mentioned about writing or reading comprehension, which I consider to be just as important as math and science (if not more so, but I’m obviously biased).

Then again, Guggenheim had to balance making an emotionally involving film with an informative documentary. I already am taking him to task for relying too much on a glut of statistics and if he tried to get into a debate about the relative importance of each area of study, the film would have ended up pushing 2 1/2 hours. Then I would have complained that it was too long — because I’m a picky bastard.

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