October 14, 2010

Waiting for "Superman"

And this week's Powerball number is...

Grade: B –

Director: Davis Guggenheim

MPAA Rating: PG

Running Time: 1 hour, 42 minutes

Waiting for “Superman” ends with that most tried and true documentary finales: the big competition. In director Davis Guggenheim’s polemic on the American education system, the climactic contest is an edge-of-your-seat waiting game to see if any of several children spotlighted throughout the film will be selected via lottery for admission into a nearby, high-performing charter school.

According to Guggenheim, these kids’ very futures are at stake: get in and the sky is the limit; don’t and your doom is sealed. The spectacle is gripping but disheartening – the audience finds itself rooting for the youngsters to gain admission while at the same time flinching from that notion that the capacity for any child in America to obtain a quality basic education rests with the bounce of a ping-pong ball or the algorithms of a computer program.

At its best, Waiting for “Superman” is a clarion call for education reform in the same vein as Guggenheim’s environmental call to arms, An Inconvenient Truth. This film tries to look beyond the buzzwords surrounding America’s floundering, if not broken, public school system and illuminates its causes in a stark, fervent fashion. However, as in An Inconvenient Truth, while Guggenheim proves apt at diagnosing the problems, the solutions he foists onto the viewer can be as flawed as the status quo the film decries.

The film is a callback of sorts for Guggenheim, who made the 1999 documentary The First Year, which chronicles the dedication exhibited and hardships faced by new teachers in inner-city Los Angeles. Today, the left-leaning Guggenheim finds himself at odds with his ideology, enrolling his own children in private schools, literally bypassing public schools along the way.

As if to assuage his liberal guilt, Guggenheim embarks on a Michael Moore-esque dissection of America’s public school system, complete with emotional human interest backstories, specious historical analogies (the daunting task of solving the educational crisis is not unlike when Chuck Yeager finally broke the sound barrier, Guggenheim strains to explain at one point), cherry-picked data, and silly animated visual effects.

The difference is that while Moore’s films always preserve their decidedly leftie bent, Guggenheim seems to go out of his way to provide bipartisan grist. Indeed, Waiting for ‘Superman” has already been co-opted by special interests at both ends of the political spectrum – liberals lament the sorry state of our schools as proof that more financial resources need to be targeted at the problem, while conservatives use the film as evidence that public schools have failed and more charter and private alternatives are needed.

Perhaps the film’s most intriguing and daring position is taking dead aim at the teachers’ unions, such as the AFT and NEA. Guggenheim minces no words in declaring that the unions are one of the biggest impediments to reform not just due to the political power and influence they wield, but also employment contracts and mandated tenure that make it nearly impossible to get rid of nonperforming teachers. The ‘gasp’ moment comes from the State of New York, where teachers in the midst of a multi-year disciplinary process for everything from bad performance to alleged sexual contact with students are removed from the classroom and cordoned together in a separate facility, where they receive full pay and benefits for doing nothing all day while their review process grinds on at a taxpayer cost of $100 million per year.

Guggenheim spotlights the roadblocks faced by several would-be reformers, including Michelle Rhee, the hard-charging DC public schools chancellor who Guggenheim ballyhoos as a far-sighted reformer while ignoring some level-headed criticisms of her methods. (This week, Rhee announced her resignation as head of DC schools.)

Guggenheim also consults the views of neo-visionaries like Geoffrey Canada, the loquacious head of the Harlem Children’s Zone, as well as other charter school founders. And, Bill Gates gets obligatory screen-time to impart his view that school hours should be longer and extend into Saturdays – spoken like a full-blown computer nerd.

Unfortunately, Guggenheim’s solutions to our educational woes – which he repeatedly brands as “simple” – are alternatively myopic and/or nonexistent. The film espouses the idea that bad schools create bad neighborhoods, not vice versa, as interesting hypothesis that Guggenheim does not bother to explicate.

But, it is when Guggenheim examines the persistent learning gap between privileged and underprivileged children when Waiting for “Superman” nearly implodes. In detailing the success of select inner-city charter and magnet schools, Guggenheim declares their success proves there is no “education gap,” and that good, inventive schools are all that stand in the way to reform.

While these individual schools are clearly successful in their own right, the fault in Guggenheim’s prescription is that the schools also maintain de facto selectivity over their composition. Canada explicitly states that his program is not for those kids he regards as “already lost,” but is instead geared towards a cradle-to-college approach. Moreover, at some of these charter schools, the ratio of applicants-to-admittees can be 10:1 or higher.

In other words, it is already highly motivated parents and their children, yearning for a better learning environment and path to success, who are enrolling in these particular charter schools. Nothing wrong with that, but it certainly does not portend a solution to the broader educational crisis. Try this: instead of an application process, require that the rolls of these inner-city charters be filled with randomly selected children from throughout surrounding population, regardless of whether the children or their parents want to attend the school or not. Bring me data once the ability of these schools to cherry-pick their students disappears. Until then, we’ll still be waiting for “Superman.”

Neil Morris

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