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Waiting For "Superman" Has a Finger on the Pulse, But Is Still a Long Way From the Heart of the Matter

10/01/2010 01:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Davis Guggenheim is a gifted storyteller, and his new documentary Waiting for "Superman" is an emotional narrative propelled and made meaningful by the children whose story it tells. Anthony, Bianca, Daisy, Emily, and Francisco are winsome and riveting, and as viewers of the film, we deeply want the best for them; we want them to have every opportunity -- we want them to be safe, affirmed, supported, and we want their talents and ambitions to have secure environments where they can grow and gain focus. In Superman, the fate of their safe development becomes contingent on their improbable acceptance to a few high-demand charter schools, all of which read as veritable paradises in the dank world of public education (Guggenheim himself, as we learn in the opening of the film, drives by three public schools in order to drop his own children off at a private institution of learning). We wait with baited breath to hear the outcomes of their lotteries, the climax of the film, and witness their fates gambled.

What we want, and what we often call education is the safe and supported development of the whole and complex child, a delicate and imperative undertaking that is ideally shared by family, friends, and educators. In Superman it is not a task that public schools are living up to; they are presented as failure factories weighted down by "lemon" teachers and gated and protected by progress-hindering unions. As we wait for the names to pulled from hats, and the computerized randomization systems to spit out codes, and the numbered balls to be plucked from bingo cages, it is clear that the fates of the children in the film are as polarized as Guggenheim's view of education: the landscape of success is comprised of charter schools, and the abyss of failure is defined by public education. The perspective is divisively problematic; the film does well to galvanize an overdue conversation about education in America, but presents a fiercely oversimplified portrait of the players, makes sloppy assignments of heroes and villains, and misses a big opportunity by failing to offer anything besides ambiguity with regards to next steps for the education of children in the United States.

Superman points out that though the U.S. is falling farther and farther behind in international rankings of math and science, it is the global leader in levels of youth self-confidence. It's a tongue-in-cheek talking point, and what is untouched is a much more frightening and relevant statistic about another category where American youth lead internationally: child poverty. There is a manifest correlation between America's global educational decline and its internal swell of children living in poverty (currently more than 20% of children nationwide). Anthony, Bianca, and the other children in the film have the common support of remarkably dedicated parents, but this is not a guaranteed asset for all American children. There are more than a million children in the United States surviving in zero-parent households, and comparable numbers of children going hungry on any given day. As the middle class shrinks and the ravaging effects of class difference becomes increasingly apparent (and the intrinsic toxicity of imbalance palpable), the public education structures in this country will continue to quake. And it is not because of blithe unions and uninterested teachers. It will be because of the terrifying effects of poverty on the development of young people. Davis Guggenheim has his finger on the pulse, but it is still a long way off from the heart of the matter.

A child's success is based on so much. And so is a school's: effective teaching, thoughtful leadership, consistent parental involvement, and a positive and powerful school culture of trust, diligence, and high expectations. When these elements align, be it at a local neighborhood school, a charter school, an alterative school, or a private institution, it is it possible to foster the essentiality of asking tough and important questions. It is feasible to empower students with the critical reflection, skills of patient problem-solving and empirical reasoning, and curiosity to fully recognize the gaping class issues in America today. Ultimately, Guggenheim promotes a dialogue, which is a step in the right direction for American students and educators, but it is a dialogue that needs to be expanded beyond the unfairly polarized designations of tragedy and triumph.