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Diane Francis Headshot

Waiting for "Superman" Is a Home Run Documentary

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Waiting for Superman is the most important American documentary to come along in years.

Fairly and accurately, it describes how America's public education system represents the country's biggest competitive disadvantage going forward.

That is why business and philanthropic heavyweights such as Bill Gates (Microsoft), Philip Anschultz, (Denver oil) and Jeff Skoll (eBay) are behind the project. The director is Davis Guggenheim, of Inconvenient Truth fame, and this documentary, premiered recently at the Toronto Film Festival, compellingly portrays America's educational failure while also offering a hero with proven solutions.

(I recently was invited to the premier by the documentary's composer, Christophe Beck, who is my husband's son.)

The film opens with Geoffrey Canada, an African-American from the Bronx, whose childhood disappointment inspired the title. He fantasized that Superman would rescue him and his family from the grinding poverty they suffered. When he found out that the superhero did not exist, he was devastated.

Fortunately, through education, he found a way out. He won a scholarship to Harvard University and dedicated his career to reforming the public educational system. Years later, he realized that was impossible and created several charter schools in dreadful inner-city neighborhoods. His schools have proven that disadvantaged students can match the educational outcomes of their white cohorts in the suburbs -- or in expensive private schools -- with only the same expenditure per capita as nearby public schools.

First class presentation

This solution is what is best about this expose, and that is why this documentary, combined with its blue-ribbon business backers and Mr. Canada's warm articulate message, will hoist the issue on to the national agenda.

The public education system has always been America's dirty little secret. This is because funding for schools has been mostly based on local tax bases: the wealthier the community, the better the schools. The poorer the community, the lower the funding.

(Canadian education has significantly better outcomes, in part because it is based on provincial money dispensed on the basis of need. This translates into more resources for the disadvantaged. Kids in poorer neighborhoods, where there are requirements that English be taught as a second language and remedial help be offered, have more tutoring and more money spent on them than do kids in suburban, high-income neighborhoods. It's far from perfect.)

Bill Gates spoke after the documentary's premier and emphasized the danger this educational failure posed for the nation. The demand for future knowledge workers will go unmet because the American public school system is not producing enough people with the requisite linguistic, math or science skills.

The documentary doesn't play the race card, although the victimization is implicit. It follows five kids -- four from poor minority homes -- and their parents or grandparents in their efforts to get the children into alternative charter schools. Guggenheim weaves their narratives skillfully along with Mr. Canada's and that of a female activist trying to reform Washington DC schools. The stories are enhanced, and leavened, through the use of animation, old film footage and charts.

The documentary is both fair and non-partisan. It is heart-rending and important. And it is shocking to those who lack first-hand experience with a catastrophe called education in the United States.