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Will Waiting for 'Superman' Reach Its Intended Audience?

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Our priorities are so screwed up in this country that, even as Congress debates continued tax cuts for millionaires, schools and libraries go begging for funding. Teachers struggle to make ends meet and we continue to lose entire generations to the streets because the schools so poorly meet their needs.

The results of these funding shortfalls for schools and education -- and of Tea Party candidates mouthing off about how they would eliminate the Department of Education -- are amply illustrated in Davis Guggenheim's Waiting for 'Superman,' a provocative documentary that shows in both broad strokes and frightening detail how our schools continue to fail our children.

Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning director of An Inconvenient Truth, lays out in facts and figures the many ways that so-called "failure factories" perpetuate and expand the dropout rate, how entrenched teachers (thanks to unions that allow no give in their work rules) fail their students, and so on.

Guggenheim looks in at various charter schools and sees them as part of the answer -- but not the complete solution -- to the problem. As he notes, the real issue is not how to get more charter schools, but how to make public schools achieve the same kind of success that the best charter schools do. He follows several youngsters who long for a better school and are forced to participate in lotteries to win one of the scarce places in those free private schools. It's heart-breaking to watch.

He talks to a variety of educators -- including the controversial Washington, D.C., superintendent Michelle Rhee, whose efforts to prune the deadwood from the District of Columbia's dreadful public school system met only resistance from parents at the schools. Some have criticized the film for failing to offer another side to this facet of the story -- but offer no solution.

Some may see Guggenheim's viewpoint on the charter schools, on Rhee, on the state of education in general -- as simplistic, as overly broad in its tendency to tar public school systems across the country with the same brush. And, in general, his points tend to be general rather than specific.

There is no mention, for example, of the ongoing hypocrisy of a federal government that gives lip service to the value of education while under-funding education initiatives, or of spending a trillion dollars on a pointless war while cutting education funding at a time when states are in dire straits in terms of money for their schools.

Indeed, Guggenheim casts such a wide net that, even though he focuses on a handful of young children -- whose only hope is winning a lottery spot in a local charter school -- the film offers only generalities in terms of solutions, hand-wringing instead of a specific call to action.

By contrast, the much smaller, less-advertised documentary The Lottery, released in June, deals with the same issues but cuts deeper. Madeleine Sackler's film, which should be available on DVD or video-on-demand, focused on one Harlem neighborhood, in which a battle raged over a local charter school, even as the neighborhood schools were failing. It dealt with the same issues, seemed to find more specific solutions and more specific problems than Guggenheim's film.

Unfortunately, the reality is that Guggenheim's documentary -- which has received huge support from its movie company for advertising and promotion -- will still struggle to reach a wide audience. Waiting for 'Superman' seems to say that we are the only change-agents who can solve this problem -- but actually reaching that audience is an uphill struggle in a country that's more caught up in who will be the new judges on "American Idol" than what's happening in its local schools.

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