"He's a rockstar," says documentary director Davis Guggenheim of Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone in Harlem, New York, an organization that endeavors to increase high school and college graduation rates among students in Harlem. Mr. Canada appears as one of the few catalysts of educational reform in Guggenheim's provocative new documentary Waiting for Superman about America's notoriously crisis-ridden public school system.
According to Guggenheim, America's public schools are in desperate need of rockstar teachers and administrators visionaries like Geoffrey Canada. No one watching the charismatic Mr. Canada or hearing about his accomplishments would disagree, as the documentary records Canada's successes and follows the lives of several talented American children, whose education and future lives hang in balance.
Guggenheim invites viewers' outrage as he presents the shocking statistics that most Americans already know: our once great public schools are failing our young people and no one seems prepared to take bold steps toward change. Waiting for Superman is also a character-driven tear-jerker, elaborating the desperation of several American children, Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy, and Emily. These students come from a variety of backgrounds, both middle class and disadvantaged, African American, Latino, white; live in California, New York and Washington. These children occupy the center of the story, but nothing about their fate gives cause for cheer. Instead, the documentary devotes most of its energy to what it sees as the cause for their troubles, the political impasse of American education.
In interview Guggenheim waxes both prophetic and aphoristic: "Politics are essential." He means the troubles of American public school are political and the answers might be as well, though these remain unclear in the end. Hoping to expose the bad politics of public school education, Guggenheim takes on the teachers' union, the American Federation of Teachers, showing how it colludes with a corrupt public school system, which serves the teachers rather than the students. The AFT, one of the biggest donors to the Democratic Party, is a "special interest group" that claims to protect teachers while it in fact only seeks to preserve the status quo. Alone this willingness of a left-leaning director of the hugely successful film on global warming, The Inconvenient Truth (2006), to take on unions and his own political party render the film noteworthy. But beyond this initial boldness the film offers little profound analysis and few solutions. Its value lies rather in its medium as a film. For the large part of the American population that reads little news and participates infrequently in public debates about education Waiting for Superman serves as an introduction. Guggenheim acts mostly as the messenger here, as the political battles are already raging around the country.
One notorious combatant is Michelle Rhee, the controversial chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools system of Washington, D.C. In dark, grainy hand-held footage, Waiting for Superman trains on Rhee's disappointed face as public school teachers unanimously refuse to vote to relinquish tenure privileges in exchange for merit increases in pay. That implacable audience, Guggenheim tells his viewers, is driven by fear as well as addiction to an outmoded bureaucracy that preserves teacher's jobs while it refuses to make changes that would promote excellent teaching and better serve students' needs.
Guggenheim and Rhee are not wrong. Tenure of public school teachers has not merely provided job security and freedom of speech for the teachers; it has also permitted a chronic evasion of teacher responsibility and induced a bureaucratic nightmare rendering any disciplinary action most difficult. Yet Waiting for Superman often misses its opportunity to grasp its important subject, largely because the director remains uncertain about the complexity of many of the issues. Tenure, he declares, without much understanding of the concept, makes sense at the university level for professors who need security to publish their own research. Though he has little clue of the actual contents of university research, nor the widespread abuses of America's dying university tenure system, Guggenheim maintains a reverence for college teachers he lacks for the unionized public school educators. Indeed, Waiting for Superman depicts the latter with their feet up on their desks and newspapers rather than lesson plans in hand. They appear fat, slovenly and sometimes openly hostile to students, an image glaringly at odds with the claims of the AFT, which sees itself as the sole protector of the once naïve, disempowered largely female population of teachers. The evil force behind these pampered tenured public servants, who no longer serve, is the toothy, hawk-faced union president Randi Weingarten, who declares the virtues of serving a political interest group.
But the guilt resides not merely with potentially bad teachers protected by the evil union schoolmarm, as Guggenheim suggests. There are also the legions of administrators, enjoying six figure paychecks and a myriad of bureaucratic shelters from external evaluation. There is also a history of federal government intervention, which the film describes as outdated and not centralized enough, because regulations differ from state to state. Rather than developing these ideas, however, Waiting for Superman preaches to the converted, faulting the right as well as the greatly flawed Bush/ Kennedy No Child Left Behind Act, gleefully depicting the previous president's maladroit colloquial English.
If the system has really been made to serve adults as Guggenheim suggests, then he offers little in the way of suggestion of how to help school age children--besides the confession that he drives his own children past three public schools to drop them off at their private school. Such a mea culpa from the director at the opening of the film invites viewers to ask themselves as well if they have been honest with about their fears regarding American education. Have they been honest, or are they tragically unrealistic, waiting, as Geoffrey Canada suggests for a "Superman" to come and save them from certain doom. To make clear the absurdity of the situation, the film cuts to a clip of George Reeves from the original "Adventures of Superman" series saving schoolchildren on a runaway bus whose driver was unconscious at the wheel. The montage elicits a rumble of knowing chuckles from the audience. If the educational system is so entirely asleep at the wheel, then what is the political solution Guggenheim seeks? His film only shows the impending doom.
Politics may not be as intractable as the documentary suggests. In 2010 Michelle Rhee won a partial victory getting unions to accept pay raises and bonuses of $20,000 to $30,000 for merit, in exchange for weakened teachers' seniority protections and the end of teacher tenure for one year. Whether such changes will help the several children Guggenheim follows in his documentary remains unclear. Only two get accepted to the charter schools that may or may not help them succeed. In the end, the documentary fades to black as the young student Anthony lies down on his bunk bed at his new school gazing at a Polaroid of his deceased drug-addict father. It's a touching moment for sure, but the documentary offers few suggestions of what to do for American children at large.