Davis Guggenheim earned an Oscar for directing Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Soon after that, Guggenheim discovered an inconvenient truth of his own. While he supported “the idea that public school could work,” he was afraid of sending his own children to “failing schools.” So every day he drives past three public schools and drops off his kids at a private school.
In Waiting for “Superman” (Paramount), Guggenheim highlights families who don’t have the same means or the same choices. He traces five children (four from inner-city areas in Los Angeles, The Bronx, Harlem, and Washington, D.C., and one from a wealthy California suburb) and their attempt to get a spot in popular charter schools through lotteries.
Guggenheim intersperses the film’s narrative with catchy animations and amusing classroom clips from TV shows (“The Simpsons,” “Welcome Back, Kotter”) as well as engaging interviews with educators such as Geoffrey Canada, president of the Harlem Children’s Zone charter system. Canada explains his sadness when he learned as a child that Superman did not exist—that no one was going to pull him suddenly out of poverty. As in the school system he leads, success would come from high expectations and hard work.
For Guggenheim, educational success is impossible in many public high schools that have turned into “drop-out factories.” He blames top-heavy public school administrations for avoiding true reform and criticizes mainly teacher unions for defending job security (tenure), even when that means incompetent teachers retain their jobs.
This documentary has received its share of criticism. In The New Yorker, David Denby wished for a film that showed “why some charter schools work and others don’t.” Diane Ravitch provided a savage critique in The New York Review of Books, depicting the film as a propaganda piece for charter schools, based on the false assumption “that teachers alone can overcome the effects of student poverty.”
While I realized Guggenheim favored emotion over evenhandedness, I couldn’t help being caught up in the lives of the children he features—good kids with little chance of getting a good education. I thought of the public schools down the road, where I know the students have many fewer opportunities than what my own children receive at neighboring private Christian schools. And like Guggenheim, I couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty and wonder what I could do to help.
Even if Waiting for “Superman” lacks in balance, it does offer a good starting point for discussion and debate on how to improve all schools, private and public.