Heroic Documentary Puts Education Front and Center
By Ethan Gates ’12, A&L Section Editor
At the end of Davis Guggenheim’s powerful new documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” five children sit in excruciating anticipation as they wait for their name to be called in a random lottery. Thanks to the previous hour and a half of testimony and statistics, we know exactly what is at stake in this warped bingo game: if their names are called, these kids will receive a spot in a prestigious charter school, vastly increasing their chances at quality instruction, a college education and a successful career. We know the scene from any number of inspirational, “based on a true story” Hollywood tales: the balls bounce, the audience sweats, but against all odds our hopes are redeemed and the heroes move on to a better life. But this is no Hollywood romance, and rather than warm fuzzies, all we receive is the gut-wrenching realization that what we are watching is horribly, desperately wrong.

It’s not just that Francisco, Emily, Bianca, Anthony and Daisy are five of the most agonizingly cute kids on the planet (Daisy in particular could make even the staunchest misanthrope repent). Much as we have grown sympathetic to their specific plights, the true pain lies in the fact that each of these children stands for thousands of others, all trapped in the mire of the American public education system. This is not just a spat of fatalistic bad luck in an otherwise hunky-dory world; something is broken, and it is up to us supposedly empowered adults to fix it.

You may not recognize Guggenheim’s name, but you’ll certainly recall his last film. “An Inconvenient Truth” drew headlines and sparked an international debate on climate change, resurrecting former Vice President Al Gore in the process. Having quickly become one of the most prominent activist filmmakers in the world, Guggenheim here returns to a topic quite familiar to him: his first feature film, “The First Year,” examined five new teachers struggling through the challenges of public education in inner-city Los Angeles. By choosing to shift his focus and make students and their families the center of this documentary, Guggenehim makes sure that the viewer never loses sight of who are the true victims of poor education.

What exactly is the problem with public education in America, you may well ask. As part of the Amherst bubble, you have most likely never been directly exposed to the academic sinkholes (“drop-out factories,” as Guggenheim refers to them) that plague our nation’s cities. In rapid succession, Guggenheim introduces the audience to one frightening statistic after another (presented in pleasantly animated graphics, which are a bit more engaging than Al Gore’s PowerPoint bullets), the most damning of which may be that eight years into the 12-year No Child Left Behind program passed by Congress in 2001, most states are still 70 to 80 percent short on the desired goal of 100 percent proficiency in math and reading. Yes, that’s right; even in the most thriving states, only 20 to 30 percent of public school students are able to perform at grade level.

If you’re fishing for a bit of retroactive Bush-bashing, look elsewhere. For Guggenheim, No Child Left Behind was not the source of America’s educational malaise (indeed, flat-lining test scores have proven a continual predicament for the past 40 years), but merely a well-intentioned victim of the true cause: a firmly entrenched bureaucracy that has perpetually shot down any attempts at lasting reform. Between the federal and state governments, not to mention the thousands of autonomous school boards across the country, the nuance and individual attention required in doling out a decent education is completely smothered by all-encompassing directives. The teachers’ unions (the single most powerful lobby in American government; they have contributed more to political campaigns in recent years than far-more vilified special interests like the NRA and the Teamsters) have not helped matters a bit: by staunchly insisting that all its members receive tenure regardless of their performance in the classroom, the unions have made it nearly impossible to fire bad teachers. The appeal behind independently-run charter schools is obvious.

If Guggenheim’s film makes any inexcusable omission, though, it is on this point. Charter schools are presented as the beacon of hope for public education, providing a more committed, personalized style of education unavailable at public schools. Indeed, charismatic leaders of charter schools like Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone and the film’s most prominent presence, and their institutions are wonderful models in moving forward on education reform. However, Guggenheim ignores the tens of millions of dollars of private funds that went into the Harlem Children’s Zone, claiming that the system’s problem is not one of money, but a more general one of dedication and attitude. I’m sorry, but you can’t convince me that schools in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, South Central L.A. and Detroit wouldn’t be able to turn things around with a couple million more dollars in their pockets.

However, I doubt Guggenheim would be greatly displeased at me for nitpicking his argument in this way. “Waiting for ‘Superman’” offers its own solution for the dilemmas of public education, but more than anything it looks to stir up debate, to dispel complacency in favor of more active, genuine attempts at reform. Guggenheim makes a passionate, compelling argument that this is a discussion we can no longer afford to push to the side. Despite the drastic changes in the world around us, America’s public education system largely remains designed for a 1950’s society. If we truly want every child in America to have a bright future — not just the wealthy and privileged, but every Francisco, every Emily, every Bianca, Anthony and Daisy — it’s time to bring ourselves up to date.

Issue 07, Submitted 2010-10-29 20:01:31