Waiting for Superman
You can’t just hope Superman comes. He’s not psychic, you know.

Theatrical Release Date: 10/08/2010
Director: Davis Guggenheim

In “An Inconvenient Truth”, Guggenheim tackled the controversial issue of global warming. With his new documentary “Waiting For ‘Superman’”, Guggenheim tries to remind us of our failures as a nation and a species again, this time targeting the educational system in America. It follows several students, looking at the problems with their schools and their desire to learn despite the odds against them. These narratives are interwoven, and punctuated with anecdotes about the obstacles students face today. It could have been an important work, bringing to light what is wrong with education and ways in which we can fix them before it is too late. It could have been a heroic work, a must see for every student, teacher, parent, and any other citizen with a vested interest in the success of our children.

It could have been all of these things.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

There are several reasons that this documentary fails. For one, it has a significant bias. Although this may be par for the course in the genre, it is hard to fix social ills if you don’t even try to present them in an objective way. One example is the clear anti-teacher union stance the filmmaker takes. To him, teacher unions are evil special interest entities that run every level of government. They perpetuate the antiquated notion of tenure and fight viciously against merit-based pay, which apparently is the only way that we can separate the wheat from the chaff.

In theory, these are valid points. There are a lot of bad teachers out there, and their ability to continue to teach while good teachers languish in bad press and low pay is not fair to anyone. However, there are reasons for this stance that are not entirely selfish. Teachers in low performing schools live under constant threat of reprisal, regardless of their actual quality of teaching. A good friend of mine lived out a hellish two years in one such school, with struggling, low-income students that spoke no English, no resources, and an inept and vicious administration. Despite her more than adequate teaching skills, she was written up for poor test scores and nearly railroaded out of teaching. It was our union president that stood by her and helped her through. Now she works across town in a high performing school where she is beloved and admired by her students, parents, and principal. Unions save crappy teachers, but they also protect good ones from a broken system.

Merit pay goes the same way. Show me a practical, inexpensive, and trustworthy way of measuring educational merit, and I’ll readily agree to the concept. Unfortunately, merit in the educational field is a subjective thing. Test scores are simply not reliable; there are a myriad of reasons for poor scores as well as high ones, and few of them have to do with the quality of the teacher. Merit pay will drive teachers from low-income schools in droves, increase cheating, and still not reward honorable teachers that have the interests of students at heart. People don’t see that, however. They see greedy, lazy people that don’t want to be called out for being bad teachers, and call the arguments I mention above excuses for mediocrity. This documentary does the same, laying blame solely at the feet of certain groups of people. While there are certainly issues with unions and administration, they are a reflection of a larger problem, and vilifying these groups doesn’t solve the problem. The first step is not to get rid of unions; it is to get rid of the conditions that necessitate unions in the first place.

This may already be obvious, but I feel the need to share the fact that I am a public school teacher. Naturally I have my own biases, fostered by my job, my graduate education classes, and my personal experiences. If that renders the arguments above invalid in your opinion, so be it. I have a larger issue with this documentary, however. While they point a lot of fingers, they provide no solutions whatsoever. They bemoan inadequate public schools, the perils of tracking, limited spaces in charter schools, prohibitive costs in private schools, a lack of cohesion between state and national content standards, and a bloated, ineffectual bureaucracy.

In the end, after they convince you that your child already has one foot in a jail cell at the age of six, you are left with only one option- charter schools. Charter schools are great, you see. For reasons that aren’t made entirely clear, they are the only way to ensure that your child gets into college. The socioeconomic factors that apparently have nothing to do with the educational experiences in your child’s formative years will come back with a vengeance in later life, destroying the lives of every single hapless young adult that failed to walk down the hollowed halls of an accredited four-year university. Never mind fixing the system- let’s just send all of our kids to charter schools!

How is this a solution? Where are the arguments for low class size (which is a huge factor in charter school success, by the way)? Where is the push for unified standards? Where is the call to arms for better teacher preparation and support? While some of these concepts are glossed over, there is no active focus on solutions. We weep for these poor kids that can’t get into a good school, but they don’t discuss ways to make all schools good. They discuss the impact of bad neighborhoods on these kids after they drop out, but we don’t discuss their effects on the children while they are in school. Clearly, there is a need for sweeping educational reform from top to bottom, but there is no proposal of how to do this. To paraphrase a famous novel that few students today will ever get to read, this documentary is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The allusion to Superman in this film is heavy-handed at best, but it is a good metaphor for this film. Putting all of your faith in charter schools without actually addressing the deeper issues is a quick fix; it will help some students, but certainly not all. Our future relies on the concept that all students have the right to a good education, not just the ones lucky enough to get into these good but rare experimental programs. Like the tenuous and misleading solution in this documentary, Superman would solve an awful lot of America’s problems if he actually existed. Since he doesn’t, we have to work things out on our own.

“Waiting for ‘Superman’” gets a 2 out of 5.