Is Our Children Learning?

Waiting for Superman proves public education is the kryptonite

I pass tears like kidney stones. Big, fat crocodile drops aren’t easily milked from these tightly shuttered ducts. So when I tell you I bawled at Waiting For Superman — ugly bawled … in public — please know that means something. Writer/director Davis Guggenheim made a documentary about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, the scariest movie of 2006; so it’s no surprise he made a look inside the broken American public school system the biggest tear-jerker of 2010. Don’t let the nonfiction angle fool you, there is poetry to docu-filmmaking, and Guggenheim knows every rhyme scheme. Buoyed by eye-popping — make that eye-gouging — statistics, Waiting for Superman supplements cold numbers with warm bodies. The film begins with sobering — make that alcohol-consumption-inducing — figures regarding math and reading proficiency across the United States. The causes are as obvious as they are seemingly intractable: poor funding, poor teachers, poor bureaucratic oversight and poor opinions of poor people. And it’s that last part, the people, which Guggenheim embraces. In addition to a compelling slew of talking-head, fact-spewing reformers, we meet the victims — yes, victims — of the public school system. There’s Daisy, an over-achiever destined to have her zeal snuffed by a middle-school seemingly determined to set her back; there’s Anthony, an orphan who dreams of giving his kids a better life than he had … while he’s still in grade school; and there’s Fernando, a floppy-topped sweetie whose mother is told repeatedly he isn’t reading well despite her evidence to the contrary. Each of these children, and several others, find their futures tied to lotteries. That’s right, whether these tiny wonders spiral into the stereotypical hell that is their seeming birthright depends on whether bingo balls that represent their name are pulled from a hopper. See, only so many spots are available at schools that don’t suck, so the only fair thing to do is cast lots with young lives. If you’re wondering where my blubbering came in, try watching Daisy’s face as names that aren’t hers are called out, each representing the life she missed. There’s a villain, too — one sure to cause controversy. The teachers’ unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, are recognized for their accomplishments ever so briefly before they are raked, roasted and grilled on an open flame of blame. And it’s hard to argue, as their dogged allegiance to the idea that all teachers, even ones who are awful human beings that use tenure as an excuse for unconscionable behaviors, are the reason exceptional instructors can’t be celebrated and douche bags can’t be fired. Thankfully, just as Al Gore’s fire-and-brimstone, end-of-the-world predicting documentary was blunted by a “we can still change” conclusion, so too does this culminate in a call to arms. Honestly, if you can sit through this breathtaking film and not wind up one of Guggenheim’s soldiers, I’m kind of appalled. Visually striking, with quick animated sequences and well-framed interviews, and emotionally enthralling, Waiting for Superman just buddied up with Restrepo on my very, very short list for the year’s best in nonfiction film. Grade: A

posted at 10:06 am
on Wednesday, November 03rd, 2010

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