Don’t Wait, See “Waiting for Superman”
The closing moments of “Waiting for Superman” are some of the most tense and heartbreaking of any movie you will see this year. The fact that these kinds of emotions can be stirred by a documentary about our education system is inspiring and enlightening. You might be predisposed to certain feelings about Davis Guggenheim’s (“An Inconvenient Truth”) latest message movie. But his take has the power to surprise, enrage, and even delight the most cynical of educators and education bashers.
The Oscar worthy “Waiting for Superman” delineates the problems of the failing American education system wherein despite government spending that has doubled over the last 30 years, students continue to fall behind in math, science and reading. As the simple but powerful graphics illustrate, it is even worse than you might imagine-and the future looks bleak as schools struggle to provide white collar minds to an increasingly technology-based world.
What sets “Superman” apart is that while it passionately advocates better schools, excellent teachers, (who are a “work of art”) and higher expectations it doesn’t propose simple solutions nor does it stoop to broad- brushed demonizing. Certain teachers’ unions don’t fare well, and specific charter schools are hailed as success stories. But neither the abolishment of the former nor the perpetuation of the latter are presented as a panacea by themselves.
What really gets the heart racing is the introduction of five students from various parts of the country who desperately want to get into a better school, and realize that to do so may be their only hope for a happy life. These kids and their plight are real and they transcend politics.
The superheroes of the film are Geoffrey Canada, CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, Michelle Rhee, the recently resigned chancellor of one of the worst-performing school districts in the country (in Washington D.C.), and disillusioned teachers Mike Feinberg and David Levin, who formed KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program). Their experience offers insight and hope that this ship can be turned around, and that our very future depends on it.
The film spends little if any time on the behavioral aspects of classroom success and any teacher will tell you a motivated child with a truly supportive parent can overcome just about any challenge. And surprisingly, the film does not imply that spending more money is the only answer, though it powerfully illustrates that for a fraction of the cost of incarceration in this country we could help kids in “dropout factories” to avoid ending up there in the first place.
Everyone has a stake in our educational system. “Waiting for Superman” doesn’t imply the solutions are simple, but that they are simply possible. It fires a warning shot and offers a penetrating beacon of hope.
The message of our wake-up call is that “Superman” is us.