April 5, 2011 \ Geoff Birmingham
Documentary: Waiting for Superman

failed American public educationJust about any film – documentary or fiction – is going to employ a technique or two in order to get us hooked.  One that rarely fails is the good versus evil dynamic: good guy and bad guy duke it out, and we root for the good guy.  Often there’s a hero(ine) who is central to the story.  Perhaps he’s the good guy battling the bad guy, or perhaps he’s just a person we root for because he is trying to overcome insurmountable odds.

Waiting for Superman, a documentary about the mediocre public school system in the U.S., uses both techniques to great effect.  The good guys/heroes are low-income American parents, hoping to provide a good education for their children.  Acquiring that good education is the daunting challenge they face.  Standing in their way are the bad guys – the adults who run the schools and who selfishly look out for themselves first and the children second.

The plot of the film, therefore, is immensely compelling.  Who wouldn’t want to see disadvantaged, young children get the good education that all of us deserve?  And seeing children weep who don’t win the lottery into one of the high-performing schools is heart-breaking.

There’s only one big question.  Is it really only powerful teachers’ unions and school administrators who are responsible for the demise of American public education?  Life is rarely so black and white, and it feels like the conclusions Davis Guggenheim offers us are a little too pat.

For example, his main argument is that for schools to be successful, we must break the iron grip of the teachers’ unions that fight for their own interests first and sacrifice kids’ education as a result.  As as evidence of this, he highlights the success of several charter schools in poor neighborhoods, which are independent of unions.  The flaw with this argument, however, is that charter schools are self-selecting.  In other words, it would be rather surprising if a school filled with motivated kids didn’t outperform another that had unmotivated students.

But maybe Guggenheim’s arguments are sound – that’s for the education policy experts to hash out.  In terms of filmmaking, though, Waiting for Superman works.  It’s clear that many of our public schools aren’t working and it’s painful to see the struggles, disappointment, and resignation that the families experience as they confront that sorry fact.