The documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman'” examines the issue of America’s damaged public school system, mainly focusing on who’s getting shorted, who’s shorting them and why.
Director Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”) begins and ends his examination with a bit of self-criticism. He explains in the opening that in 1999, he shot a documentary called “The First Year,” in which he followed a group of new teachers. The experience made him a believer in the good fight of providing free, quality education to all children, and a proponent of the system overall.
But that was then. In the now, Guggenheim drives past three public schools to drop off his two children at an expensive private school. It turns out that when it came to his own kids, he couldn’t bring himself to subject them to the crap-shoot that public education would mean to their futures.
While he comes off a bit like a traitor here, once we see how things work for kids who don’t have any other choice but public school, his actions stop seeming selfish and start to look like good ol’ common sense.
The meat of “Waiting for ‘Superman'” is comprised of five kids’ stories. Francisco, Daisy, Emily, Bianca and Anthony are all smart kids who could go far in life with the proper education and opportunities. However, each is at a certain state of disadvantage, mostly economic. Two are growing up in single-parent homes, while one is living with his grandmother.
Each family tries different strategies to get the children into decent schools before they’re old enough to be trapped in the quagmire of local middle schools. As Guggenheim shows, most do fine until they hit the sixth or seventh grade, when their resources mysteriously dry up and they’re shuttled into “dropout factories,” schools where they will be expected to fail.
Guggenheim, with the help of various education professionals — most notably Geoffrey Canada, a reformer working in Harlem, N.Y., and Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of public schools in Washington, D.C. — lines out the legion of problems that contributes to the poor performance of the school system.
The main villain in his drama is Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest labor union in the United States. While we don’t hear as much from Weingarten as we probably should (and what we do hear is pretty vague), it’s clear that the unions are not interested in reform. Weingarten and the AFT obstruct more than one idea, refusing to vote on even trying measures that might threaten the current tenure system.
Guggenheim doesn’t conjure definitive answers to the problems he presents, but he does offer some ideas. But while all that logistical stuff is interesting, it’s really the kids’ stories that make “Superman” important. They make it clear that the adults’ infighting, politicking and rhetoric are squandering the potential of millions of innocent kids, sacrificing it on the altar of institutional status quo. —Mike Robertson