Some of the best bits in Waiting for Superman, the new documentary by Davis Guggenheim on the failures of American education, especially for the poor, are the shots of presidents promising to do something about it.
“Now let us praise famous men,” the film as much as says, as it rolls out sequences of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush signing legislation and pontificating. There’s George W. Bush, too, with the slogan, “No Child Left Behind” in large letters on a banner behind him, rolling out the latest program to bolster America’s sagging scores.
In sharp contrast, we enter the lives of four poor black and Latino children who are languishing in lousy inner-city elementary schools, facing seemingly insurmountable odds of getting into college. They’ve pinned their hopes on public charter schools with track records of success, but so have hundreds of other kids, and admission is by lottery.
We get to know Daisy, a student so single-minded that she has already written to the college of her choice, requesting admission. She wants to be a doctor or a nurse or a veterinarian, but if she doesn’t win the charter lottery, we learn, she’s headed for a local middle school in Los Angeles where only 13 percent of students are proficient in math. At the local high school, one of the “drop-out factories” prevalent among high-poverty schools, only three out of every 100 students graduate with the classes necessary for admission to a four-year university.
Anthony, a solemn boy who recently lost his father to drugs, knows he’s gotten the short end of the stick. He goes to school in Washington, D.C., where only 12 percent of eighth-grade students are proficient in reading, the lowest rate in the country.
“I want my kid to have better than what I had,” he says.
The heartbreak in Waiting is palpable. In addition to the kids, we hear from the parents who can’t choose their schools through real estate because they’re poor. The story of a fifth student, Emily, a white girl living in a suburb of Redwood City, Calif., shows that middle-class parents often don’t have choices, either.
The film briskly and wittily presents the disgraceful evidence of educational failure, with clever animations of charts and line graphs, and old clips of school officials spewing bureaucratic drivel. Geoffrey Canada, the charismatic leader of the Harlem Children's Zone,* which runs two charter schools in New York City, tells how, as a boy, he believed that Superman would show up “even in the depths of the ghetto” -- and how he came to realize “there was no one coming with enough power to save us.”
But Guggenheim, who also directed An Inconvenient Truth, the Oscar-winning 2006 documentary about former Vice-President Al Gore’s efforts to educate the public about global warming, gets an “F” for his analysis of how to fix America’s failing schools.
As a former public school teacher and union member – I taught junior high school in Los Angeles area in the 1980s – I was offended by the anti-union propaganda in this film. Guggenheim has a heyday with the abuses of the tenure system, and yes, it’s true there are many. We hear the slang that goes around about bad teachers who are shunted from school to school – “Pass the Trash” and “Dance of the Lemons.” We see a video of bad teachers in New York City’s now-closed “reassignment center,” awaiting endlessly delayed hearings, doing nothing all day long and getting paid for it. Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers, gets short shrift in the film, shown speaking over ominously throbbing music.
Yes, the worst teachers should be fired, and I could tell some horror stories of my own. But to suggest, as Waiting does, that unions are to blame for the plight of Daisy, Anthony, and Emily, is way off-track. Unions have fought to bring teachers into the middle class and keep them there. Without the guarantee of a decent salary and benefits, how many would choose to go into teaching in the first place?
Guggenheim reveals early on that he has placed his own children in private school. It’s obvious from the film that he thinks public charter schools are the next best option. But he hasn’t done his homework. According to a prominent Stanford University study on charter schools in 2009, nearly half of charter schools nationwide get no better results than local public schools, and 37 percent get worse results.
Successful charter schools such as Canada’s, which receive substantial private donations, cannot be duplicated on a large scale to solve the chronic problems of America’s high-poverty schools. Waiting sidesteps the glaring re-segregation of minority students in these schools. It does not mention, for example, the successes of urban-suburban transfer programs in Boston, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and St. Louis and other cities, where poor students are being integrated into affluent schools with good results, across district lines.
“I don’t care what I have to do, I don’t care how many jobs I have to obtain,” says the mother of Bianca, one of the five children whose stories are told in Waiting. “She is going to go to college. You don’t get a job, you get a career. There’s a difference.”
Waiting pulls the heartstrings but fails to offer Bianca and her mother much hope. But if it gets people talking about fairness in education, that’s a good start.
*This story originally identified Geoffrey Canada with the Harlem Success Academy.