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Waiting for Superman

Education reform documentary offers melodrama in place of substance

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Waiting for Superman

Directed by Davis Guggenheim

Opens Oct. 8.

Davis Guggenheim's Waiting for Superman is a necessary, powerful, and deeply misleading documentary. The movie wants to be a damning tale of five children wandering in an educational purgatory where inadequate schools and teachers consign these innocents to a permanent dispossession from the promise of American life. The stories pound you like emotional waves. Guggenheim favors the tight headshot of his young subjects contemplating their life chances in a profoundly unequal society. He beautifully captures that, in America, it is arbitrary fortune, a lottery, that determines whether you will make it or not.

The movie is American social inequality reflected in the eyes of children, injustice given voice as only innocents can. Dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal, you are prompted to gaze unobstructed at the students, into their very eyes, and ask why this inequality exists. Guggenheim emotes this question early in the movie himself as his camera captures the three California public schools that he passes as he takes his own child to a private school. His voice-over narration at the end of the movie asks what our responsibility is to other people’s children.

The answer is not Superman but Chuck Yeager. The mawkish simplicity of the movie’s answer to injustice is captured in Guggenheim’s comparison of Yeager’s breaking of the sound barrier to our ability to raise up the dispossessed with a small subset of charter school models, the absence of teachers unions, and the dedication of instructors who believe strongly enough that the poor and dispossessed can learn just as well as the children of viewers of this movie.

Intercut with the poignant stories of the children are the movie’s syllogisms, rendered mostly in arch animations, 1950s television, and George Reeves as the metaphorical Superman: Public schools, and particularly public school systems, are bad. They are bad because there are too many bad teachers. This badness keeps the good people, the good teachers, and the good systems that care more about children down despite how hard those good people fight to help American students. If the good people, teachers, and systems were given sway, inequality and injustice could be overcome—and America could improve its global economic position to boot.

Waiting for Superman will make you uneasy and then give you an easy way out.

The movie has a companion volume of the same name—a Participant Media Guide—published by PublicAffairs. Reading it offers a prospectus of the nuance Guggenheim had to remove from his cinematic argument to control your heartstrings. Take, for instance, Geoffrey Canada’s contribution to the volume, “Bringing Change to Scale: The Next Big Reform Challenge.” Here the founder and tireless promoter of the Harlem Children's Zone—the model that President Barack Obama has promoted as the way to overcome poverty and inequality—makes an argument that is hard to find in the movie:

Americans sometimes forget that we have many great public schools. . . .When we look at the children who are still failing—many of them poor and, in particular, children of color—we see an array of challenges that have to be tackled simultaneously. . . . We can look at great charter schools for inspiration, but the traditional public school system is what ultimately needs to be changed for us to change the horrific status quo we have been living with in America.

In other words, there are many good public schools. Charters will not be the answer for the vast majority of kids in hyper-segregated, impoverished urban districts. This idea is very different from the provocations Canada is seen offering up in the movie, including the tale of the movie's title. Canada thought that only Superman could confront the realities of the ghetto and was devastated when his mother told him as a child that Superman was not real. What Canada argues all the time, though—but not in the movie—is that the Harlem Children’s Zone is meant to be a cradle-to-college social contract with the community. He says in the Waiting for Superman book, “I wanted to prove what a whole neighborhood of poor children could do if the playing field was level." Waiting for Superman, the movie, is not about leveling the playing field of the community.

The book also has a contribution from The Washington Post's education reporter Jay Mathews, who has written against a major argument in the movie (overdubbed with Green Day’s American Idiot and meant to be highlighted by the one suburban student profiled) that, compared to much of the rest of the world, American kids can’t compete. Writing in The Boston Globe in 2008, Mathews argues that "[t]he widespread feeling that our schools are losing out to the rest of the world, that we are not producing enough scientists and engineers, is a misunderstanding fueled by misleading statistics." What Mathews shows is that high-income families that send their kids to well-funded schools produce students who can out-perform kids from anywhere. Rather, it is the academic performance of those who live in poverty that skews the numbers. The movie does not make the international comparison that America has by far the most children living in poverty in the industrial world.

Also in the book are excellent contributions from Bill Strickland and his Manchester Bidwell Corporation, which provides vocational and arts classes to the post-industrial dispossessed of Pittsburgh. Here too is Eric Schwarz, cofounder and CEO of Citizen Schools, a program that aims to expand the learning day for low-income children by partnering with public middle schools. Such more humble, necessary work is not represented in the movie and has nothing to do with the teachers unions, charter schools, rubber rooms, or fuzzy pictures of good and bad that make up the movie's substance.

Guggenheim's father, Charles Guggenheim—to whom Waiting for Superman is dedicated—won a 1964 Academy Award for his documentary short "Nine From Little Rock," which profiled the lives of students who integrated Arkansas’ Central High School seven years earlier. The moral power of both the students' lives and the elder Guggenheim’s short was in the lived meaning of the civil rights struggle. Here was not a narrowly framed story of educational reform; rather, it was a vision of making a more perfect Union.

It is a testament to the narrowness of Waiting for Superman that the question of race is not broached. The Civil Rights Project at UCLA in its January 2010 report, "Choice without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards", begins, “The charter school movement has been a major political success, but it has been a civil rights failure.”

At the Baltimore promotional screening of Waiting for Superman, the movie was introduced by Davis Guggenheim’s sister Grace—who had worked with her father making films for 18 years before his death—and Maryland Film Festival Director Jed Dietz, who brought two shorts made by Charles Guggenheim. The elder Guggenheim also won an Academy Award in 1968 for his "Robert Kennedy Remembered," which was shown at the Democratic Convention in that portentous year.

The shorts were essentially campaign ads for Robert Kennedy. They show Davis Guggenheim as a child walking up the steps of the capitol. He drags behind him a toy bus and cars on a string. The steps are steep and long. The toys catch and are hard to pull. We are told in that particular campaign voice that "it shouldn’t be this hard" as we fade to the smiling face of RFK flanked by children asking for our vote. In March of that year, before he was assassinated, Kennedy spoke at the University of Kansas:

If we believe that we, as Americans, are bound together by a common concern for each other, then an urgent national priority is upon us. We must begin to end the disgrace of this other America. And this is one of the great tasks of leadership for us, as individuals and citizens this year. But even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task; it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction—purpose and dignity—that afflicts us all.

I felt the want of that great task as the last of the credits rolled on Waiting for Superman. John Legend and the Roots belt their remake of "Wake Up Everybody" as the movie asks viewers to join a movement to save these children by texting a number. Legend is no Teddy Pendergrass singing with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. The powerful emotion seemed without soul, a shadow of itself, something not up to the task of leadership in our time.