A brisk and enlightening overview of the crippling problems facing public education in the United States circa 2010. The documentary follows a handful of families — mostly urban, mostly minority — who have been failed by their neighborhood schools and are hoping to land a coveted spot in one of the better-performing charter schools in their respective districts. Along the way, we also hear from teachers, reformers, union representatives and education journalists, few of whom can paint a positive picture of how the government educates America’s children.
Waiting for Superman is frequently heart-wrenching and occasionally enraging. After one little girl misses out on a spot at a charter school and is sent back to her old “failure factory,” you realize she’s essentially been sentenced to an awful life. To confirm this grim outlook, the movie presents dropout, unemployment and incarceration statistics for neighborhoods with dysfunctional schools. The conclusion? Perhaps bad schools make for bad communities, not the other way around.
Meanwhile, the teachers who are partly responsible for the sorry state of such schools can’t be held accountable because of union contracts that make the teachers bulletproof once they achieve tenure. Indeed, if there is a villain in the film, it’s American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, who comes across as a fearsome zealot.
Through all this, director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) keeps a cool head. At one point, the movie shows footage from one of New York’s so-called “rubber rooms,” where teachers under investigation for misconduct are paid their full salary to sit all day for months at a time. Guggenheim doesn’t antagonize the situation — say, by invading the room with a camera, as Michael Moore might do. Instead, he lets the sight of sleeping teachers soaking up tax dollars speak for itself.
The title is one area where Guggenheim gets cute, but even that works. Reformer Geoffrey Canada — whose Harlem charter has proven that children from severely troubled homes can academically succeed if given the right environment — describes how devastated he was as a child when he learned Superman wasn’t real. “There is no one coming with enough power to save us,” he says, likening his desperation to the feelings faced by kids in ineffective schools. Throughout the movie, Guggenheim judiciously inserts archive footage of George Reeves as Superman, including a pitch-perfect moment at the end in which Reeves saves a runaway school bus.
These moments and others — such as the clever animated graphics that lay out the most troubling statistics — elevate “Waiting for Superman” above other well-intentioned docs. Like the best documentaries, this one empowers its viewers through a masterful mixture of knowledge and art.