“At first I was like, having difficulties in school,” says Anthony, a fifth grader living in Washington DC with his grandmother. “That’s because I wasn’t coming home and studying. And that’s when I started to study and I started to pass. I stayed back one grade, and that was in second grade.” Davis Guggenheim, sitting with the boy in his bedroom, asks why. “‘Cause my father had passed,” Anthony says. “He just died. He took drugs.”
Anthony stops smiling here, his braces no longer visible as he catches his breath and looks away. He gulps and tries very, very hard to hold back tears, pretty successfully. He’s a strong, focused, self-aware kid. But still, this early interview in Waiting for ‘Superman’ underlines, Anthony is a kid. When everything else went upside down his life, school was “hard.” And even now, as he’s finding ways to study and survive, school is still hard, for reasons that have nothing to do with him or his family, and everything to do with how school works in the United States.
Guggenheim’s documentary makes an impassioned case, against a system that no one would defend. As he puts it early in the film, his decision to enroll his students in a private school has left him feeling “uneasy,” as if he’s betrayed “the ideals I thought I lived by. “I’m lucky,” he adds, as the camera shows his view of the three public schools he passes on the way to his kids’ school. “I have a choice. Other families pin their hopes to a bouncing ball, a hand pulling a card from a box, or a computer that generates numbers in a random sequence. Because when there’s a great public school, there aren’t enough spaces.” Close-ups of lottery balls reinforce the idea: the futures of public school students are left “in the hands of luck.”
Waiting for ‘Superman’ doesn’t make points that are especially new. It does, however, make them in a brightly colored, sharply edited, smartly packaged way. Like Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth, this movie means to make a difference. To that end, it focuses its argument through the stories of five families from across the U.S. All the kids have ideas about what they want. “I want to have a lot of choices, I want to be a nurse, I want to be a doctor, and I want to be a veterinarian, says Daisy, a fifth grader in Los Angeles who’s already picked out the college she wants to attend. “My dad’s struggling,” she says, looking for a job. Daisy’s sense of her future is based, she says, on her current interests. “I just love animals,” she says, “And I would like to help somebody in need.” Guggenheim wonders where she got such an idea. “I read books in the library,” she asserts. Adults also say they want to help people: a montage of recent presidents, from LBJ to Reagan to Clinton to the Bushes indicates how often the call has been sounded for education reform. That nothing has changed over decades—except perhaps that public schools are doing their jobs more poorly than ever—is testament to the profoundly disturbing lack of will behind such pronouncements.
Geoffrey Canada, an educator in Harlem, who also testified in Madeline Sackler’s documentary, The Lottery, provides a series of intelligent, even pithy observations regarding the entrenched, failing “system.” When he graduated from Harvard with a Master’s Degree in Education in 1974, he recounts, he was determined not only to be a teacher but also to change the culture of schools in the U.S. When he found system-wide change to be impossible—and he’s well versed in the manifold and overlapping reasons for this, from politics and poverty to racism and corruption to teachers’ unions and parents’ attitudes—he instead decided to forge a small model of success. And indeed, his Harlem Children’s Zone in 2009 inspired Barack Obama to commit to 20 similar schools across the country, under a program called Promise Neighborhoods.
“Kids look at the world and they make certain predictions based on the evidence they are receiving from their peers, their parents, and their educators,” says Canada. “From their perspective, the world is a heartless, cold-blooded place because they realize they’ve been given the short end of the stick and they don’t know why.” As he speaks for kids, and encourages adults to behave responsibly, Canada is plainly frustrated.
The film’s analysis is uneven, sometimes hard-hitting (Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, has complained about its attack on unions) and other times simple (it’s easy to pick on No Child Left Behind, which this film does with clips of George W. Bush’s mis-articulations and animated maps showing how NCLB has fallen short of all sorts of proficiency goals). It’s sometimes celebratory (Michelle Rhee’s attempt to fight the DC school system and especially, the lack of “accountability” in it, the ensuing ruckus, and the eventual falling short) and sometimes heartrending (the kids [and parents] who hope against hope to be selected in their lotteries appear in a lengthy series of close-ups at film’s end, waiting to hear their fates). Taking a cue from the parents and educators in search of measurable goals, Waiting for ‘Superman also points repeatedly to college as the answer, or an answer, which leaves out the problems students find there, whether they arrive unprepared (the film does note the egregious numbers of college students who need remediation), have other troubles adjusting, or leave with nowhere to go.
The young students’ stories are surely Waiting for ‘Superman’‘s most effective strategy, but it’s hard not to wonder at how they are being used in such a slick enterprise (see also, Oprah’s effort to publicize their plight, without making quite clear enough how it is your plight as well). It’s the kids who matter, the kids who need something more secure than luck to find their futures. And it’s the kids who suffer from the “complicated” inefficiency and inequality of public schools.