Davis Guggenheim’s last major documentary was the highly controversial, Oscar-winning, An Inconvenient Truth. In his latest film, he revisits a topic that he’s covered before in his 2001 film, The First Year: the American education system. Waiting For Superman may not touch upon a topic as globally relevant as Truth, but it’s sure to be no less controversial. Guggenheim analyzes the byzantine problem on a grand scale but portrays it anecdotally, via looks into the lives of several families, who are generally on the lower end of the economic scale. The main source of contention has and is likely to come from the people and organizations at which Guggenheim lays the failure of our current system: teachers unions, intractable bureaucracies and conflicting local and state standards that prevent real nationwide change from occurring.
The salient point presented by Guggenheim and Waiting is that a system that was designed decades ago, and that worked for decades after, has not adapted with the world that outstripped the boundaries and classifications established within that old system. Furthermore, he asserts that the very people who should be closest to the situation, the teachers and administrators nationwide who generally benefit from the status quo, are in no real hurry to entertain significant alteration to that system. Among the lexicon Guggenheim utilizes are schools that are identified as “drop out factories” and “academic sinkholes.” And these are prevalent in every state and virtually every community, although predominantly in sprawling urban centers such as Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C.
On the more personal level, Guggenheim examines the stories of five urban kids who are currently progressing through the system, as well as local reformers who struggle against the antagonists identified by Guggenheim. The former include Daisy, an L.A. youth who clings to her plans for the future no matter what; Francisco from the Bronx, whose mother is determined to do what it takes to provide a better education than what she had; Anthony, a D.C. fifth grader who is being raised by his grandmother after his father died of an overdose; Emily, and eighth-grader from Silicon Valley who fears she’ll be deemed unworthy for college; and Bianca, a Harlem kindergartner whose mother fights a losing battle to keep her in a charter school right across the street due to tuition costs.
Among the reformers spotlighted, the most engaging is Geoffrey Canada, a Harlem teacher who started the Harlem Children’s Zone and who not-at-all sheepishly informs us that he once believed he’d straighten out the whole education boondoggle single-handedly within a couple of years. He frankly and entertainingly gives his take on the entire situation and why so many initiatives before his system failed. Another reformer, one far more controversial, is Michelle Rhee, the latest in a long line of Superintendents of D.C. Public Schools who have largely failed in the position before her. Rhee, who only had a couple of year’s teaching experience, has faced not only stiff, but vigorous opposition from the entrenched management and unions of the area schools. So combative to her efforts was the union, that they would not even let a new Rhee proposal involving a forfeiture of automatic tenure for significant performance-based raises for teachers even come to a vote.
Automatic tenure is a key concept assailed by the documentary which has made firing a poor teacher a bureaucratic nightmare for many school districts. Another practice denigrated by Guggenheim is the New York “Rubber Room,” which gives teachers full salary and benefits while sticking them in a room by the dozens to sit idly by (although some do things like play cards) while their charges of misconduct are investigated. That’s a process that Guggenheim asserts takes up to eight times longer to conclude than a criminal trial and costs upwards of $65 million a year. Another school official speaks of a 23-step process involved in ousting a bad teacher. He understands the process yet can’t defend it.
Waiting For Superman often has a downbeat manner about it, because the subject itself is sobering. This is never more apparent at the end as the five children are in various city lotteries to determine whether or not their dreams of getting into private or charter schools are realized. But Guggenheim, who freely admits to putting his own children in private schools, despite his hope that he’d be able to have faith in the public option, nevertheless tries to infuse his narrative with rays of hope, featuring both the children and the reformers. Waiting has an easy pace that moves from the big picture to the personal story and back again. It also has plenty of archival footage and a simple but effective animation style to give some visual weight to the to the frequently dry and uninspiring statistics. Given the run time, Waiting can’t possibly hope to cover the entire issue, much less solve it. However, since it also highlights all of the presidents who have also been unable to fix the problem, that’s not surprising.