I am not an expert on social policy in any way, shape or form. I took
an elective course on education back in college, but I’m hardly
knowledgeable on the subject. I’m not an activist or an idealist of any
kind. I’m just a schmuck with a blog, some movie passes and way too much
free time. And here I am, typing an entry on Waiting for “Superman”,
a documentary about the broken educational system we have in America. I
expect that a lot of the points I’m about to make will be incomplete
and/or incorrect, but that’s to be expected on an issue this huge. Hell,
people far more “qualified” than I have been bungling this issue for
decades. You may disagree with some of the things I say on the topic,
and that’s as it should be. The issue of education reform is
multi-layered and all-encompassing. We’re all caught up in this to some
degree and matters this huge never come without controversy. In fact,
given the stagnation of our educational system, I’d say that some debate
and a few new ideas may be what’s needed right now.

But before I get into the movie proper, I’d like to talk about
Participant Media. You really should know who these guys are if you
don’t already. Participant is an independent film distributor,
responsible for such movies as An Inconvenient Truth, Countdown
to Zero
, Fast Food Nation and Furry Vengeance, as
well as Fair Game, the upcoming Valerie Plame dramatization. In
case you don’t notice a pattern here, seeing the Participant Media logo
is a sure sign that the movie you’re about to see contains some kind of
topical socio-political agenda. Personally, I’m of mixed feelings about
this. I don’t really like the idea of a company that only distributes
product if it carries some political message that the management finds
favorable (*coughFoxNewscough*). Also, while I think that there is room
in the cinema world for commentary on current events, I’m of the opinion
that the printed word is a much better medium for it. Newspaper
editorials, magazine articles and books don’t date themselves nearly as
badly as movies do, they don’t feel anywhere near as preachy, their
references are easier to look up and they aren’t limited by length as
films are. On the other hand, Participant Media is giving a voice to a
very specific niche and I can respect that. I’m sympathetic to all the
filmmakers out there who are eager to make their mark. I can understand
the urge to make a movie with the intention of getting it out there and
changing the world. Which brings me to Davis Guggenheim.

After working with Al Gore to push awareness of global warming onto
the somnambulant American public, Guggenheim sought to do the same thing
with our broken education system by way of his latest documentary, Waiting
for “Superman”
. If you’re wondering what the title refers to,
don’t. The title is exactly what it sounds like. The movie does make
clever use of some George Reeves-era Superman footage, but that’s as
much as the title has to do with this film. But enough petty griping
about the film, let’s solve the education crisis!

First, let’s address the obvious solution: Money!. There’s no problem
in the world that can’t be solved by raising funds for it, right? Not
so fast. Pretty much immediately, the film exposits that we’re spending
more inflation-adjusted taxpayer dollars on education than ever before,
yet test scores on reading and math have remained virtually unchanged
over the past fifty years. Pork-barrel politics can’t solve this
problem, so what can? Where is all that money going?

Man, does Guggenheim have answers to that question.

Quite early on, Guggenheim rolls out one of his neat little cartoon
skits to illustrate how the system has grown extremely complex. We’ve
got a federal bureaucracy, we’ve got state bureaucracies and we’ve got
regional bureaucracies, all competing with each other for money and all
with varying standards of what constitutes success. There’s no doubt
that this adds a lot of complication to the system and cutting all of it
would doubtlessly save millions of dollars in overhead costs. However,
there are a lot of problems with that solution that this film completely
fails to address: Cultural differences. You can’t run New York City the
way you would run Portland, for example, and expect a good outcome.
Hell, you couldn’t even run Bend the same way you’d run Portland. No one
could expect to come up with an education plan for all of America and
expect it to work because kids and parents are different from place to
place. Sure, it might help to simplify the various regional
bureaucracies, but eliminating them altogether would only bring a world
of pain.

Anyway, the film doesn’t address that very much. It mostly focuses on
finding and eliminating things in the system that are broken. Namely,
failing schools and bad teachers. The problem — which the movie spends a
whole lot of time griping about — is that the system we have right now
is adamantly opposed to any such changes. No matter how crappy the
school is, teachers and parents and assorted community leaders will
crawl out of the woodwork to complain about the jobs being lost and the
kids who’ll go without an education if the school is shut down. And no
matter how godawful the teachers are, firing them is made impossible by
union contracts that grant them tenure after two years of teaching.

Sweet Santa Vaca, does Guggenheim roast the teacher’s unions. The way
he tells it, the teacher’s unions are shrill and unreasonable in the
face of overwhelming evidence that the status quo is broken. He makes it
sound like the unions place a higher priority over the teachers’
“right” to have a job than the kids’ right to an education. The unions
have devised a Looney Tunes 23-step process for firing a bad teacher
while inexplicably forbidding higher pay to better teachers.

Now, I’m not unreasonable. I know that it takes teachers a few years
to really hit their stride and learn their craft and they need to be
protected in that time. Moreover, there’s no doubt that public school
teachers are overworked and underpaid for the vital work they do. They
deserve the best and they should get it, even if that means union
protection is necessary. Having said that, any system that turns a blind
eye to incompetence and doesn’t reward excellence is broken by any
measure. What’s more, we’ve all had at least one horrible teacher. We’ve
all had coursework we didn’t learn anything from, a class that was
wasting our time or a teacher who seemed to actively discourage
learning. Think back to those times and you’ll know that nothing derails
an education like a bad teacher.

The film is actually quite short on answers aside from pointing out
what doesn’t work and what’s preventing change. The closest that the
film ever gets to a potential solution is its glowing praise of the Knowledge is
Power Program
. Guggenheim goes into lengthy detail about its
achievements, most notably in regard to how KIPP students’ success is
not correlated with their families’ respective wealth or poverty. This
school has conquered the income gap, something that would be considered
a miracle in the public school system, yet the film is scarce on
details as to how this came about. Mostly, it seems that KIPP succeeds
because it does away with such outdated school concepts as Summer Break
or education tracking.

I honestly feel kinda bad about saying this — especially since it’s
not mentioned in the movie — but Summer Break really is an antiquated
concept. Kids don’t need three months off to go help their families
harvest crops anymore. Prudently, the film avoids this point to focus
on educational tracking. It seems that preparing certain some kids for
high-level jobs and preparing most kids for grunt work made a lot of
sense back in the 1950s, when there were precious few college-level
jobs to go around. But since then, we’ve had such breakthroughs as the
moon landing, the dot-com explosion and the Human Genome Project.
Today, we’ve got hundreds of computer companies, bioscience labs and
engineering teams that have to hire talent from halfway across the
globe because not enough people in America have the scientific
knowledge to be viable employees.

To my regret, there were many important issues that the film
completely failed to address. For starters, it failed to mention that
maybe we’ll need all that education funding to build additional schools.
I don’t know if this is a nationwide thing, but overcrowding in schools
is a huge issue in Portland. Just this past year, my old middle school
had to be turned into a satellite campus for my old high school just so
the excess students could be accommodated. The film also neglects to
mention just how obsessed schools are with grades and test scores,
especially after No Child Left Behind. Teachers are actively discouraged
from flunking students, simply because having an “F” student makes the
school look bad and less likely to receive funding. I’ve even heard of
teachers falsifying test scores to get more favorable stats. It’s an
outrage never mentioned in the film, aside from a passing mention of
NCLB. Perhaps most unforgivably — considering what a hot-button topic
this is — the place of sports, theatre and music in schools is pretty
much completely ignored. I know for a fact that there are several
studies about the effect of extracurriculars on students’ grades and
future success, and I think it’s a shame that the film did nothing to
address them.

Instead, the film spends a few minutes pointing out that kids who
don’t finish school are more likely to end up in prison. We get a little
info-cartoon to show how it costs more taxpayer money to send someone
to prison than it does to send him to school. I have my own thoughts on
what to do about that, but prison reform is another debate entirely.

Last but not least, there’s the movie’s central gimmick which I’m
sure you’ve all heard of by now. Guggenheim attempts to make the crisis
more personal by profiling kids who are struggling with the system;
remarkably brilliant and ambitious kids who may get a second-class
education or none at all because of how flawed the system is. It’s a
nice touch and there’s a good amount of diversity in the kids shown, but
not enough for my liking: Of the five kids shown, only one was in high
school. The rest were in elementary or pre-school. As adorable as the
kids were, I think it would have been a lot more help to the movie if we
had seen some more kids in middle or high school who were struggling.

There’s not a doubt in my mind that Waiting for “Superman” is
not a complete and authoritative look at the education crisis. Not by a
long shot. Still, I can understand that to some degree since this is a
very complicated matter. I still learned a lot from this documentary and
I can recommend it as a nice crash course on our education system and
all its various flaws. Love it or hate it, agree with it or don’t, this
is a thoughtful and not-quite-preachy movie about a matter that demands
immediate attention.