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Movie Review: Waiting for Superman

October 15, 2010

Every several months comes a documentary on a topic of great importance—climate change, nutrition, nuclear threat and people suffering from oppression and want the world over. Waiting for Superman follows the usual formula of sobering facts and statistics, talking heads, clever animations and compelling human interest stories.

There are jaw-dropping statistics like the $100 million that New York City pays every year to teachers in the Board of Ed’s notorious “Rubber Room”—a kind of holding cell for those under investigation for gross misconduct or incompetence. Or the fact that the cost of an average prison sentence (four years) could underwrite a child’s entire private education from kindergarten through high school, with some money left over toward college. And depressing examples of high schools with a near 75% drop-out rate—the schools rightly called “failure factories”—and the all too cogent explanations of why these failures come to be.

And it’s also about a topic fraught with debate and opinion. After all, we’ve all been in school, many of us have children in school, and the whole problem of public education is a knotty and difficult one, with many moving parts. So I can’t imagine anyone walking out of this movie without a quibble—it’s a controversial issue for a reason. The screening I attended was full of teachers and at parts there were audible buzzes of resistance and protest. Certainly the AFT’s Randi Weingarten might feel villainized.

But I also can’t imagine anyone walking out of this movie unmoved, or uninspired, by Bianca, Anthony, Daisy, Francisco and Emily, the five children who all want so desperately to learn, and who deserve so much better than they get.

And it’s not just the kids, but their families, who want so much for them, and try so hard to get it for them. And the fact that these five kids represent the millions of underserved students in our country who never get a decent shot at education.

There is also the articulate commentary and inspirational leadership of Geoffrey Canada, from the Harlem Success Academy, and Michelle Rhee, the fearless Washington D.C. schools chancellor who resigned just this week due to political pressures (Fenty, the mayor who appointed her, lost the primary for the upcoming election).

As for me, my main quibble is the primary emphasis on charter schools, as though the impossibility of working within the system is a given and charter schools the only hope. And yet Davis Guggenheim, the filmmaker, also tells us that 4/5 of charter schools are themselves failures.

What’s missing from the whole equation is the political will to make tough decisions, like shifting spending from prisons to schools, and ending the AFT’s stranglehold on our country. And that political will can only come from us, the American voters. So this is one documentary I left feeling hopeful. Go see Waiting for Superman. Encourage your friends to see it. And then let’s start voting for the kids. As Rhee states repeatedly: it’s not about the adults. It’s about the kids.

Waiting for Superman makes that clear, and as a movie, that’s the thing it does best.


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