Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Davis Guggenheim

MPAA Rating: PG (for some thematic material, mild language and incidental smoking)

Running Time: 1:42

Release Date: 9/24/10 (limited); 10/1/10 (wider); 10/8/10 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 30, 2010

The public education crisis in the United States is seen for exactly the national tragedy that it is in Waiting for "Superman." In general, our children are not learning, and Davis Guggenheim's exploration of why and the results of a political, social, and moral failure is a damning indictment of a failed system, a document offering hope, and a fervent call to action.

The film comes from a personal place for Guggenheim and transcends his own theoretical skepticism to the reality of many others. He has his own children to put through school, and, as much as he feels the need to support and show faith in public education, the fear of his own children entering a failing school—dubbed so bluntly as "drop-out factories" by many—overshadows even the most idealistic viewpoints.

"I have a choice," Guggenheim, taking on the role of narrator, says, and then he shows us children and families who do not have such a luxury.

All of these kids have commonalities. They all want to learn, because they have goals. Fifth-grader Daisy from East Los Angles wants to become a doctor, nurse, or veterinarian, because she loves animals and wants to help people in need. Anthony from Washington, D.C., wants to be able to give his own children the opportunity to grow up in a better environment than the one he's in. Anthony, by the way, does not have kids, is not thinking of having children any time in the near future, and is 10 years old.

This is the pressure on these children, who might be accomplished students like Anthony and Daisy but who cannot reach the fullest of their potential at a poorly performing school. Others, like Emily from a well-to-do neighborhood near San Jose and Francisco from the Bronx, are trapped in schools that might or are overlooking them. Emily, on her way to high school, is underperforming in math and, due to an archaic placement structure put in place when college wasn't a necessity for future employment, might end up in a lower curriculum. First-grader Francisco has trouble reading, and his mother cannot, after multiple phone calls, get in touch with his teacher to discuss her son's options and need for special attention.

His mom, like all the other members of the kid's immediate family, wants the best for her child. Harlem resident Bianca's mother is working multiple jobs so her daughter can attend a private school that is literally across the street from their apartment. Daisy's dad is unemployed. Anthony's father died of a drug overdose, and he now lives with his grandmother, who knows from her own experience and watching her son how important Anthony's education will be, not only to his success but to his survival.

Guggenheim shatters a few preconceptions, like research showing that poor neighborhoods do not account for failing schools but that the opposite is more likely. Charter schools, private institutions that receive public funding, are not the automatic and miraculous answer to fixing the problem, as only one in five produce results (The lottery for entry, which makes up the film's climax and as fair is it may be, is a sort of agony for the participants). Poor public education is a dominating factor in a struggling economy, Bill Gates argues. The United States has over 123 million jobs available in the fields of technology, but less than half of Americans are qualified for those positions.

And again, there are the teachers' unions. Guggenheim shows the "Rubber Room" in New York City, where teachers suspended for misconduct, which includes physical and sexual abuse, sit.  They sit all day—reading, napping, playing cards. They are paid full salary while they await the results of hearings, some of which may take years to complete. Then there's the "Dance of the Lemons," in which the principals of schools exchange bad teachers with those of another school, hoping that their new educators won't be as terrible as the ones they purged (Like a lot of the crazy concepts, it's animated for our appalled amusement).

The unions—it should be clear by now—need reforming just as much as the public education system itself. That does not mean elimination (and Guggenheim reminds us why unions for teachers exist in the first place), but it does mean new standards where the needs of students come first.

That is where the hope of Waiting for "Superman" arrives in the form of educators doing what they're supposed to do, putting themselves second to their students and without political concerns. Geoffrey Canada, CEO and President of Harlem Children's Zone,  is one, who was devastated as a child to learn that Superman wasn't real and has decided to work to save others himself. So what are we going to do?

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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