Davis Guggenheim’s last documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, put the critical issue of climate change on the table for worldwide discussion (if not, sadly, much action). In his new film, Waiting For Superman, Guggenheim tackles a subject far less abstract and every bit as urgent: the education of America’s children. Failure to arrest the ongoing decline in the quality of our school system in the last 30+ years could produce results as devastating as global warming, and far more tangible to the average American: dropouts, hopelessness, joblessness, increasing drug and crime rates, and overburdened judiciary and prison systems devouring tax dollars that would be much better spent on preventive education.
According to Guggenheim’s thoughtful and persuasive argument, the obstacles to improving our public schools are much the same as those opposing any realistic solution to global warming —bureaucracy, inertia, and the easy-out mindset that nothing can be done. Guggenheim begs to differ. While the ranking of the U.S. educational system has plummeted from first in the western world in the mid-1970s to the dismal low-20s now, he focuses on private charter schools (the KIPP schools, nationwide; Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Success Academy) showing incredible results with motivated, low-income, inner-city kids. Problem is, there aren’t enough of these schools; 760 applicants for 35 places in a typical ratio. Why can’t every school achieve these results? Guggenheim dares to lay some blame on the intractable teachers’ union (American Federation of Teachers), once an important tool for teachers’ rights in labor relations that has become a bloated, ineffectual bureaucracy conferring tenure for life on any teacher “still breathing” (in Canada’s opinion) after two years; bad teachers cannot be fired, nor effective teachers rewarded.
(When incoming Washington DC public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee proposes firing ineffective principals and offering teachers the incentive of merit raises in exchange for their tenure, the AFT won’t even allow its members to vote on it.) Guggenheim personalizes his argument with stories of plucky, real-life children struggling for a future, who can’t wait for a “Superman to come save them,” then suggests (over the closing credits and in a flier available in the lobby) on how to get involved at the community level, encouraging each one of us to embrace our inner Superman and work for the change our children and our own futures depend on. (PG) 104 minutes. Watch film trailer >>> (★★★1/2)