As promised, I have a review of David Guggenheim’s film Waiting for “Superman” (Can someone please tell me why Superman is both italicized and in quotation marks in the title?). Last night, the Creative Artists Agency hosted a special pre-screening of current members and alumni of Education Pioneers and Teach For America before the movie is in theaters in fall. Before I go further, I want to give you the option to pledge as I did to see the movie. I’ve added a widget where you can make the pledge. The film will be out on a limited release and is banking on a good showing the first weekend to have a wider release. I highly recommend you go the first weekend. It will be well worth it. I have made the pledge to go see it again and I don’t watch movies twice. On to the review.
Waiting for “Superman” has a striking resemblance to The Lottery. Both follow students as they try to get into charter schools. Both show unions in a particularly unglamorous light and of course charters in a golden glow. However, “Superman” is a much broader film. Where The Lottery tries to stick with the narrative of the students, Waiting for “Superman” goes into the politics and history of education reform. It shows president after president starting with Johnson promising that education would be the single most important issue that they handle. While The Lottery showed an occasional fact here and there about the dire situation our nation’s children are in, “Superman” blasts you with facts, graphs, and animations detailing everything from dropout rates at specific schools to comparisons of American education to other countries. Just as in his last big documentary, Guggenheim fills an hour and a half to the brim with numbers and drama. Every second that you are sitting there waiting for the announcer to call number three for Anthony to get a spot in SEED. I won’t say what happens to each of the students, but you know from the numbers that the odds are against them all. And that is the point. What “Superman” does so well is to illustrate the immense challenges that students, especially those from underprivileged families, are up against. The Lottery does this, too, but “Superman” illustrates it as a problem for America, not just a problem for these families.
The beauty of “Superman” is in the metaphors it creates. The title refers to Geoffrey Canada’s realization as a child that there was no Superman that would come and save him from his life. Children across the country can’t rely on Superman to whisk them away from all of their troubles. Instead, it gives a view of what needs to be done if we are going to improve our schools. It advocates what many in the edublogosphere promote and what Obama would like to see: the demolition of a system that treats all teachers the same, no matter their proficiency. It bemoans the difficulties that districts have had in getting rid of bad teachers, showing clips of one mother trying relentlessly to get in touch with her son’s teacher as well as video evidence of New York City’s rubber rooms. It shows clips of unions fighting against policies that seem to be the best for students.
I don’t know whether Waiting for “Superman” will accomplish its task of getting a wide enough audience motivated to not only see the movie, but to act. Most Americans claim that education is one of the most important things to consider when voting, yet people rarely vote based on education. Sex and violence tend to capture more attention. I think perhaps the timing of the film could be useful, though. The movie comes out in fall. It just so happens that fall is when mid-term elections and many gubernatorial races will be decided. If there is enough word about it, then it’s possible candidates could be swayed as much as they are by the unions. I do think that due to the timing, the movie doesn’t illustrate the turning tide that there seems to be. We see the DC teachers’ contract falling through, but we don’t see that it was recently ratified. The rubber rooms in New York that were mentioned just recently closed. New Haven and Colorado also have new standards for teacher pay and tenure. If Waiting for “Superman” does its job, we may see big changes like these on a national scale.