Despite political stumping, parental involvement, reform and millions and millions of dollars, the United States' public school system has made little progress since the 1970's. There are surprising reasons, but today's public school kids might as well be "Waiting for Superman."
"An Inconvenient Truth” director Davis Guggenheim, along with cowriter Billy Kimball, tackles a complex issue - the failure of United States public education system - and comes up with an interesting conclusion, one that's already drawn the same political fire that can be seen in the film. But the film itself rambles and the lack of focus and paucity of provided evidence blunts its message (Are 1 in 10 teachers really this bad? What about the families that don't bother to apply for charter schools - would their kids do just as well there?). The film concludes with an over-extended 'suspense' piece ripped from the likes of "Spellbound" that further muddles the film's pacing and appeals more to the emotion than the intellect. Still, "Waiting for Superman" has taken on a huge task and opened more than one worthy discussion.
The film begins with highly entertaining educator Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, an area that contains a Harlem charter School one of Guggenheim's five kids will attempt to get into (spaces are limited and allocated by lottery). He's the guy who makes the Superman analogy, telling of his disappointment when his mom told him the superhero was not real. Later, as a new teacher, he was determined to fix public education. Then he met the system.
Guggenheim uses charts and graphs to show how we've fallen behind, how we spend twice as much to educate a child but how horrific our reading and math proficiency scores are. The problem, he concludes, is bad teachers protected by two powerful teaching unions who grant teachers tenure that makes them all but impossible to fire. Guggenheim inserts a video shot from a student's book bag showing a classroom where a teacher reads the paper as students shoot craps and discusses New York State's 'rubber room,' where teachers under investigation for everything from sexual misconduct to incompetence are paid full salary while they wait up to eight months for hearings. But if teaching is a calling, how do so many end up this way? I, for one, would have appreciated a larger illustration of the problem.
Instead, Guggenheim humanizes his film by following five students and not all of them are really all that compelling. Daisy in L.A. wants to be a vet or a surgeon and is so precocious, she's already written to the college she wants to attend and Anthony in D.C. has a hilarious way with words and a grandmother trying to undo generational harm (her son, Anthony's dad, died of an overdose). But Bianca in New York is a blank slate whose story is all about her feisty mother, a mom struggling to pay for a private education and failing. Neither Francisco nor his family are of any interest and Emily is used merely to contrast a wealthy neighborhood with the poorer ones.
Perhaps the most interesting observation made in the film is that bad neighborhoods don't produce bad schools, instead 'dropout factories' cause the neighborhoods around them to fail. From an economic standpoint, Guggenheim points out that in the midst of a recession with high unemployment, high tech companies are forced to import employees from abroad because they cannot find the skill sets in U.S. applicants. Consider the future of the United States if things continue as they are now - another fissure in the foundation of the country.
Besides Canada, Guggenheim spends a lot of time with Michelle Rhee, the D.C. education head trying to push through reform which would enable teachers to double their salaries based on merit raises if they'd give up tenure. Meanwhile, after a brief history on why it came to be, the American Federation of Teacher's union's Randi Weingarten fights to protect hard won benefits.
If it engenders reform, more power to it, but hopefully Guggenheim's film will also inspire more filmmakers to dig into the cause with more laser-tuned focus.
Robin did not see this film.
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