Waiting for ‘Superman’ (2010)

6 May

‘An Inconvenient Truth’ director Davis Guggenheim and ‘Simpsons’ writer Billy Kimball collaborate for this investigation of America’s troubled education system. In 1999, Guggenheim made ‘The First Year’, a documentary about five young teachers struggling to adjust to life in an inner city public school. Ten years later, he is a father who drives past three public schools on his way to the private school where he has chosen to place his kids. This served as the impetus for Guggenheim and Kimball to explore the lives behind the statistics, interviewing notable figures and following children from across the economic spectrum to get some sense of the tangled, imbalanced nature of the situation.

Despite years of ‘lip service and political bickering’, the ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act of 2001 was intended to curb the gradual decline of America’s public schools, which had been amongst the best in the world until the ‘70s. Of the top thirty developed countries, America is 25th in maths and 21st in science. Eight years later, and the achievement gap continues to widen; the rate of child literacy and numeracy in certain parts of the country is as low as 12%. Certain inner city schools have been branded ‘dropout factories’ with a consequent rise in the prison population, costing the state $33,000 per year, per inmate – enough to pay for private schooling, with $24,000 left over for college.

Like ‘Sicko’, ‘Waiting for Superman’ addresses a domestic issue with global implications; the American model, for better or worse, is still looked upon by certain ideologues as an ideal to which they must strive – when America sneezes the world invariably catches a cold. For international viewers, the film is a chilling window into a world where opportunity goes hand in hand with inequality. Education is indicative of a wider trend where a child’s prospects are largely determined by the economic stability of their upbringing, the drivers of social mobility cease to function and the cycle of deprivation is reinforced. It is a tragedy to see the plight of children like Daisy, a precocious girl who wants to be a vet, and Bianca, who can’t graduate because her mother has fallen behind on the tuition fees.

Bill Gates sounds a note of caution on behalf of the business community, outlining that high-tech industries require a highly-skilled, well-educated workforce, and that demand is rapidly outstripping supply in this regard. But the picture is not entirely grim; there are those who are trying to prevent schools from failing the communities they serve. Geoffrey Canada’s story is an inspiring one; an educator with a vision for ‘education in the nation’, he established the Success Academy in Harlem, an area with twice the unemployment rate of the rest of New York. Canada is an expansive, charismatic figure who refuses to give up on kids who have been given ‘the short end of the stick’ by a ‘cold, heartless world’, and the results he has garnered for his pupils speak for themselves.

Michelle Rhee, on the other hand, is a somewhat more divisive figure. The chancellor of DC public schools – an area that provides a microcosm for the system as a whole – Rhee admits that the majority of kids in her district are getting a ‘crappy education’. However, her reform plans – firing thirty principles, cutting four-hundred jobs, closing twenty-three schools – are met with suspicion by the public and anger by the unions. One of the film’s major failings is its refusal to take Rhee to task on how her closure plans would affect the already poor communities in which these failing schools are located, and to simply paint her as a victim whose bold vision is crushed by a pact between organized labour and the political elite.

Unfortunately, the minuses outweigh the pluses, both stylistically and ideologically. ‘Waiting for Superman’ belabours its often obvious points; documentaries work best when they are succinct, and losing ten minutes from the running time would have helped – clips from ‘School of Rock’ and ‘the Simpsons’ only serve to trivialize its argument. There are some conspicuously staged moments, dramatic inserts and overly composed tracking shots that remove one from the reality of what is being depicted, while the animation used to present statistics has an air of condescension about it, as if the viewer cannot be trusted to assimilate the information without a jaunty graphic.

‘Waiting for Superman’s’ broad, glossy emotive sweep fails to take into account a number of pertinent issues, such as the rise of corporate sponsorship in public schools and the role of faith schools. Whether or not these omissions are part of a concerted pattern of obfuscation is unclear, but any authoritative study of the issue cannot fail to take these factors into account. The film presents a jaundiced view of unions, suggesting that their campaign contributions are aberrant, rather than standard practice for any corporation or organization, and implies that teaches are ‘disincentivized’ by job security and need inducements in order to perform better. The assertion that funding is not a problem is one of the film’s most ludicrous contentions, given the dire conditions captured in the ‘academic sinkholes’ they visit. Its intentions may be honourable, but for whatever reason, ‘Waiting for Superman’ shies away from some of the more contentious root causes and incipient problems of this increasingly unfair, arbitrary state of affairs.

Guggenheim and Gates on 'Oprah'.

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  1. Waiting for ‘Superman’ (2010) | Γονείς σε Δράση - May 7, 2011

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