From The Grio — By R. L’Heureux Lewis — Waiting for Superman is a powerful film about educational reform and the potential of our schools from the same team that brought us the Academy Award winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Unfortunately the filmmakers leave the audience hoping for a change that is as likely as a caped crusader appearing in real life.
While the film taps into the concerns that many of us have towards a failing educational system, it fails to provide a full portrait of what is really happening in the nation’s schools. If you’re interested in heart wrenching stories, see this film. But if you are interested in changing education make sure you bring your x-ray vision so you can see beyond the veil of what the filmmakers are advocating.
The film opens with an interview of Anthony, a young black boy enrolled in a Washington, D.C. school. We learn that Anthony’s father died years earlier from a possible drug overdose and his grandmother is now raising him in a poverty stricken neighborhood. With poise he answers math questions and in his eyes you see the glimmer of potential and high educational hopes. Unfortunately Anthony is slotted to attend a failing middle school that feeds into a high school nationally known as a “dropout factory” where 40 percent of students fail to graduate. This is an all too common reality many black, brown and poor students in the United States.
The happy ending to this story is to come by Anthony being rescued by an innovative new D.C. charter boarding school. The catch is that this salvation is only available to a few via a lottery. The lottery exists because when more people enroll in charter school than they can accommodate they must use a lottery system to determine admission. Guggenheim and filmmakers lament this point and stress “we know what works” but we leave success up to chance for our young people.
The story of Anthony and the other families that are followed are touching but do not tell the full reality of schooling, particularly in charter schools. Behind the heart tugging narrative lies an inconvenient truth, that charter schools on average actually perform no better than traditional public schools and often perform worse! In the nearly two-hour film this reality is tucked in a sound byte where the film confesses only 1 in 5 charter schools is excelling. Yes, you read that right, 80 percent of charter schools do no better or fare worse than traditional public schools. It is clear this research finding does not deter the filmmakers, but viewers should not be so quick to skip it. The Stanford’s CREDO National Charter School Study has done the most comprehensive work on charter schools and found that they are far from a cure all for educational woes.
Waiting for Superman spares no punches as educational administrators and authors take shot after shot at blaming teacher unions for blocking educational reform. Jonathan Alter of Newsweek sums up a message the film is trying to get across, “Teachers are great, a national treasure. Teachers’ unions are, generally speaking, a menace and an impediment to reform.” The villains of the families are made clear when the presidents of theAmerican Federation for Teachers and National Education Association enter the screen and ominous music forecasts their discussion of securing teacher’s jobs which is equated to sabotaging masses of children who will be saddled with poor quality teachers.