Director: Davis Guggenheim
Featuring: Geoffrey Canada, Michelle Rhee, Bill Strickland & Davis Guggenheim

1/2 (out of five)

There are several issues at play in Davis Guggenheim’s latest zeitgeist-tapping, Oscar-baiting, tear-jearking documentary, Waiting for Superman, and some of the scatter-shot pinpointing pokes holes in what seems to be Guggenheim’s central thesis: charter schools are the wave of the future and teacher’s unions are bad. While, at heart, this isn’t a terrible line of thought, this issue is complex and ignores the instances where charter schools are unsuccessful and teacher’s unions are advocates for a grossly put upon and poorly paid profession. Guggenheim, who previously guided Al Gore to a Nobel Peace Prize with An Inconvenient Truth, again has no trouble courting controversy. The director latches on to a very conservative, capitalist notion of education reform, some aspects of which (merit pay being the highest profile) are taking hold in today’s discussion, and ignoring the minutia of community/familial complications, poor teachers at younger, more impressionable levels, resources (or lack thereof), and support for new educators.
Guggenheim also ignores how other countries may have found success. He regularly cites experts and studies who have no shortage of information on how almost every other industrialized nation is stomping us in almost every quantifiable educational statistic, but there is no mention of the things these countries are doing correctly. It’s true what’s good for one may not benefit the other, but that Waiting for Superman only discusses the options which have been presented by Americans and completely ignores the tremendous successes and continually growing distance between these other nations and the USA.
Waiting For Superman‘s biggest sin is one of omission. When you have a documentary about education and your interviews are with two groups of people, students and administration, and you have no representation from the third, and second most important, party (after students), teachers, aren’t we missing something?
Guggenheim’s bias against teachers extends so far as to almost exclusively show poor teachers. One very telling sequence features dozens of teachers in bureaucratic limbo in New York City. This room full of damned teachers–on probation for various offenses–waiting for re-assignment, costs loads of money to New York and represents how almost impossible it is to fire teachers for anything shy of molestation. It’s a vivid and scary picture. But it omits a larger truth behind the foul cries about “unfireable” teachers: where are all these “good” educators who are going to take those positions? I don’t want a bad teacher in any classroom, but there isn’t a bevy of quality educators knocking down school doors looking for employment.
That is emblematic of Guggenheim’s film. There are so many viscerally frightening illustrations peppered throughout–the narratives following the families trying to get into charters is especially touching, but this is part of the director’s vanishing act. He presents us with these, admittedly, complex, heart-breaking tales of woe and undereducated children with aspirations of medical school or college, but he doesn’t tackle the sources of ANY of the issues he raises, and only presents scant, single-minded solutions.
For what the documentary sets out to discuss, it does certain things admirably, and it’s central mantra–it’s about the kids, not the adults–are words everyone in education may want to consider a little more often. If this spurns a legitimate discussion about much-needed educational reform, than it deserves the Oscar(s) it will probably net, but if we’re still fighting over charter schools and merit pay in a decade, I hope more see that, at best, Guggenheim is a well-intentioned charlatan.