By Arthur Briggs
Documentaries, by their nature, are directed. Much like in a fiction narrative film, a documentary is not an unfiltered view of reality; it is a collection of images and sounds constructed by the director and editor to produce a work that will elicit a specific response in the viewer.
The difference is that a documentary uses facts and (hopefully) true information to elicit this response—even if this response is rather vague, as in understanding and respecting nature in March of the Penguins.
Davis Guggenheim, director of Waiting for Superman, clearly understands this concept. In his new film as in his previous effort, An Inconvenient Truth, Guggenheim uses facts and information to elicit an emotional response on a complex issue.
He succeeds magnificently.
Waiting for Superman weaves several stories into a classic tale of heroes, villains, and those poor souls trapped in the middle—and, frighteningly, it’s all true. As in An Inconvenient Truth, Guggenheim spends much of the film presenting statistics that support his main contention: business as usual in the nation’s public school systems has poisoned public education and is breeding a generation of people without the necessary skills and information to thrive in the rapidly specializing work force and is therefore reducing their confidence and widening the achievement gap.
He points out that a large portion of the nation’s public schools (around 1,700 high schools, or 12 percent of the total) can be classified as dropout factories, schools where less than 60 percent of fourth-year students graduate annually. He points out that most students entering the California university system are unprepared for college and must take remedial classes to begin their higher education. He observes that test scores in the United States are some of the lowest in the developed world, yet students’ confidence in their abilities is the highest (the self-esteem trap). He points out that eliminating the 10 percent of lowest-performing teachers could bring U.S. students’ testing levels up among the highest in the developing world.
He does all of this through attractive graphics and interviews with the “heroes” of school reform—people like Geoffrey Canada, developer of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which has provided services to one of the worst school districts in the country, and Michelle Rhee, the no-holds-barred superintendant of Washington D.C.’s public school system, who has pressed for sweeping changes to the awful public schools in the nation’s capitol. He discusses the successes of various charter school programs across the country, which have managed to avoid many of the pitfalls that beset the public schools despite much resistance from the education establishment. Charter schools are public schools that are relieved of some of the restrictions other public schools endure, and are hence less under the power of the establishment.
But every hero needs a villain, and in this case it’s the National Education Association (NEA). Guggenheim thoroughly investigates the NEA’s efforts to block education reform, to keep failing teachers in the classroom, to impress the concept of tenure on schools, and to be a general nuisance to everyone who wants to improve education.
Guggenheim repeatedly positions clips discussing ways people have attempted to reform schools, with images of Randi Weingarten, an NEA spokesperson, railing against said reforms with the fanaticism of a mad shaman or a National Socialist rabble rouser. This is especially distressing when one considers that communities across the nation force children to spend much of their young lives in a depraved and failing system.
And that’s when Waiting for Superman strikes the knockout blow. Guggenheim sprinkles in interviews with parents and children attempting to get into the limited spots available at the local charter schools, along with the astronomical odds of them being selected (randomly, of course). In the end, we see them at the drawings, hoping that their number will be called, and we realize that most of our nation’s children will not get into a program like this and will instead end up in a failing or underperforming school.
It’s only after seeing all the numbers, hearing all the stories, and watching the heroes and villains speak, that the audience is confronted with the fact that all those numbers, millions, are real humans with real hopes and dreams, young people who deserve a chance to succeed yet will almost certainly face the education demon and fall in defeat.