When Davis Guggenheim spoke at the EWA conference in May about his education reform documentary “Waiting for Superman,” he said, “This really is not about ‘charters good, mainstream bad.’” Yet anyone who has seen the film, as I did yesterday, would say it is constructed precisely that way: A set of children waits to find out if they get into the charter schools that we are led to believe are the only hope for them. Unfortunately we don’t get to see for ourselves what is so lousy about these kids’ current schools or even what is great about the ones they aspire to, which is a shame. Guggenheim gives us data on outcomes but really only brings us into bad classrooms via clips from “The Simpsons” and “School of Rock.” Surely Michelle Rhee, who let cameras film her firing a principal, would allow a sympathetic filmmaker into school? And Guggenheim mentions in the film that only one in five charters is producing results. Even if we saw up close that each of these children’s particular schools were awful and the charters they sought were awesome—which may be the case—is that polarity a fair representation of the entire education reform issue?
Guggenheim also said at the EWA conference, “This film is not anti-union.” Um. “Superman” clearly posits that the main barrier to better schools are bad teachers, and the main barriers to that are bureaucracies and teachers unions. There must be a sound file labeled “teachers unions” that filmmakers go to these days, seeking scary background music every time the AFT is discussed.
I worry about such reductive messaging in a film that is generally powerful and well-made and says important things about the inadequate outcomes and occasional inanities of the current system (rubber room, dance of the lemons). The adorable children and dedicated parents Guggenheim features are compelling—though perhaps not fleshed out enough to make this a date-night documentary the way, say, “Spellbound” was. It might be that my perspective on that is skewed, married as I am to someone who wouldn’t go with me to see Guggenheim’s last movie, “An Inconvenient Truth.” (“X-Men: The Last Stand” and “Batman Begins” came out that summer. Priorities!)
If you visit here often, you know the Educated Reporter is more than a little obsessed with proper use of statistics. I do think Guggenheim meant that 12 percent of D.C. eighth graders scored below grade level, rather than that they scored “12 percent of grade level,” and I am curious what research shows that students are tracked based on “neatness and politeness.” But as far as I could tell he was admirably accurate, citing sources on the clever, clear graphics he uses and avoiding oft-used fictoids about education. He even edited the film after a colleague and I pointed out an error in a clip we saw in May.
The film ends with the students attending the lotteries of the charters they applied to. Yes, I teared up. I have said it before and will say it again: Why are little kids brought to these lotteries? Guggenheim is not the only one setting up a stark dichotomy; some of these kids clearly have been made to feel in their bones that they are doomed if the bingo balls don’t fall their way. Does telling that to a seven-year-old striver hurt her or help her in the long run? Since watching the film I haven’t stopped wondering.