By Michelle Chung
It's the message of many American childhoods: children are taught that with an idea, hard work, and an education they can achieve great things. The reality is that despite plentiful ambition and diligence, many young people across the nation are denied the education necessary to actualize their dreams. Director and co-writer Davis Guggenheim addresses the subject of the broken American school system in his new documentary, “Waiting for Superman.”
The film follows the journey of five children and their families from across the country in their efforts to find and gain admission to better schools. The children attend overcrowded and under-performing schools. The schools they want to go to have far more applicants than open spots and a randomized lottery is the only way in.
Anthony is a fifth grader in Washington D.C. who lives with his grandmother after the death of his father in 2004. Francisco is a kindergartener who lives with his mother in the Bronx; he likes math and hopes to become a “recorder” (a filmmaker). Daisy is a fifth grader with dreams of becoming a surgeon to “help someone in need.” She lives in Los Angeles with her parents who, despite being unable to finish their own educations, rally behind their daughter so she might complete her own.
Kindergartener Bianca and her dedicated mother, Nakia, hope that she will be able to attend a charter school rather than the public one nearby. Finally, there is Emily, the only student who is not from an urban area. Emily lives with her family in Redwood City — a wealthy suburb of San Francisco — and hopes to attend a preparatory school that would allow her to continue high school without the limits and pressures of a track system.
While a number of factors such as poor funding and bureaucracy contribute to the problems, Guggenheim puts the majority of the blame on teachers' unions, particularly the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. He believes that these unions value the job security of their members above providing a quality education for students.
Guggenheim shares sobering facts. For example, in one California school only 20,000 of 60,000 students over its forty year history have graduated; New York City wastes 100 million dollars a year on maintaining reassignment centers (“rubber rooms”) where teachers, whose offenses range from consistent tardiness to sexual abuse, are kept out of classrooms for seven-hours a day and paid full salary.
“Superman” is not entirely devoid of hope though. Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, two teachers behind the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools, Geoffrey Canada, president of the Harlem Children Zone, and Washington D.C.'s crusading Chancellor of Education, Michelle Rhee, are several of the inspiring educators and reformers featured throughout the film.
While flawed at times, “Superman” is a compelling reminder that failing schools hurt not only the impersonal entity that is “our nation,” but first and foremost, they hurt eager, bright children with real goals and ambitions of their own. Life is filled with its share of inequalities, but “Superman” urges viewers to realize that education should not be among them.