Just before the start of the school year, five children are entered into a lottery. The winners receive a good education. The losers receive a one-way ticket to a failing school. The kids are from every part of the country: a fifth-grader from L.A., a first-grader from the Bronx, an eighth-grader from Silicon Valley, a fifth-grader from Washington D.C. and a kindergartner from Harlem. These lotteries are publicly held, using bingo balls, randomized computer programs, and names being pulled out of a box. The children wait in silence, and hope for their number to be called.
These five kids are the focus of “Waiting for Superman”, a call-to-action documentary about the failure of America’s public education system. The film follows the kids as their parents struggle to enroll them in the best and most competitive charter and experimental schools, as an alternative to the education sinkholes in their counties. Each of them is entered into a lottery for a select number of spots in the schools. If not selected, their fate is tied to some of the absolute worst schools in the country, with graduation rates hovering around the 30 percent mark. The stakes for these kids could not be higher.
These failing schools are not just endemic to the inner-city, according to the filmmaker Davis Guggenheim. Emily, the eighth-grader from Silicon Valley, will soon graduate middle school and ascend to a high school in her district just as bad as schools in the middle of the Bronx or L.A. Guggenheim singles out two issues that are at the heart of the failing education system. First, school districts and their funding are subject to a massive bureaucracy. This bogs down the system so that little substantive change can be made efficiently. Second, the teachers unions fail to hold bad teachers accountable and, due to tenure clauses, poor teachers are impossible to fire.
Michelle Rhee, the Superintendent of the Washington D.C. school system, is given a large focus in the film as she tries to fundamentally reverse the D.C school system, which is racing to the bottom. 62 percent of fourth-graders in the nation’s capital lack basic math skills, 74 percent for eighth-graders. Only 18 percent of students in the district perform at grade level. Rhee’s goal is to transform the system into a new standard for the country to follow. Her quest represents one of the lowest and angriest parts of the film as she futilely tries to break the vicious cycle.
She closes 23 of the worst performing schools, fires the most incompetent principals and reduces bureaucratic control. Even with these achievements, her greatest enemy remains the teachers union. A clause in its contract with the district grants teachers tenure after only a few years of teaching. This guarantees them a job for life but makes it impossible to fire a bad teacher. Rhee drafts a new contract that would trade tenure for merit pay, which would reward the best teachers with six figure salaries. The union refused to even come to the table.
Guggenheim finds a potential solution to this broken system in the form of charter schools, which receive public money but are not subject to the rules and regulations of the district and are independently run. These schools offer the most experimental curriculums, often having longer school days and one-to-one education. The SEED school, for example, is the first inner-city boarding school in the country. Anthony, the fifth-grader from D.C., is one of 64 kids applying for SEED’s 24 available spots.
This brings Anthony and the other students to their lotteries. These scenes are the most heartbreaking in the film. They sit among hundreds of other families, all vying for the same spots. They wait in a gymnasium, an auditorium, a sports arena and outside in the sun. Guggenheim lingers the camera on the young faces he’s been following, holding the shot until the final numbers are called. The results are as expected — only two of the five get into the school of their choice. The rest are sent on their way.
Guggenheim is likely to win an Oscar for this documentary under the very same circumstances as his previous win for “An Inconvenient Truth.” Today, we can clearly see that win as a Pyrrhic victory. Guggenheim won a shiny gold statue for bringing to light the danger of global warming, but that film ultimately failed to end the debate on climate change, and many today still deny it’s existence.
It’s easy to see “Waiting for Superman” suffer from the very same fate. An Oscar win will have no affect on the children who are being cheated by an education system that is fundamentally broken. No child is unaffected by it, whether he or she is raised in a poverty-stricken city or a safe and secure suburb. Guggenheim is constantly looking for a savior, but he never finds one. All he can do is raise awareness, and hope that enough people stand up and do something. Otherwise, we’re just looking up at the sky, waiting for a flying hero but only seeing a bird and a plane.
“Waiting for Superman” is currently playing at Regal Cinemas Gainesville 14 in Butler Plaza