Oct. 21 2010 12:00 AM

'Waiting for Superman' looks for answers about our educational system

“Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?”
former President George W. Bush memorably mused a decade ago. That’s exactly
what director Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth,” “It Might Get Loud”)
asks in “Waiting for Superman,” a film that ultimately raises more questions
than it answers.

That’s not a bad thing at all. Even if you object to
Guggenheim’s findings or what he leaves in or leaves out, “Waiting” is a great
conversation-starter about a topic we should all be discussing. In the wake of
the much-ridiculed, much-vilified “No Child Left Behind” program, Guggenheim
sees a system in which plenty of children are not only left behind, they’re
left in the dust.

The film gets its title from a scene lifted from the 1950s
“Superman” TV series, in which a school bus that’s about to plunge into a
ravine is seized by Superman, who arrives in the nick of time and saves the
terrified kids by carrying the vehicle to safety.

If there’s an all-powerful hero about to swoop down and
rescue millions of American students from an equally dismal fate, Guggenheim
doesn’t see that savior on the horizon. What he does see is an educational
system in which too many administrators fret over standardized test scores and
pay little attention to what’s actually going on in classrooms.

The movie saves
some of its sharpest jabs for the American Federation of Teachers, which it
sees as an organization dedicated to protecting tenured teachers, even if they
are mediocre, uncaring or downright lazy. In an animated segment that’s both
funny and infuriating at the same time, Guggenheim illustrates how the power of
the union ensures that inadequate educators are simply shuttled around their
districts from school to school instead of being replaced (the procedure is
alternately known as “the dance of the lemons,” “pass the trash” or “the turkey
trot”). In clips from her speeches, AFT president Randi Weingarten comes across
as shrill and uncompromising; she’s a perhaps too-convenient walking target for
Guggenheim’s scorn.

Some of the film’s most unsettling moments are provided by
the scary statistics about urban high schools, many of which have been
nicknamed “dropout factories.” These are the dire destinations awaiting kids
like Daisy, a 10-year-old in Los Angeles, whose eyes sparkle when she talks of
one day becoming a nurse or a veterinarian.

If she winds up staying in her own neighborhood, however,
Daisy’s chances of fulfilling her dreams are laughably low, and her mom and dad
know it. So they, like several of the other families Guggenheim profiles, are
entering their child in a lottery, hoping to secure a spot in a charter school
or a private academy. (If the movie is unduly harsh on the teachers’ union, it
shines the golden light a bit brightly on charter schools, which don’t have an
unblemished record of success when it comes to producing college candidates.)

When “Waiting” turns its gaze on the children, their parents
and their hopes, we get one outstanding, astounding scene after another. It’s
gut-wrenching to see Nakia, a hard-working mom in Harlem, realize she can no
longer afford to send her 6-year-old daughter, Bianca, to the Catholic school
across the street. Guggenheim’s camera catches Nakia and Bianca staring
forlornly at the building as Bianca’s class gets ready for kindergarten
graduation exercises; because of unpaid tuition bills, Bianca is not allowed to
participate, a situation that leaves her baffled and her mother emotionally

Just as heartbreaking is the story of Anthony, a
fifth-grader in Washington, D.C., who is being raised by his grandmother:
Anthony’s father died a few years earlier from a drug overdose and his mother
is MIA. Like Daisy, he has ambitions and obstacles, and his future may depend
largely on whether or not his number is called in a drawing to fill a handful
of spaces at Seed School, a public charter academy with a great reputation.

Guggenheim isn’t merely looking to place blame and turn on
the tears, however. “Waiting” also profiles a few people who have fought to
improve the educational landscape, most notably Geoffrey Canada, the
charismatic, strong-willed founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, and Michelle
Rhee, the controversial chancellor of Washington, D.C.’s public schools (she
resigned from her position last week). Rhee’s hardline — some would say
heartless — approach to reform included firing underperforming teachers and
awarding bonuses to educators who produce results, two tactics that made her
the archenemy of the AFT. Canada is no less determined to overhaul his
community’s schools, although he tends to take a less controversial stance:
With the support of Harlem residents and millions of dollars in private
donations, he has set up an all-inclusive program to prepare urban kids for
college, a process that begins in pre-school.

Curiously, “Waiting” doesn’t spend much time talking to
teachers, even though there’s a strong sense that the success or failure of a
student is tied to the skills and dedication of the people who teach (or don’t
teach) them.

Nor does the movie ever truly address the importance of
parental involvement in a child’s education. Yes, Daisy, Anthony and Bianca
have strong, concerned people looking out for their interests, but are these
cases the rule or the exception? Spend time with veteran teachers who’ve worked
in any school district — urban, suburban, rural, upscale, impoverished,
middle-class, etc. — and you’re likely to hear hair-curling horror stories
about mothers and fathers who simply don’t pay attention to their child’s
needs, either because the parents are overworked, self-involved, dealing with
substance abuse problems or just plain lazy. Teachers can’t be expected to
succeed in pushing students to achieve if Dad doesn’t make sure homework gets
done or if Mom is too drunk to help her son study for a math quiz.

At the same time, this is a predicament that’s
extraordinarily tricky to document on film: How many parents do you know who’d be
willing to be showcased as the guy who forgot to take his kids to school
because he had a golf game, or the mom who skipped the parent-teacher
conference because it was the same night as a really good episode of “The
Bachelor”? Even in a country in which plenty of people are willing, even eager,
to trade their self-respect for a taste of reality-TV stardom, no one wants to
be seen as the monster who short-changed their kids.

“Waiting” is by no means a comprehensive picture of
education in America, but it raises several startling and provocative points.
It’s a film that’s sure to provoke many discussions — and, hopefully, some
changes as well.

"Waiting for Superman" opens Friday exclusively at NCG Eastwood Cinemas