Bad education: The director of An Inconvenient Truth takes on the public school system in Waiting for "Superman"

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The title of Waiting for "Superman" comes from an anecdote told at the top of the film by a charismatic educator named Geoffrey Canada. Canada talks about growing up reading comic books in the South Bronx, and believing that Superman would one day swoop in and save his downtrodden neighborhood. When his mother told him the Man of Steel wasn't real, Canada began to cry, for the first time realizing that no one was out there to come to the rescue. Depressing point, but this is a depressing movie.

It's common knowledge that the nation's public education system is broken. We've all seen the horrific stats and watched as kids in other industrialized nations lap Americans in math and science. Waiting For "Superman" uses an appealing visual style that mixes documentary footage, 1950s education films, modern news broadcasts and clever animation to lay it all out in sickening detail. The approach is similar to Davis Guggenheim's previous film, An Inconvenient Truth, but this time the director widens his focus from one man on a mission to people struggling at multiple levels of the system.

At the bottom, of course, are the kids. Guggenheim follows a cross-section of boys and girls of different ethnic backgrounds, social strata and geographic location, and finds that they are all facing down the same flawed beast. The fact is that some schools are horrible and have been that way for a very long time, while others function well as designed for the post-war demands of the 1950s — putting them only about a half-century behind the times. Despite the ongoing crisis in our schools, new students flood through the door each year, human cattle trapped in an education slaughterhouse they can't possibly understand.

Then there are the administrators. "Superman" spends a significant amount of time detailing the career of Michelle Rhee, the schools chancellor for Washington D.C. (aka the nation's worst school district). Residents were skeptical when Rhee came into her position as a brash 37-year-old lacking a Ph.D. and having only taught for a few years. They turned downright hostile as she started firing principals and closing failing schools. Rhee made some progress, and then came up with a game-changing idea for teacher salaries that might actually fix many of the district's problems. Don't hold your breath for its implementation.

Education is a politically charged issue, and with the director of An Inconvenient Truth at the helm I expected a "lefty" take on the issue. "Superman" instead stuck me as a decidedly anti-partisan movie, willing to poke at every U.S. president of the last 50 years regardless of party and plant a stick firmly in the eye of the teachers' unions, who more than anyone else come off as the major obstacle to reform. "Superman" makes the point that the system never improves because the arguments end up being more about what's good for the adults than what's good for the children.

"Superman" concludes by showing multiple lotteries for admission to public charter schools. Demand is sky-high, and the only legal way for the charters to pick new students is through random selection. Some of the events are quite grand, with amplified sound systems and balloon arches to welcome the newly admitted. Those who win are almost all guaranteed a college education and a shot at a good life. Those who lose are almost all doomed. In what rational world does this make sense? Only in America...

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