REVIEW: Ambitious Waiting For Superman Tries to Make Sense of School-Lottery Issues
Two or three documentaries about the Unites States' totally FUBAR education system ago, I recall a school administrator saying that he no longer attends the lotteries held to determine which children will get into the school of their choice, and which will be condemned to -- horror of horrors -- their local public school. His heart couldn't take it anymore, he said.
If that line had not already been housed in an education reform documentary, it would have commanded documentarians to the trough like a dinner bell. Waiting For Superman, Davis Guggenheim's follow-up to It Might Get Loud (he won an Oscar for directing An Inconvenient Truth in 2006) comes on the heels of The Cartel, The Lottery, and an in-depth 60 Minutes piece about educator Geoffrey Canada's work on charter schools in Harlem. In documentary and investigative journalism, anyway, 2010 was the year the penny loafer dropped.
As a dramatic device the lotteries that take place across the country -- mainly in less affluent communities, where appalling public schools have made parents and their children desperate for a better option -- may as well have been custom made. They also have a dreamy climactic payoff: the metaphor of modern education as a gamble made manifest, complete with painted ping-pong balls and sweaty tickets. Like Bob Bowdon and Madeleine Sackler, the directors of The Cartel and The Lottery respectively, Guggenheim seizes on the lottery as a structuring device for his portrait of a system so busted it has spawned its own subculture, its own language (terms like "failure factory," "the blob," "the dance of the lemons," and "rubber room" are explained by the natives), and a handful of champions fighting to build an alternative. While the other two focused on New Jersey and New York, Guggenheim broadens his scope to encompass the story of one student each in Washington D.C. (where school superintendent Michelle Rhee is trash- and turkey-talking her way to reform), Los Angeles, and the Silicon Valley, as well as the Bronx and Harlem in New York City.
But rather than create a powerful or even personal polemic (Guggenheim narrates, and admits that although he could afford to send his kids to good schools, the lack of a social safety net for those who can't alarmed him to action), the cross-section approach dilutes the film's larger ambitions. The need to weave complex personal narratives works, to some extent, against the socially conscious imperative to telegraph a boatload of information about each district and state work; neither element gets over as successfully as it should. The numbers and statistics that flood the screen are played for epithetic gasps (which they certainly received at the screening I attended), but the effect is more overwhelming than informative. Great hay is made, for instance, of American students' abysmal proficiency rates in math and reading, but what "proficient" means in this case is not made clear. I hardly doubt the gist of the numbers, but the foreboding, hammering vagueness edged the sequence from effective propaganda -- or even effective number-crunching -- into something less. Similarly, when Guggenheim kicks the documentary into fourth gear during the final sequence and cross-cuts between five sets of parents and children paralyzed with anxiety during their respective lotteries, it feels like a naked lunge for effect rather than a meaningful and indicting culmination.
These are formal quibbles, the complaints, perhaps, of someone who has sat through a number of these lotteries -- on-screen, anyway -- and found them as heartbreaking as they are advertised to be. It's a giant issue, and Guggenheim has taken a running, open-armed jump right into the thick of it. The success of charter and alternative schools is made clear, and the toxicity around teacher's unions and the issue of tenure even more so. What is perhaps most pertinent here is Guggenheim's rebuttal of the idea that uneducated, underachieving children are responsible for failing and impoverished neighborhoods. If anything, the film argues, it is the caliber of the schools in less affluent areas that produces failing neighborhoods. The frustration is that this point is so obvious, and yet, as Rhee points out, so many of the adults involved will do anything to keep the status quo.
Less obvious is the way the education system's failure not only to reform but to evolve holds children of all backgrounds back. White, middle-class eighth-grader Emily is anxious to attend a high school that does not practice "tracking," a system that moves children into tiered classes based on everything from their grades to their attitude. During the postwar boom it was an effective way to separate a student population that was largely headed for industrial or agricultural work from those who had their hearts set on a white-collar career. In the 21st century the former job markets are negligible, and almost everyone is expected to go to college (a separate, fraught debate that Guggenheim doesn't touch); being streamed into a lower track basically ensures a child's inability to get into a good school.
And just what does "good school" mean in this country anymore? That its teachers are happy? That it's well funded? That the parents of its students are mortgaged to the hilt in order to live in the "right" neighborhood or pay for exorbitant tuition? Does it have to do with test scores that rock star school superintendents travel from district to district on fat salaries to raise, like evangelists and by who-knows-what power, from the dead? The answer, again, is so simple that it's innately known by anyone who ever responded to a teacher -- whether well or poorly -- and realized later in life the power they had over the direction of their lives. Waiting For Superman may rub a little raw here and there, but if it stirs that memory in enough voting and tax-paying Americans, it has at least begun to do its job.