Of Hereos and Villains

A review of  the film “Waiting for Superman,” directed by David Guggenheim

by Padmini Jambulapati

It just feels right to watch Waiting for Superman in Houston.  The city has become a hotbed for innovation in education reform, in part, because it is home to the first Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) schools.  As the many education experts featured in the movie pointed out, we know the solution to the achievement gap, but there are so few charter networks, like KIPP, that have the courage to do it the right way. Hey, DC isn’t such a bad place to watch it, because of Chancellor Rhee and her efforts to reform the DC school system.  But basically, wherever you watch this documentary, the heartbreak will be just as devastating.

David Guggenheim, the Academy-Award winning director of An Inconvenient Truth, tackles public education through the eyes of five students entering education lotteries for charter schools.  As students describe their reasons for entering the lottery, each one exposes another failing of public schools:  tracking, inadequate teachers, low expectations, lack of rigor, and high costs of private education.  Guggenheim takes a long hard look at public education and the consequences of failure, not only for these students, but also our nation at large.  As a former middle school teacher, the truths of this film rang true to my experience in the classroom.  We need the best teachers in our schools.  As President Obama and many education reformers have pointed out time and time again, the single biggest determinant of a child’s academic success is not their zip code or household income–it is the quality of their teachers.

Enter the bad guys–teachers.  After all, every good story has villains and heroes.  Guggenheim devotes a substantial part of the movie portraying Randi Weingarten and teachers unions as the main impediments to true school reform.  Americans have no idea how much influence these unions wield and peddle at every level of government.  While Weingarten may argue that Guggenheim portrayed the worst teachers, the truth remains undisputed:  unions go to extreme measures to protect the worst teachers.

And our heroes? The five kids Guggenheim shadows.  Geoffrey Canada and his charter schools, the Harlem Children’s Zone, which provide high-quality education and wraparound services right from birth.  The parents who give a damn about their kids’ education, but are trapped by a system that serves the interests of teachers’ unions rather than students. Superman is a movie you want to end well.  You want our heroes to win so badly.  A documentary rarely affords you that luxury.  Instead, you are left with the sickening reality that there are millions of children waiting for their chance to shine, but instead, are trapped and waiting.

Guggenheim may start a dialogue about education that captures our nation’s attention, much like he did with An Inconvenient Truth.  Yet, in light of Rhee’s resignation, one cannot help but feel that our villains have struck again.  But, if the real heroes of Waiting for Superman have taught us anything, it’s that we should continue to hope and aspire for good, in spite of the bad guys.

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