May 1, 2011


Distinct lack of Superman on this poster.
This new film from the director of An Inconvenient Truth has proven to be just as controversial. Though, perhaps not in the way you might expect. In Truth Guggenheim took aim at climate change, documenting a convincing presentation by Al Gore. The environmental Left praised it, while the conservative Right decried it (this, it could be said, was also because of Gore himself). Now, with Waiting for "Superman", Guggenheim seems to have succeeded in pissing everybody off. The reason being the teachers' unions do not come off in the best light in Waiting for "Superman"

Guggenheim is, this time, taking a look at the American education system trying to find out the how & why it went from one of the best in the world to one of the worst. Frankly, the picture painted of the modern American school system is frightening. And things that are so desperately needed, like change and new ideas, are stifled and tossed aside by the system. Some of this blame is placed squarely on the teachers' unions, and there has been criticism from some quarters because of that. But the unions aren't the only ones laid at fault here: the whole system and those who administer it come in for some hard criticism. Guggenheim offers us the system through the eyes of various families, usually on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum who, generally speaking, have no option but the public school system. We are offered alternatives through some of those who are working hard to change, or offer change, to the system.

I am not anti-union in the slightest. They are an important part of working society, crucial for the protection of employees. But a union, just like any other large, bureaucratic organisation, can become a lumbering beast that hurts more than it helps. And to be to the point: the teachers' unions (there's two in the US) are not there to protect the students. They are there for the teachers. Which is rightly so, as they are the teachers' unions. However, this focus is one of things harming children. One of the union tenets that comes in for the strongest criticism is the notion of automatic tenure; once a teacher has been teaching for two years they get tenure. Which means it becomes all but impossible to fire them, even if they are awful, nonperforming and even abusive teachers. To me, that is fundamentally wrong. I don't necessarily believe in performance-based pay for teachers, as is raised by Michelle Rhee a Washington D.C. reformer, as the ways that can be measured can be easily manipulated and abused but when you cannot get rid of obviously awful teachers... then something is broken.

Guggenheim's strongest focus though is on "school lotteries". These people who have set up publicly funded alternate choices to the public school system, known as charter schools, are too popular; they cannot possibly accept everyone who applies. So federal law dictates that they have to have a lottery. These families we have been following, who are all struggling and who all have bright and personable kids, have entered the lotteries. When you have to fundamentally gamble on your child's future, when you cannot trust the public school system that much, the system is broken. The scenes of the families desperately awaiting the lottery results - all with different atmospheres but all held in massive auditoriums or halls - are emotionally wrenching.  

Waiting for "Superman" is a downbeat, sobering film because the subject it covers is so vast, conflicted and busted it can't not be. But there are moments of hope that shine through: a couple of the kids "win" their lottery's, there are people out there fighting the good fight trying to either change the system or offer up enough great alternatives. It's a fairly clear-eyed, informative and easy to follow exploration of a labyrinthine issue and system. I'm not American and likely won't be putting any future kids through the American education system, but this is a fascinating watch and will perhaps have you taking another look at your own country's education system. Quality education should not be a privilege, but a right.

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