by ALISTAIR BOMPHRAY
Remember that movie An Inconvenient Truth? It was pretty good, right? Al Gore’s triumphant return to relevance, or something like that… Well, Davis Guggenheim, the director of that cleverly developed treatise on climate change, shifts his attention to the state of public education in America in his latest feature documentary, Waiting for Superman. A few weeks back I went to the Kabuki Theater in San Francisco to retrieve a lost phone only to discover that Waiting for Superman, a surprise entry into this year’s SF International Film Festival, was starting in five minutes. I had a stack of student work burning a hole (turning to compost is probably more accurate) in my teacher bag, but who am I to refuse destiny?
Let me make this clear right away. I think this is a bad documentary. As a piece of journalism, it’s lazy and manipulative. As a “methodical dissection” of our public education system (which the film’s official movie site purports it to be), it falls far, far short. Its flaws are multiform, but for brevity’s sake, I’m going to focus on, oh, I don’t know, four:
1. Waiting for Superman is a Michael Moore rip-off, plain and simple, and this in a time when Moore’s own stuff is a little tired already. From the amusingly quaint 1950’s-era footage to the use of animation to add humor and watchability, Guggenheim borrows freely from Moore’s bag of tricks. He even includes footage of Bush saying dumb things. I mean, I like laughing at Dubya as much as the next guy, but at this point, it just seems too easy, you know? All of this stuff would’ve been fresh eight years ago, but in 2010, I couldn’t help thinking, “Haven’t I seen this before?” There’s no nice way to say this—Guggenheim’s a biter.
All in all, it is a moderately entertaining film, which should come as no surprise; Moore’s shtick works. But unlike Moore in, say, Roger & Me or Bowling for Columbine, Guggenheim sacrifices content for entertainment. It’s one thing to propel a viewer through dense, difficult subject matter; it’s quite another to do so and also shed light on the subject.
2. And that’s the problem with this film—it doesn’t really have anything new to say about education. And the things it does say are oversimplified and/or politically trendy. About halfway through, I began to have the sneaking suspicion that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called Guggenheim up and said, “Hey, remember what you did for Al? Well, I’ve got something for you.” (OMG—is Duncan the Man of Steel? He certainly is dreamy enough.). Personally, I have a hard time trusting a documentary that so unwaveringly cleaves to one party’s line, even if that line is occasionally my own.
One of the film’s major theses is that teacher unions are getting in the way of educational reform. To anyone even peripherally acquainted with the current educational zeitgeist, this is not a new sentiment. And with good reason—though their intent is to protect teachers, teacher unions too often simply protect the status quo. This includes keeping bad teachers in a job. Guggenheim points to oft-touted examples of bureaucratic excess such as New York City’s “Rubber Room” where suspended teachers receive full salary and benefits to do nothing (a story already covered by, most notably, The New Yorker and This American Life).
Unfortunately, Guggenheim’s view on this debate is as free from nuance as a DC comic book. Enter Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of D.C. schools, as the caped union buster. And over there, feasting on the wormy corpses of our children’s dreams, is Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, as Lex Luthor. Rather than provide useful historical context or explore the philosophical gap between these two opposing figures, Guggenheim is content to paint the issue in broad strokes. Yes, of course, the Rubber Room is straight out of Catch 22, and, yes, of course, there are bad teachers out there (we’ve all had them), but, c’mon, what about all of the average to amazing teachers who are doing their job? Instead, Guggenheim focuses on a minority—the woefully inept, cruelly indifferent, really, really, bad teacher.
3. Guggenheim would also have us believe that all but the most exceptional public schools are freakin’ wastelands. Well, at least we’ve got charter schools to save us. Never mind that there is no existing evidence that charter schools, as a whole, are any better at improving test scores than public schools. Guggenheim flouts graduation rate, but an important variable here is that students of charter schools have parents who signed them up for charter school in the first place. To me, this suggests a level of parental involvement that will have as real an impact on the likelihood of a student’s graduation as any but the most extraordinary school.
Guggenheim ends his film with footage of prospective charter school students and their families awaiting the results of the entrance lottery, striking a cheap note of melodrama. As other kids’ numbers are called, we, the audience, are on the edge of our seats, fervently praying that our kids, the ones we were introduced to an hour ago, will not have their dreams crushed. The implication is that if these kids don’t get into a charter school, they are fucked (and, by extension, how sad that the fate of their entire lives should be decided by a lottery). Guggenheim acts like going to public school is akin to being thrown into the Return of the Jedi sand pit. This does a disservice to the innovative, hardworking public school teachers who will teach this group of cast-off students in the years to come.
4. Finally—and this is perhaps the movie’s most damning flaw—Guggenheim offers no real solutions. He presents a few well-known successful models, but doesn’t inquire into the specifics in any useful kind of way. His big finding is that good teachers increase student learning. One legitimate reaction to such a conclusion is, “No shit, asshole.” Another more diplomatic reaction is, ”Well, that sounds sensible enough. So what does a good teacher look like? And how are good teachers made?” Either Guggenheim didn’t ask those questions, or he didn’t deem them to be within the scope of this particular “dissection.”
The movie comes out in the fall. I’m not going to say don’t go see it. I even think maybe you should. More than anything else, I’m curious to see the public reaction. Will it avalanche into a kind of cultural tipping point for charter schools—the way An Inconvenient Truth was for climate change? Or will it be dismissed as a hazily constructed piece of sham journalism? I’m hoping for the latter.
Alistair teaches English and Journalism in Hayward, CA.