There’s an adage about the way to succeed: Under promise, over deliver. Unfortunately it is a saying that doesn’t seem to apply to the public education system in the United States where unprecedented numbers of students fall behind or fail every year according to the documentary Waiting For “Superman”. This despite repeated political initiatives to revamp schools and ensure that no child is left behind in their educational experience.
Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim points his finger for the faltering system at the educators themselves—teachers in the classroom, administrators and especially the national teachers’ unions. While he recognizes the many talented people who masterfully teach, he also suggests the system often promotes mediocrity by not rewarding good teachers and not punishing bad ones. He sites examples of New York City’s rubber rooms where teachers are supposedly sent to improve their skills but instead spend days, months and even years idling away their time while on full salary. (After public attention was brought to these rubber rooms, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the local teachers’ union announced the elimination of these reassignment centers in an article in The New York Times published April 15, 2010.) Tenure, often awarded after only a few years of teaching, also comes under attack, particularly because it makes it nearly impossible to remove underperforming or incompetent personnel.
During the film, the director attempts to give a personal face to the problem by following a handful of students. Mostly inner city kids, these young learners and their parents or guardians attempt to find the best educational opportunities in their neighborhoods. For many of them it means applying to charter schools that grant access by a lottery system only or paying large monthly tuition fees to attend better institutions.
Guggenheim, who admits to enrolling his own children in a private school, also interviews a number of innovative and sometimes controversial educators including Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee, as well as social architect and community leader Bill Strickland, entrepreneur Bill Gates and President of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten.
Though the film focuses most of its attention on inner city schools, the script gives countrywide facts about graduation numbers and test scores. The stats are discouraging. Fortunately, all the families in this movie share a sense of the importance of education and want better options for their offspring. However, the production pays only scant attention to many other issues that contribute to student failure, such as lack of parental involvement, family problems, poverty, poor nutrition, disciplinary difficulties, teachers’ safety concerns and violence.
Nevertheless, Guggenheim and his team of documentarians raise substantial questions about the current state of affairs in the public system and the future costs of its breakdown. Whether or not viewers have children in the system, Waiting For “Superman” points out the problems that can impact society as a whole when math and reading basics are neglected in favor of politics and adult agendas.
Content Details: Beyond the Movie Ratings...
Violence: Two dangerous stunts are portrayed.
Sexual Content: None noted.
Language: Brief mild crude terms and some vulgar comments are included in the script.
Alcohol / Drug Use: A character discusses the death of his father from illegal drug use. An archival depiction of smoking is shown.
Discussion Ideas: Talk About the Movie...
Is there a role for unions in the educational system? Should tenure be granted to public teachers? Are the requirements demanding enough? What kind of incentives could or should be offered to teaching professionals? How does their career compare with others?
What role do parents play in the success of their child’s education? How can familial attitudes influence a student’s success or failure?
What impact can a well-rounded educational experience have, not only on a person’s ability to earn a living but also his or her ability to contribute to society? What role does critical thinking play in the learning process? What questions or comments in this film could initiate introspection and action?
A New York City school district uses ballroom dancing as a way to engage inner city students in the documentary Mad Hot Ballroom. Teachers tackle difficult classroom situations and make a difference for their students in the movies Freedom Writers, Stand and Deliver and To Sir With Love.
Home Video Notes
Waiting for “Superman” releases to DVD and Blu-ray on February 22, 2011, with the following bonus extras:
- Four additional inspiring teacher/student stories
- Changing the Odds: A look at innovative programs that are changing public education
- Public Education Updates: Changes that have taken place since the making of the film
- A Conversation with Davis Guggenheim
The Future Is In Our Classrooms
- The Making of “Shine”: the films title track by musician John Legend
- Commentary by Director Davis Guggenheim and Producer Lesley Chilcott