Movie Review: 'Waiting for 'Superman'' gives public schools a failing grade

Bob Tremblay

If the “truth” inconvenienced global warming doubters in Davis Guggenheim’s Oscar-winning documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” it should be deemed downright inhospitable to public school enablers in his latest film “Waiting for ‘Superman.’”

These “enablers” include the usual suspects, such as unions who are portrayed as being resistant to “that changey thing.” In fact, there’s plenty of blame to go around, and Guggenheim doesn’t let parents and politicians off the hook, either.

That said, teacher unions do take a licking in this documentary. In one of the film’s more disturbing or disheartening scenes, Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system, sets her sights on tenure, which makes firing a teacher almost impossible.

Rhee proposes eliminating tenure in exchange for giving teachers higher salaries based on merit. The union refuses to even vote on the proposal. School closings and teacher firings have since made Rhee a pariah with the status crowd, even if the status quo props up a substandard system. Reformers don’t typically fare well in the court of public opinion. Just ask Martin Luther.

I’m sure good reasons for tenure exist, but when it keeps incompetent teachers in the position to teach – or not to teach – children, you have to wonder what it is there for?

Guggenheim, who co-wrote the film with Billy Kimball and also narrates, puts a human face on this dilemma by telling the stories of five children from different parts of the country – from the inner city to the suburbs. All are seen trying to enter charter schools where the odds of admittance are slim because the number of applications far exceeds the number of openings. Their chances for a better education depend on the pure luck of a lottery drawing.

The film takes its title from a conversation with New York educator Geoffrey Canada, who recalls that the saddest day of his life occurred when he was told that Superman doesn’t exist. He began to cry because “no one was coming with enough power to save us.” The movie raises the question of whether Superman or a close facsimile will ever come along with enough power to save the public school system.

The film points out that while not all charter schools wear Superman’s cape, they offer an alternative to a system in need of rehab. Canada certainly did his part, transforming a block of Harlem into an educational center where inner-city children, given the right opportunity, can produce impressive results.

Guggenheim, who had previously made the pro-teacher documentaries “The First Year” and “Teach,” says guilt played a factor in his decision to make “Superman.” His morning drive to the private school where he sends his children takes him past the public school system where children may not be getting the education they deserve. Obviously, not everyone has the financial means to afford a private school, but that doesn’t mean the public school system can’t compete, the film stresses.

You know “Waiting for ‘Superman’” is striking a nerve when Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, sends an e-mail to members of the media, including yours truly, calling the film “inaccurate, inconsistent and incomplete.” Let the debate begin.

This critic would have liked to see more union representation in the film to understand better where the union is coming from on issues such as tenure and “rubber rooms,” where teachers accused of misconduct still collect their salaries at a staggering cost to taxpayers. The film is nothing if not provocative and that seldom is a bad thing.

More importantly, the documentary begs the question, “So, what’s new?” It’s not exactly a revelation that the public school system needs an overhaul. The bigger question is how can politicians, administrators, unions, teachers and parents work together to devise a solution that works for the children without busting budgets. Unfortunately, on this subject, “that changey thing” acts like kryptonite, and not even Superman can overcome it.

WAITING FOR SUPERMAN (PG for mild language and incidental smoking) Documentary directed by Davis Guggenheim; three stars out of four.