The film Waiting for Superman by Davis Guggenheim has received many accolades, and they are well-deserved — I saw the film last night.
Guggenheim follows the stories of five children at different grade levels in both parochial and public schools. One lives in Redwood City, CA, and the rest are inner city kids from poor families in Los Angeles, the Bronx, Harlem, and Washington, D.C.
The film is pro-school choice and non-partisan, all while advocating for a reformed public school system. The New Yorker criticized the filmmaker for only showing charter schools in a favorable light, when many are failing as much as public schools — but Guggenheim does say in the film that many charter schools are far from ideal.
A fascinating part of the film is Guggenheim’s interviews with school reformers who share their views, proposals, and methods. Among them is Michelle Ree, who just resigned her position as chancellor of Washington, D.C. schools on October 13. She upset parents and teachers by closing schools and firing teachers, and her approach — praised by school reformers across the country — made teachers’ unions very unhappy.
Waiting for Superman is a sad film. Your heart breaks for the children — so many of them — who aren’t chosen in random lotteries to sit in the few coveted seats in better schools. The children in the film all have someone — usually a mom or grandmother — advocating for them and making sacrifices. But what about all the kids who have no such family support?
Guggenheim brings home the point that teachers’ unions and bureaucratic complexities have become an obstacle to real reform. And if you can’t fire a failing public school teacher, how can anything be improved?
Bill Gates, interviewed in the film, is convinced that America’s economic prosperity and position on the world stage turns on the issue of school reform. It’s clear that something will have to change.