I sobbed alongside my graduate students as we watched the ending of Waiting for Superman, the heat-seeking documentary that has garnered rave reviews and generated an uncommon level of discussion about public education in America. We all wept—the young men, too—despite our awareness that the filmmakers had manipulated us with misleading and lopsided arguments.
The emotional power of Superman swayed even our famously unflappable President Obama, who hinted at some tearing up of his own when he told the Today show that the film’s ending was “heartbreaking.” What else could it be? Five impossibly adorable children from D.C., New York City, and California pin their futures on a lottery ball tumbling their way, winning or losing them a spot in a coveted charter school.
In one scene, Anthony, a fifth-grader from D.C., stares at a note card on his lap with his name and number on it. At the public lottery in the school gymnasium, every other name is called—but never his. The camera lingers on his little hands; he flicks the card, as if that might conjure a different fate. It’s unbearable to contemplate his helplessness, the injustice of his rejection, and the profound consequences for the rest of his life.
This is psychological torture no child should have to endure. And from that metaphorical moment, Oscar-winning director Davis Guggenheim squeezes every drop of outrage. As Gail Collins said in a New York Times column, “By the time you leave the theater you are so sad and angry you just want to find something to burn down.”
The question is, what exactly would the moviemakers have us burn? Where to direct all that righteous anger? Is Guggenheim pressing for a thoughtful dialogue and real transformation, or a self-destructive rush to the barricades? And why are most journalists not asking these questions?
Stripped to its essence, the film’s solutions are seductively simple. Officials should fire bad teachers, close down failing public schools, and replace them with charters—schools funded with public dollars and run by private boards. This is Guggenheim’s master narrative, set against a backdrop of broad crisis in public education. Teachers unions are the villains here; charter schools the heroes.
To make this point, the film avoids any probing examination of a failing school, nor does it provide examples of good or bad classroom teaching. Instead it makes use of selective statistics, colorful graphics, and animated cartoons, which mock the techniques (variously known as Pass the Trash, Turkey Trot, and Dance of the Lemons) used by principals to rid their classrooms of ineffective teachers. Finland, long a Monty Python punch line, is used here in a similar vein, as the nation that is putting America to shame in all areas academic. (In fact Finland’s story actually contradicts the master narrative—but more on that later.)
There is not much room on this storyboard to consider broader factors. The film ignores decades of white flight from urban schools, the growing income divide between the wealthy and the poor, test-driven reforms that strip richness from the curriculum, the systematic devaluation of teaching as a profession, and the dismantling of desegregation laws, welfare support, and health care benefits.
Other voices are left unheard and unacknowledged, including disaffected parents, community leaders, and civil-rights groups that are beginning to push back against the tide of mass firings and charter-school creation. Missing in action from any frame are the NAACP, the Urban League, and the Washington, D.C. voters who recently ousted Mayor Adrian Fenty in large part because his heavy-handed education initiatives excluded their participation.
Nor does Guggenheim present alternative solutions. New York City, for example, is home to a growing, under-the-radar consortium of urban public schools that have had decades of measurable success with underprivileged children, focusing on students’ reasoning abilities rather than test-taking prowess. A more sober, less commercial documentary produced by Frederick Wiseman in 1994, High School II, explores the ideas behind these progressive schools. The film also does something Superman does not attempt: it burrows inside an East Harlem high school and its classrooms to try and understand how and why it works.
In Superman, instead, troops are rallied for a partisan battle. On one side are the self-described rebels, the good reformers, storming the gates of the status quo; on the other side, anyone who disagrees. A pre-film-release cover story in New York magazine allied these warriors with Obama (who was himself described as challenging “his party’s hoariest shibboleths and most potent allies.”)