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Review: 'Waiting for Superman' education documentary gets passing marks

Waiting for "Superman" is the movie version of all those books and white papers about flaws in the U.S. educational system that we're generally too illiterate or lazy to read.

Like any screen adaptation, Davis Guggenheim's documentary can't possibly include everything from those pages. He nails the collective sense of frustration over alarming declines in comprehension skills yet oversimplifies some causes and brushes off others, pausing from hand wringing long enough to point accusing fingers at ineffectual teachers and their coddling unions.

As a former public school teacher for 16 years, I'll agree that Guggenheim (an Oscar winner for An Inconvenient Truth) has a point. But it isn't the only one worth examining.

Throughout Waiting for "Superman" the question nagged: Where are the parents? Not just the supportive caregivers Guggenheim focuses upon (and who parrot his concerns) but parents who don't do much, if anything, to encourage scholastic achievement. The movie champions trickle-down tactics to solve a grassroots issue. That hasn't worked in economics, and it isn't a panacea for education, either.

From Guggenheim's relatively privileged perspective the solutions are publicly funded charter schools operating outside government regulation, and a general housecleaning of whatever public schools remain open. Waiting for "Superman" is crafted to support that radical tack, while just Tuesday one of the film's spotlighted reformers, Washington, D.C., chancellor Michelle Rhee, resigned after outraging parents by closing schools and firing teachers.

Some deserve to be canned, as some employees in any profession do. Guggenheim gets his gotcha moment with hidden camera footage of a New York "rubber room" where teachers being investigated for possible dismissal lounge all day at full pay. (The city has since closed its "rubber rooms.") A segment on principals routinely swapping problem teachers protected by tenure earns clucking disapproval.

Not once does Guggenheim spend time exploring what charter school teachers are supposedly doing right in classrooms. Just five minutes might offer lesson plan inspiration to public school teachers in the audience, and improving what we have is certainly more possible than what the film proposes.

You can rail against "the system" as Guggenheim does but it's there, and it won't go away on cell phone wishes (the end credits urge texting "possible" to 77177 if you disagree).

Guggenheim brings out Geoffrey Canada, founder of a thriving Harlem charter program, as evidence that race and class are poor excuses for the failure of schools. Then why, of the five profiled children banking on charter school lotteries, is only one child white and living in an affluent suburb? And she seems tossed in as a diversity afterthought.

Those students and lotteries aren't as central to Waiting for "Superman" as preview trailers suggest. Unlike other documentaries about children under pressure (Hoop Dreams and Mad Hot Ballroom come to mind), this film doesn't create a palpable yearning to watch them succeed. The kids come across as merely props in Guggenheim's lecture, an odd turn for a filmmaker who even made Al Gore interesting.

Nobody can disagree that Waiting for "Superman" deals with a subject demanding attention. But it paints the engulfing problems of U.S. education with a brush too broad and samples too small to be definitive. Depending on any movie for all the answers would be an easy way out and that's what got us here in the first place.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.

Waiting for "Superman"

Grade: B-

Director: Davis Guggenheim

Written by Davis Guggenheim, Billy Kimball

Rating: PG; brief profanity

Running time: 102 min.

Review: 'Waiting for Superman' education documentary gets passing marks 10/14/10 [Last modified: Thursday, October 14, 2010 3:19pm]
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