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Yes, ‘Waiting for Superman’ oversimplifies, but its student perspectives are heart-rending and effective

Daisy has a voice that’s barely a whisper, spindly legs and dreams of going to medical school or becoming a veterinarian. She’s only in the fifth grade, but already she’s taken it upon herself to send a handwritten letter to a local college asking to be admitted. She’s smart and disciplined enough to live out her dream, but her odds are long indeed.

Neither of Daisy’s parents graduated from high school. Her father is out of work. Her mother, who doesn’t speak English, is a custodian at a hospital. They live in a Los Angeles slum served by truly wretched schools.

Unless the fates intervene, Daisy will attend a high school that will graduate fewer than half its students. Just three of every 100 who do earn a diploma will have completed the high-school coursework necessary to get into a state university.

Daisy is also one of five diminutive stars of “Waiting for Superman,” a much-awaited film about the crisis in American education by the documentarian who made “An Inconvenient Truth.” The movie opens tomorrow at the Uptown Theatre.

It’s controversial, and it’s easy to see why. As it plays out in the newspapers, the current debate over education reform in the United States can be as mind-numbing as it is heated. Every truth comes appended with a “but,” the policy prescriptions couched in enough statistics to obscure the fact that there are actual children involved.

But while the adults have closed ideological ranks over everything from curriculum to charters, Daisy and her four big-eyed co-stars all want the same thing: a seat in a school where that will give them a decent chance at college and its promise of a future ordered by something other than poverty.

Daisy’s best shot is an odds-beating charter called KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), but there are 10 seats open in her grade and 135 applicants. She’ll literally have to win a lottery to get in.

And that’s not the heartbreak — no, the heartbreak is that while filmmaker Davis Guggenheim spools out the political and pedagogical failures underlying Daisy’s predicament, he also tells the very simple stories of five kids who understand exactly how much is at stake and what their lives will look like if the ball bearing their number doesn’t tumble from the wire cage in the film’s final scenes.

The storytelling that makes “Superman” so effective starts long before then. Indeed, at about 45 minutes into last night’s advance screening a segment about no less an unsexy topic than teacher tenure caused a man at the back of the theater to completely lose his cool, shooting out an expletive in response to footage of New York City’s infamous “rubber room.” That’s where at any given time 600 teachers are being paid to wait an average of three years for disciplinary hearings at a cost of $100 million a year.

The critics are right: It is an oversimplification. There is no rubber room here, and Minnesota school districts do actually fire lots of bad teachers — maybe not enough, but far more than “Superman” would suggest.

Also reduced to Central Casting dimensions are Washington, D.C., schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and her doppelganger, American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten. An unorthodox reformer, Rhee strides the halls at school after school, cajoling kids into confiding their feelings about their teachers and tapping out tough love on a Sony Vaio tablet.

Weingarten, by contrast, is unfairly cast as an inflexible scold who is more interested in work rules than in Daisy and her peers. She comes off more as a labor boss focused on protecting malingerers than as a someone charged with protecting teachers — still an underpaid, overworked lot — from the vagaries of a broken system.

Alas, none of this adult sturm und drang gets Daisy a seat in a school where she stands a chance of filling out a real application to a college that will help her become a surgeon. Or improves Francisco’s odds of getting into his “beat-the-odds” school, which has an astounding 792 applications for 40 seats. Or helps Anthony’s grandmother get him out of the neighborhood where his late father succumbed to drug abuse.

Third-grader Anthony’s heart-rending explanation for his desire to get into a good school: so he can give his own kids a shot at a better life. Try not to flash on that as he learns, every bit as aware as his grandmother what’s happening and what’s at stake, whether in an auditorium packed with anguished families, his is one of too few numbers called.  

“Superman” oversimplifies scores of thorny dilemmas, but it’s pretty hard to counter the unfolding story of an individual child with familiar, quotidian hopes and fears. It is, Guggenheim observes, easier to deal with masses of children we can reduce to statistics.

What happens to Daisy? Whatever your take on merit pay, tenure reform or any of the adult dramas being played out in the policy arena, it’s worth two hours of your time to find out what the whole sorry mess looks like from her vantage.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/30/2010 - 01:03 pm.

    Add this commentary by Lynnell Mickelsen in today’s Star& Sickle (http://www.startribune.com/opinion/commentary/104040523.html?page=3&c=y) to the oxymoron of Davis Guggenheim casting a teachers union boss in an unfavorable light and one might come to conclude that the public school system has finally reached a point where even leftists cannot deny that the need to overhaul the whole system has to start with the teachers unions.

    Pity so many kids have had to pay the price to get that through thick liberal skulls.

  2. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/01/2010 - 06:43 pm.

    Unions will need to make the case through actions and words, not least because of a hostile media climate that stacks the deck against them.

  3. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 10/02/2010 - 10:25 am.

    I urge anyone planning to see this movie (and anyone who cares about education) to read Colin Colvert’s review in Friday’s StarTribune. Mr. Colvert identifies the central points this documentary is intended to make.

    The first, that our schools need improving, is correct. The idea that unions and teachers are THE reason is incorrect and that charters can solve all problems is also incorrect.

    In actuality: “Some charter schools — the top 20 percent — deliver superior academic results, and they are the film’s focus. The fact that most charters fare no better than regular public schools, or do worse, is only glancingly mentioned.” He cites research that confirms this.

    Other options go unrecognized (such as a Johns Hopkins program that has, since 1987, “built a sustained record of producing better-educated children in hundreds of struggling public schools.”

    Colvert notes that comparisons to schools in other countries ignore the differences in systems, diversity and levels of poverty, but notes as well that in most foreign countries teachers are organized into union.

    A guest on Democracy Now a few days ago reported that, in his state, more teachers are removed from their job by union reviews than by administration actions.

    ———–

    I would call this film a piece of propaganda that endorses the ideas that unions are bad and that teachers are to blame for students not learning. Neither is true, of course; and nor is the idea that charter schools are the answer to every problem. They aren’t, any more than the fads that hit education every few years have turned out to be panaceas. (Remember when sight reading replaced phonics for a few years, for instance?)

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/02/2010 - 12:04 pm.

    People are going to leave this film wondering why something hasn’t been done years ago. Hopefully, that nagging question will have the stakeholders of public education (parents and taxpayers) digging deeper into who is in control of the public schools.

    They’re going to find a desperate set of characters.

    I’d love to see a documentary about people that defend a system that consumes hundreds of billions of dollars each year to deliver tens of thousands of our children to the streets to face the life of a functional illiterate.

    The greed motivations; the politics; the pathological psychologies; the self-delusion…fascinating.

  5. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/02/2010 - 09:01 pm.

    Teachers do need unions, as they are facing a monopoly employer (the state), and often get caught between parents and the school system in battles over individual children, battles which people rightly take very seriously. But the teachers’ unions should be more like professional associations than industrial unions. Allowing teachers to join whichever union or association they wanted, including none at all, would be a big step forward towards reform. When teachers become valued professionals rather than unionized laborers, teaching will once again attract bright and motivated graduates.

    Student success is most highly correlated not with good teachers or good schools, but with good parents. Parents of any income level who drill into their kids’ heads the importance of education, who stress written rather than visual media, and who support the actions of their children’s teachers and schools produce consistently successful students. The generation that survived the Depression and WW2 was able to provide a better life for their children, with lots of food and free time and fun, and few of the deprivations and horrors that had gone before. This indulgent behavior was reinforced and amplified in the generations that followed. We’re now way too easy on our kids for their own good. Schools will never really succeed until parents force their kids to take education seriously, and allow hard work and discipline to be the watchwords at their children’s schools. Teachers need to ask more of students, and adults need to stand resolutely in the face of their beloved yet lazy children, and force them to deliver. In the end, that will be the real reform.

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