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.