Save the kids

Waiting for Superman explores a public-school system that is failing many American children

Daisy, an east-L.A. student, is trying to get into popular KIPP L.A. Prep charter school.

Daisy, an east-L.A. student, is trying to get into popular KIPP L.A. Prep charter school.

Waiting for Superman
Directed by Davis Guggenheim. Pageant Theatre. Rated PG.
Rated 3.0

Davis Guggenheim, who directed the film version of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, has turned to the multiple crises in public education for his new film. Waiting for Superman is partly an exposé of the failures and inequities of the nation’s public school systems and partly, but to a greater extent, an enthusiastic brief for the sweeping reforms proposed and sometimes enacted by innovative administrators in New York City, Washington, D.C., and other parts of the country.

Michelle Rhee, the trailblazing chancellor of Washington, D.C.’s public schools, and Geoffrey Canada, founder of the much-celebrated Harlem Success Academy, are key figures—and the chief guiding lights—in Guggenheim’s presentation. Rhee is the chief voice on behalf of new and intensified standards of accountability for teachers and schools. And Canada is fervent and eloquent on the subjects of charter schools and the revival of educational values in otherwise discouraging social and economic environments.

The film’s other stars are five children—one each from Washington, D.C., Harlem, the Bronx, east Los Angeles and Redwood City—who are variously caught up in what becomes the film’s framing drama: the lottery system by which small handfuls of the many deserving applicants gain entrance to highly successful charter schools in their neighborhoods. In the film’s sweepingly generalized view, those who are chosen have great chances of educational success, while the rest are more or less condemned to the “dropout factories” of the failing public schools.

Guggenheim uses the lottery drama as a way of embodying the devastating numbers game at work in an ailing and chaotic system. And the film uses Geoffrey Canada’s successes as evidence that even though a cure is available, neither the system nor the society at large has yet found the means—and the will—to apply it in any really thoroughgoing way.

Waiting for Superman singles out teachers’ unions as a major impediment to urgently needed reforms, with Rhee’s difficulties in Washington, D.C., as the main example. But it gives comparatively little attention to all the other factors—social, political, economic—that muddy the waters of visionary educational reform.

The film is passionate, persuasive and articulate when it’s dealing with the specific efforts of Canada, Rhee and those five kids. While its sense of urgency seems unmistakably genuine, its overall perspective is often more glib than truly comprehensive.