Guaranteed to fail?

Waiting for Superman has an axe to grind with the American education system, asking questions about why it’s declining, the kids who are trapped in it, and the people who are trying to change it. Co-writer/director David Guggenheim outlines problems with schools, teachers and governments that together are robbing young people of a good education. He supplements his analysis by following the lives of five kids through the system for what seems like roughly a year. Four of the kids live in ghettos or come from lower-class families, while one is upper-middle class and goes to a nice school.

The movie is primarily concerned with schools that are the worst of the worst — schools that have been dubbed “failure factories” or “academic sinkholes.” According to the film, these schools are mostly in poorer neighbourhoods and often contain teachers who are spectacularly incompetent. Some of these educators only cover 50 per cent of the curriculum in a good year, while others flat out refuse to teach. Dropout rates at these schools are through the floor, and only a few graduates per year are qualified for university entrance. We are told there are over 2,000 of these schools in America.

There is a popular myth that if someone works really hard and is dedicated, that person can overcome any kind of adversity. Not these kids. They live in an environment where they are all but guaranteed to fail. There is a telling scene where a student brings a camera to school concealed in his backpack. He films students shooting craps in the back of the room all day while their teacher sits up front reading the paper. We even learn of a teacher who once gave a student a “swirly” in a school toilet and was able to keep his job.

Teachers can get away with stuff like that because they have tenure. Apparently, in order for any teacher in America to get tenure they must maintain a body temperature of about 37 C for two years. Once a teacher achieves this, it is nearly impossible for them to be fired. Tenure came about by teacher unions lobbying the government, and according to the film, are the largest campaign contributor to federal candidates in the United States. Laws regarding tenure are so well established it’s almost impossible to get around them; even elected officials who seek to reform education hit a brick wall when attempting to fire teachers.

Every state has their own way of attempting to deal with bad teachers protected by tenure. For example, each year in Milwaukee, school administrators get together for a desperate practice referred to as the “lemon dance.” Administrators create a roster of bad teachers — the lemons — and trade them back and forth with other schools, each time hoping to get better lemons than the ones they gave. In New York, bad teachers can be transferred to reading rooms — essentially a building somewhere filled with tables where teachers sit and read to themselves and hangout all day. As long as they keep coming in every day, they get a full salary and benefits.

The parents of the kids profiled in the movie want to enrol their children to charter- and prep-schools as a way out of the system. Even Emily, the wealthier kid, wants to get away from her junior high. Though her district high school was named one of the best in they country, she is a struggling student and fears that high school will “track” her to lesser courses with second-rate teachers and fewer learning opportunities. So many students are in the same boat that the desirable schools must hold lotteries to decide who gets in. There is a tense scene where all the kids and parents sit in gyms while school officials draw names at random. Except for Emily, if the hundreds of kids who crowd these gyms are not accepted, they are likely to end up in prison, or at least drop out once they reach high school.

The movie is an expository documentary through and through. From beginning to end we are presented with the idea that people naturally sit and wait for something external to pull them through their problems; hence the title, Waiting for Superman. But to make any real progress in changing schools, or anything else for that matter, we must realize that it’s all up to us.

In the end credits, we are directly confronted and asked to stand up for the change we want to see. When films like these gravitate to that kind of thing, they are generally applauded for having an urgent message despite never instigating much change. What makes Waiting for Superman work so well is its sincere concern about its subject, and the concern of the education reformers interviewed. Documentaries can sometimes gain an inherently interesting quality if the filmmaker is passionate about the subject. This movie cares a lot about education reform, and that makes us care too.