“It all just becomes about the adults.”
Such is the lament of Michelle Rhee, chancellor of schools for Washington D.C., in a key moment of Davis Guggenheim’s education documentary Waiting for Superman. She sits in the backseat of a car, crestfallen after having just lost the battle for a major teacher tenure and salary reform initiative when teacher union representatives are blocked from even voting on it.
Her statement speaks to everything Guggenheim’s documentary does right. The education “blob” – that monolithic assemblage of countless administrators, bureaucrats, politicians, and state officials – is ultimately more interested in preserving its own interests than actually promoting quality education, the film asserts.
Waiting for Superman exhaustively documents the myriad roadblocks to reform. Several animated sequences demonstrate the complexity of applying national standards to fifty states with differing curricula and assessment metrics, as well as the incredible difficulty of firing ineffective teachers and changing the culture of failing schools.
Guggenheim does a brilliant job of personalizing the issue by focusing his lens on the stories of five families, each struggling with its own educational challenges. Waiting for Superman allows the kids to tell their own stories; as a result, what could have been just a film “about the adults,” a series of talking heads preaching to the choir, is instead a memorable narrative with real drama.
The most striking sequence comes near the film’s end, in which all of the families await the results of lotteries to get their children into successful charter schools. We hear Guggenheim state that it is often easier to look at education as an abstract series of charts and statistics about test scores and graduation rates, than to actually watch a single child who has been failed by the system. The truth of this statement is demonstrated in a viscerally emotional montage showing each of the families reacting to the results of the lotteries.
Why do we put the futures of thousands of good kids up to chance? The film suggests that it comes down to the fact that kids do not have lobbyists. Guaranteed lifetime employment, summers off, six figure salaries, lavish pensions and benefits – none of these things are meant to help children learn. The education system we have today puts the lifestyles and comfort of millions of adults ahead of children.
Thankfully, on the subject of solutions, Guggenheim is not in the camp which defines “change” as “more money.” Waiting for Superman is anchored not only by the moving stories of the various families, but by the brave work of reformers like Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee. Nevertheless, it is on this point of solutions that the film stumbles.
“We know what works,” asserts one of the film’s subjects. The “what,” according to Guggenheim is better qualified teachers and more charter schools. But is it really that simple? The film showcases a number of successful charter schools, painting them as the solution, yet also glossing over the fact that, according to Guggenheim’s own numbers, the vast majority of charters either do no better or do worse than the public schools they are meant to replace. The call to fire more incompetent public school teachers is sort of like 10,000 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean. A good start. (Just kidding, LSAT students).
Guggenheim’s focus is on fixing a broken system, not questioning its very nature. In his view, it isn’t that what public schools do is wrong, it’s simply that they don’t do it well. This premise is what keeps him from exploring genuinely subversive developments like online education and homeschooling. With technology continually evolving and millions of families opting out of the system every year, it may be that the real education revolution will not come from courageous administrators and reform movements, but from technological advancements and/or educational alternatives.
This, however, is beyond Guggenheim’s vision. Waiting for Superman cannot conceive of education as anything but the centuries old “brick and mortar” compulsory mass government system we have long tolerated. This lack of imagination about what education actually can be is a testament to the power of the current system to perpetuate itself and its values. Noam Chomsky eloquently spoke to this issue:
“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”
No better example of this exists than the debate over education, which today, is still “about the adults.”