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Waiting for Superman’ takes strong stance on schools

Ankur Chawla | Thursday, November 4, 2010

Geoffrey Canada, a Bronx social activist for charter schools, said the saddest moment in his life was when his mom told him that Superman was not real. To him, Superman was the one person who would always be there, always come through, regardless of who was in trouble.

This documentary by Academy Award winning director Davis Guggenheim describes Geoffrey Canada’s “Superman” solution to the ailing public school system.   

The driving force in the movie is Guggenheim’s claim that there are names behind the nation’s poor education and names for those suffering because of it. The film follows the lives of five students, ranging from kindergarten to high school, from the heart of the Bronx to suburban California and across race, gender and income level.

As he follows these students, the key problems of public schooling quickly become apparent: apathetic, uninterested and underqualified teachers, laughably underfunded schools and a bureaucracy paired with a teachers union that prevents progress from being made.

Each of the five students is trying to escape the “dropout factories” they will inevitably enroll in while waiting for their Superman. The inner-city schools are shown with broken desks and outdated materials. The schools are surrounded by poverty and run down streets. But it’s not just the urban areas that suffer from poor education, even in suburban areas roughly half of those enrolled in high school will be deemed fit for college after four years.

Video footage of teachers reading the paper or sleeping during class time epitomizes these problems. The movie takes harsh jabs at teachers’ unions and administration for making tenure easier to obtain for public school teachers than milk at a grocery store. Meanwhile administrations left stockpiles of unopened and undistributed school supplies in the Washington D.C. school district unaccounted for in its joke of a bureaucracy.

One of the most depressing moments occurs as Daisy, a fifth grader with all of her dreams to become a surgeon planned out, even as far as having sent letters to the colleges she hopes to attend, is denied a spot at the KIPP Charter School in Los Angeles. Instead, she will be attending the local public schools, where six out of 10 high school students never graduate.

Still, hopeful moments exist as those who do gain access to the coveted charter schools do considerably better than the public or private school counterparts, and have been shown to be able to make even those students with the greatest odds against them academically successful and college bound.

This movie does a great job of illustrating the key problems with education in America, while providing insight into a “proven” solution to the problem. While admittedly one sided, harsh and possibly with vested interests to promote the privatization of schools, “Waiting for Superman” shines a clear and bright light on the shortcomings of public education. It is a thought provoking and attention-grabbing documentary that may shape the schools of tomorrow.