Dir. Davis Guggenheim
(2010, PG, 102 min)
★ ★ ★ ★

I walked out of Waiting for ‘Superman’ with a craving to learn. Of course, when you’re a kid, learning often feels more like a chore than an opportunity. Tests are those things you worry about, and homework is what’s standing between you and more TV. But now that I’m an adult I see the magic of knowledge, from fractions to physics, from history to literature. If it were a career path I’d do it for a living.

Directed by Davis Guggenheim, who is most famous for his Oscar winning global-warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth, ‘Superman’ succeeds by taking a nation’s worth of disheartening education statistics and making them profoundly personal. It follows several families throughout the US — promising kids and their heroically dedicated parents — as they struggle to advance despite failing school districts.

Geoffrey Canada

Guggenheim takes on the national teachers’ unions, a surprising and perhaps risky target for criticism, but he isn’t pushing a rabidly anti-union agenda. Organizing vulnerable and exploitable workers is a good thing, he posits, except when they organize against accountability and reform. In Illinois, one in every 57 doctors and one in every 97 lawyers lose their license to practice, but only one in every 2500 teachers loses his credentials. That’s because automatic tenure for public school teachers and convoluted procedures for dismissal make it virtually impossible to fire the bad ones.

In Illinois, that problem manifests itself in the “lemon dance,” in which principals shuffle around bad teachers they can’t fire, in the hope that the ones they get will be better than the ones they got rid of. The lemon dance, illustrated in a cartoon as funny as it is sad, reminded me of the practice by some Catholic dioceses of transferring pedophile priests instead of defrocking them.

In New York, you have “rubber rooms,” where teachers under investigation wait as long as three years for disciplinary action. Those teachers receive full pay while they wait for their cases to be decided; at the cost of $100 million per year, the rubber rooms result in the teaching of not one single student. I have friends who aspire to teach, and for whom the struggle to get jobs amidst a New York hiring freeze has been herculean. No wonder. If it’s so difficult to remove incapable teachers, how do dedicated new teachers ever break into the system.

Renewed hope comes from flourishing charter schools that demonstrate how reformed methods and higher standards for both teachers and students can produce remarkable results. Geoffrey Canada, one of the film’s best interview subjects, runs the Harlem Children’s Zone, which tracks the progress of every child in its disadvantaged Manhattan neighborhood. He’s tireless and charismatic, explaining that he had expected to fix the entire national system within a couple of years of teaching. He’s not kidding, and despite the red tape in his way I wouldn’t bet against him.

Anthony Black

But charter schools are few and far between and competition to get in is fierce, so families must place their hopes in a random lottery. Guggenheim cuts between drawings across the country, where the parents and students we’ve followed wait helplessly for their outcome and the odds range from one in three students accepted to one in twenty. It’s the emotional and philosophical climax of Guggenheim’s exposé, distilling his troubling statistics into the specific plights of specific children, for whom succeeding in America comes down to luck of the draw. I haven’t seen a more captivating sequence in a film this year.

The only thing wrong with Waiting for ‘Superman’ is that it’s not ten hours longer. Of I.O.U.S.A., another excellent documentary about a confounding American crisis, I wrote, “it needs a sequel, a prequel, a spinoff, and a weekly TV series,” and the same applies to this film, which introduces us to great teachers and dedicated parents, but doesn’t show us what happens when bad parents happen to good kids, or when bad schools happen to good teachers. I wondered also about the real effect of No Child Left Behind, a program whose specific impact isn’t explored. But as a survey of the major blunders and roadblocks of the American education system, it’s extraordinary, a sure bet for my list of the year’s best films. As George W. Bush, part of a long line of self-proclaimed “Education Presidents,” explained in 2007, “Childrens do learn.” We elected that guy. Twice. (Well, technically once.)