If you can say one thing for “Waiting for Superman,” it is not a dry documentary. Displaying storytelling craft far beyond “An Inconvenient Truth,” Davis Guggenheim's appealing treatment of global warming with former Vice President Al Gore, offers an entertaining, and sometimes heartbreaking, look at public education in America. It's easy to imagine audiences wiping away tears as the credits roll after learning what failing public schools mean for young people, their sense of themselves and hopes for the future.
Yet while the movie does a succinct job surveying the state of American schools, and, in the process, profiling several primary-school-age children whose fates hinge on their success, its ideas for how to solve the problem are often facile and misleading. Guggenheim says he took on the project based on experiences finding schools for his own children, but the film's primary argument — that it's all the teachers' faults and by extension their unions' — makes it hard to give the movie high marks.
“Waiting” takes a while to get to its conclusions, however, and in the meantime it offers an easily digestible history of how the relatively new ideal for a free, thorough education fell apart. As the movie helpfully reminds us, public education is a worthwhile institution we didn't always have, one that for many years, especially when we had a thriving, upwardly mobile middle class, was among the best in the world. As the fortunes of the cubicle and the factory floor went, however, so did the fate of the children, who in too many regions today enjoy a level of learning on par with some Third World countries. If public education is something we take for granted, its frayed and tattered edges are showing the results of that lack of concern.
Sadly, although the South receives some of worst marks, we see that the entire nation routinely graduates poorly performing students while watching as many others drop out, often to end up in another disturbing American institution: prison. Lively visual aids help us see the impact that generations of neglect have had on the country, as the movie moves into its contemporary segments, exploring the difference between public schools and the emergence of charter schools, along with the efforts of families to gain access to those alternatives.
“Waiting” offers convincing arguments for improvements from notable, devoted reformers like Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee, the controversial chancellor of the District of Columbia public school system. It also shows how complex and internecine is the web of overlapping forces that bear influence over their reform efforts. Less persuasive is the movie's insistence that conditions are uniform across the country, that wealthy suburban schools are just as bad off as ones in the inner city, a preposterous line of reasoning undermined by the documentary's own evidence.
Equally unsound — and more troubling — is the idea that charter schools are the only answer, an answer arrived at from questionable premises. One is that mainstream public institutions are rife with bad teachers that are locked into their jobs no matter how badly they teach, and this is due to union rules involving tenure. The other is that charter schools must be good, better than public schools at least, because if they get bad teachers they don't have any pesky rules requiring that they keep them.
It is true that there are bad teachers at public schools, and it is difficult to remove them unless they do something extremely inappropriate — a problem that demands some reform. It is also true that unions bear some blame for hindering efforts to better schools by weeding out ineffective teachers. But “Waiting” suggests we throw the baby out with the bath water by getting rid of unions altogether — and all to get rid of one of its more bothersome contractual agreements. It is a wild leap to suggest we abolish teachers' unions, which have been around for far longer than schools, at least some of them, have been failing this badly.
The movie does have one irrefutable argument: the bright and lively children at its center, who demand our undivided sympathy. And yet, as much as you feel for these innocent children trapped by a seemingly unfeeling system, the movie doesn't do them any favors by offering childish solutions. (PG) 102 min.