“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them;
for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.
Were Jesus able to watch this film I suspect his reaction would be one of rage, similar to that which led him to rebuke his disciples or drive out the merchants from the temple. Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, who won an Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth, paints a dismal picture of the way children are being treated by our education system, a system that seems to favor adults over children. As I watched, I thought of our experience of the impregnable position of teachers when, many years ago, one of our daughters reported that her 2nd grade teacher had rebuked her for coloring outside the lines of the printed pictures that constituted “art class.” We learned that many students were treated far more harshly, that by the end of a year spent with this particular teacher several 2nd graders had developed ulcers and other emotionally related problems. However, there was nothing to be done we learned, except for my wife to tell our daughter to do what she was told in the classroom, but that at home she could swirl her colors around, anyhow and anywhere on the page she wanted. Despite this, however, our children evidently received a better education than the kids shown in this engrossing film.
The filmmaker cleverly bookends the film with scenes from the old Superman TV series, hence the title. One of the educators he goes back to many times for comments is Geoffrey Canada, founder of Harlem’s Children’s Zone: he tells us that as a child he expected Superman would come and fix the problems of himself and the poor, until one day his mother told him that his hero was just a comic book character.
Throughout the film we follow the ups and downs of five children, thus seeing that “the problem” has faces, mostly young faces. Ranging from kindergarten age to 8th grade, and living from Washington, D.C. (Anthony) to East L.A. (Daisy) and points between (Francisco, Bianca and Emily), what they have in common is that each one is anxiously waiting for a lottery that will gain access to a coveted spot in a charter or private school. Their chances in some cases are 20 to 1. They and their parents/caregivers see their future riding on this random selection because, if they stay in their public schools, they will fall behind because of the poor instruction and thus be ill prepared for college.
In between our introduction to the children and the holding of the five lotteries, Mr. Guggenheim shows us shots of virtually every President since Eisenhower promising to be the “Education President,” but with little results, not even when the “Leave No Child behind” program is enacted. Many experts offer theories, and we visit many charter schools that are working, one of them sending over 90% of its students on to college—including Geoffrey Canada’s Children’s Zone, deliberately set up in the roughest part of Harlem where the majority of the children were enrolled in the worst schools of the city.
There are villains in this film, namely inept and uncaring teachers with tenure and the head of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten. She adamantly opposes any rooting out of incompetent teachers. An example of this is when Michelle Rhee, the tough Chancellor of Washington D.C.’s embattled public school system, tries to pay successful teachers more pay and fire the incompetent, failing ones. After a series of stormy public conferences, the AFT refuses to allow Ms. Rhee’s plan to come up for a vote. The film points out that in Illinois one out of 57 doctors loses his medical license, but only one in 2,500 teachers has been fired. There is a depressing scene in which we see “the rubber room” in New York state where teachers charged with incompetence or worse sit idly or play cards while waiting for the long, drawn out bureaucracy to hear their case—at a cost of $100 million a year because they are still on full salary.
The amusing second Superman clip comes near the end of the film when the Man of Steel stops a runaway school bus speeding out of control down a hill. When he opens the door to check on the children, he sees that the bus driver slumped over the wheel. Two adults who have arrived asked what happened to the man, to which Superman replies, “He lost his brains.” This is an advocacy film, so many, especially teachers, are attacking it, while others defend it. This is certainly a movie that matters, the filmmaker serving up no less a personage than Bill Gates who points out that because there are not enough Americans proficient in math and science to meet current demand, we are having to bring in thousands of qualified people from India and other nations. The demand will grow more in the next few years, and the gap even wider, causing our nation to fall behind in several technological fields. A number of suggestions for improvement are offered, mostly based on what has been learned at the successful schools visited earlier. For a lot more on what we the people can do the filmmakers have created a neat website. Go to http://www.waitingforsuperman.com/action/ where you can even see a video of the five children being hosted by President in his Oval Office.
For reflection/Discussion 1. Do you think that the film give an adequate picture of our educational system today? What about the system in your city or town? What schools seem to be working, and which, if any, are failing?
2. If you are an older adult, how did the schools seem in your day? An older lady leaving the theater commented to me that she thought the film accurately portrayed the system in Cincinnati, that she remembers noticing deterioration in her grandchildren’s schools during the 1970s.
3.Which of the many sets of statistics will you recall? We are so used to thinking that we are number one in everything, were you surprised at how our children rank in math and science? Where did we rank number one? How can our overconfidence in ourselves cause us problems?
4. Which of the charter schools that you saw impressed you the most? What was there about it?
5. Do you think that these five children would fail to make it to college, even if all had to put up with a bad school? What might make you think otherwise? How are they different from a great many of children living in the ghetto? Are any of them lacking in an adult determined that the child succeeds? How are these parents and grandparent real heroes?
6. Does the filmmaker provide any background about the formation of the teachers’ unions? What seems to have happened to their earlier altruism? Do you think the filmmaker is being fair to Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers? What about her clash with Michelle Rhee, the Chancellor of Washington D.C. School System?
7. What do you think of Ms. Rhee’s statement; “There’s this unbelievable willingness to turn a blind eye to the injustices that are happening to kids every single day in our schools in the name of harmony among adults” ?
8. Now that you have seen the film, what do you intend to do about the issues it raises?