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Waiting for 'Superman' suggests questionable fixes for education

The lottery scenes are fairly shameless, even cruel.
The lottery scenes are fairly shameless, even cruel.
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There's no more vivid indication of our nation's economic divide, which amounts to a racial divide, than the state of the school system. Inner-city kids, generally African American and Hispanic, are ill-served by schools that are rife with chaos. It's a crisis, a tragedy. Everyone knows that.

Director and co-writer David Guggenheim vividly depicts the crisis in Waiting for "Superman", his forceful, somewhat maddening documentary about the ailing school system and some reformers who are trying to fix it. Numerous experts talk about the problems, including the Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz. He has identified 2,000 "dropout factories" nationwide - high schools that fail to graduate a startlingly high percentage of students.

Guggenheim also depicts the crisis by employing a device I'm not wild about, one that is becoming a tedious norm in certain polemical documentaries (see: Food, Inc.): cutesy animations. To illustrate a disturbing phenomenon called the Dance of the Lemons, which has to do with bad teachers being shifted from school to school, Guggenheim shows cartoon teachers who have lemons for heads (get it?) dancing to a Strauss waltz (get it?). The segment both panders and trivializes, though I suppose that now I'll never forget the Dance of the Lemons.

But Guggenheim most vividly illustrates the problems by focusing on five schoolkids, ranging in age from about 5 to about 13. Four are of color and live in big cities - New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. One is white and lives in Silicon Valley. The kids are cute and charming as they talk about their lives, their educations, their dreams. Francisco, a Bronx first-grader, likes math and wants to be a reporter. Daisy, a fifth-grader in L.A., hopes to be a vet.

What the five have in common is that they are trying to get out of regular public schools and enroll in charter schools. They face long odds. A subtitle notes that at Kipp L.A. Prep, where Daisy would like to go, there are 135 applications for 10 spaces. Kindergartener Bianca's mother would like to send her to Harlem Success Academy, where for 35 spaces there are 737 applications. The math is brutal, and so are the lotteries that determine who gets in. The film concludes with agonizing scenes from these drawings - children weep when their numbers aren't drawn. These scenes are effective but also fairly shameless, even cruel.

Waiting for "Superman" has much praise for charter schools, which are publicly funded but not managed by school districts. The case is made for them by, among others, Bill Gates, who tells the camera that "top" charter schools send 90% of their students to college. (He doesn't mention the non-top ones.) Another reformer, prominently featured, is Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone, a nonprofit program that links educational innovation and social services in a swath of the Manhattan neighborhood.

Also prominently featured is Michelle Rhee, the Washington, D.C., schools chief who raised hackles, and improved test scores, by closing schools and firing underperforming educators. It's in the Rhee segments that Guggenheim emphasizes his most contentious claims, which are about teachers' unions and the school system's ills. Especially derided is the tenure system, which keeps bad teachers from getting fired. It is indeed a problem, but I infer from Guggenheim's championing of charter schools, which mostly are not unionized, that his solution is to mostly not have teachers' unions. He pays lip service to the founding principles of unions, but he implies that they are an outdated response to problems that don't really exist anymore.

Much is made of Rhee's proposal to pay higher salaries to teachers who are not tenured. The union didn't even allow a vote on the proposal, Guggenheim reports, in a scolding tone. I'm no expert, but I'd conjecture that the union didn't allow a vote because the policy would have divided teachers, and the point of unions is, well, union. On Oct. 13, Rhee announced that she would leave the D.C school district in the wake of Mayor Adrian Fenty's defeat in the September primary.

Much also is made of New York City's notorious "rubber rooms." In them, teachers are seen reading newspapers and playing cards as they await disciplinary hearings, at full pay. Appalling stuff, which is why rubber rooms were eliminated earlier this year in an agreement the city struck with the union. You wouldn't know that from watching Waiting for "Superman". What the agreement confirms is that reform is possible, even when it comes to teachers' unions.

In addition to many episodes of television shows (24, the revived Melrose Place), Guggenheim directed the Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, in which Al Gore made the case for fighting global warming. And Guggenheim seems at pains to remind viewers of his liberal credentials. We're obviously meant to laugh at a clip of George W. Bush saying, "Childrens do learn."

But I'm reminded of the old saw that a conservative is a liberal who got mugged. In early scenes, Guggenheim discloses that he sends his kids to private schools, presumably with the concomitant liberal guilt. How does he expiate the guilt? By casting unions in an almost laughably monstrous light, apparently. He's a liberal for Al Gore and global warming, but he bashes unions just like a conservative.

Referring to the new charter schools, Guggenheim says in a voiceover, "If you want better schools, it's all about options." Could be, but what about fixing the schools we already have?

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