Waiting for “Superman”—A Call to Action

Last week, a stealth and spiteful storm struck New York City, spawning two tornados and a macroburst. That evening, escaping our 9-5s, the masses and I scattered under an apocalyptic sky, which was the stuff of summer blockbuster movies. Something big was brewing; we could feel it in the thick, electric air, screaming wind, and dark, growling clouds. We tend to pay attention when storms speak, especially those that communicate through destruction.

I safely escaped this speedy tempest underneath the earth, protected by the Number 1 train. Once above ground, I looked to the sky, which appeared oddly normal despite the earlier assault, and shrugged. I dashed to the Ford Foundation to attend the film screening and panel discussion intended for this review. Nestled in the dark theater, thoughts of the storm escaped my mind until the film’s thoughtful closing credits. I was struck with the notion that the Oscar-winning team behind An Inconvenient Truth, director, Davis Guggenheim (left), and producer, Lesley Chilcott, are once again leaping headfirst and umbrella-free into a controversial storm. Their latest triumph, Waiting for “Superman”, depicts the inclement condition of the public education system in the United States, assigns blame for its turbulence, and dares to provide us with an alternative.

Highlighted in the film are a few of today’s superstars—or, superheroes—of education reform: Michelle Rhee, chancellor for the District of Columbia Public Schools; Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ); David Levin and Mike Feinberg, founders of Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP); and Bill Strickland, president and CEO of Manchester Bidwell Corporation. Their innovative endeavors contrast what’s working in public education with the perils of a broken system.

We learn how the system is failing many young people by following the compelling stories of Anthony, Bianca, Daisy, Emily, and Francisco. We meet their dedicated parents who are struggling to provide the best education for their children despite poverty, a poor economy and lackluster neighborhood schools. I quickly found myself emotionally invested in their dream-filled stories, hoping that each would beat the odds. In this case, beating the odds means getting accepted to a high-performing charter school. Non-acceptance means attending a low-performing school, or “drop-out factory,” and often a life of poverty and crime.

Producer, Lesley Chilcott, who participated in the panel discussion, explained that contrary to many critiques, the intention of the film was not to deem charter schools the magic bullet for education reform. In fact, the film acknowledges that only 1 in 5 charter schools is exemplary. Chilcott and Guggenheim felt as though the lottery one must enter to attend a thriving charter school was a poignant metaphor for the probability of a child receiving a quality education today. Charter school regulations state that if there are more applications than spaces available, the school must conduct a lottery. Sadly, many children’s fates are contingent upon the luck of the draw. The most dramatic moments in the film occur as we wait with these five families in packed gymnasiums for their lottery results—pin-drop silent, fingers and toes crossed. Of course, all tales cannot end happily; frustration with the injustices plaguing the innocent evoked tears from many in that theater, including myself.

As a reprieve from this weighted tension, the filmmakers find a few moments for ironic humor in the uninhibited honesty of kids and the clever scene that provides the film’s namesake. Peppered among interviews and portraits are effective–sometimes cheeky–animations illustrating the startling and often appalling realities of the dissonance between local, state, and federal governance of education standards and practices, the tracking and pigeonholing of students based on test scores, and how school officials tap dance around tenure by trading defunct teachers.

While the film briefly identifies an antiquated system and decades of largely ineffective reform efforts like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) as public enemies, we are meant to view tenure as the biggest menace to society. As per union contract, educators receive tenure, or permanent employment, after two probationary years of teaching. While tenure was initially created to protect good teachers from unfair nonrenewal of their contracts, the policy has become a detriment to the education system, as it is nearly impossible to terminate ineffective and academically dangerous teachers. The film follows Michelle Rhee (recently dubbed “Warrior Woman” by Oprah) and her gallant attempt at negotiating with the union for higher teacher salaries in place of tenure. At one point, a deflated Rhee concludes, “It all becomes about the adults.”

Audience members at this particular screening criticized the filmmakers for being anti-union. Both Guggenheim and Chilcott protest, as they confidently share their affiliation with unions in the entertainment industry. Chilcott states that the intention of the film was to express opposition to the misuse of union regulations as a means of lifetime protection for underperforming teachers.

In addition, the attendees felt that Waiting for “Superman” neglects to discuss in depth racial segregation and the disproportionate funding that occurs by zip code, and does not reflect those public schools that are doing well. Chilcott explained the constraints of addressing so many large, multilayered issues within the limitations of cinema time. While the film touches on each of these areas, any further addition to the film would have given the piece too broad of a stroke, and a significantly longer running time.

Although the problems with the public education system are massive, the message of the film is one of hope and cautious optimism. The highlighted charter schools are surpassing those of privilege and wealth. In doing so, they are creating successful models that can be replicated and adapted for individual communities regardless of demographics. By hiring the highest quality teachers, holding greater accountability for student success, extending classroom hours, and placing higher expectations on students, all children could have access to quality education.

Waiting for “Superman” is a film designed to ignite dialogues, to stir within us a desire to spur change in our own communities. In a way, Guggenheim and Chilcott created their own storm, raging against a failing institution. Like a tornado, this inspirational film is generating energy, stirring up important questions and conversations. Ultimately, each of us is obligated to protect the future of our nation, and that means education reform and civic engagement. Chilcott asserts, “We all are Superman. It’s not just a movie—it’s a call to action.”

Waiting for “Superman” opens in New York City and Los Angeles this Friday, September 24, and in other cities across the country in October. Until 10/10/10, if you buy your ticket on Fandango or Movietickets.com, you’ll receive a $15 gift code to fund a classroom project on www.DonorsChoose.org, an online charity that fosters citizen philanthropy as a means of providing our nation’s classrooms with much needed supplies and experiences.