Short of a heroic rescue by Superman, what will it take to fix America's broken education system? The question seems to motivate documentarian Davis Guggenheim in Waiting for Superman, which tackles one of our most complicated problems: public education. Though he has made films on more controversial subjects (the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth addressed global warming), and on less (the guitar rock documentary It Might Get Loud), writer/director Guggenheim here tackles an indisputably important, bipartisan issue—one that we all have a stake in.
It might seem a tall order to make a succinct, engaging documentary on something like "the problems of education in America today," and indeed it is. But Waiting for Superman manages the task, in part because Guggenheim (who narrates the film) frames the issue in personal terms, by focusing on five individual students and their families. Anthony, Biana, Daisy, Emily and Francisco are the film's protagonists—American public school students ranging in age from kindergarten to eighth grade. What unites these five is that each is trying to win a spot in a public charter school, in hopes of receiving a high quality education instead of (in some cases) an abysmal, small-chance-of-success education at notoriously failing schools. For these students, the lottery that will determine whether they can go to charter school truly will decide their fate. It's the difference between being set on a track where college is expected and one where even a high school diploma is improbable.
Whether or not the disparity and "opportunity gap" between charter and "regular" schools is actually this extreme is an open question, but Guggenheim convincingly, wrenchingly shows us that for these five families, the drama is very real. We root for these students, feel the pain in their parents' eyes, and understand that yes, we'd do the same thing. Every parent wants the best for their child—schools that will help them excel rather than let them down. The tragedy underscored in this film is that for most Americans who can't afford private education, it's all about the luck of the draw. You go to the school in the neighborhood in which you live. Or you go to a charter school—but only if you win the lottery (literally).
Though these five personal stories provide the film's main emotional arc, Waiting for Superman is also full of facts, graphs, history, and speculation about the factors that have led to this situation. Why have our students' test scores flatlined in recent decades, even as education spending continues to increase ($9,000 per student today, versus $4,300 in 1971)? What is truly behind the "achievement gap" between rich and poor students? Do bad neighborhoods cause bad schools, or is it the other way around?
As with any compelling movie, Waiting for Superman has both heroes and villains. Among its heroes is Geoffrey Canada, innovative education reformer who created charter schools in one of Harlem's most disadvantaged neighborhoods and has overseen a dramatic increase in high school graduation rates. Then there is Michelle Rhee, a tough-as-nails outsider who became Chancellor of Washington D. C.'s embattled public school system in 1997 and radically changed the system by firing bad teachers and compensating good ones with much higher salaries.