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May 07, 2010

The inconvenient truth about Waiting for Superman

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s an education system ready to crush us!

The other night I caught an early screening of Waiting for Superman, a new film by Davis Guggenheim (director of An Inconvenient Truth) and winner of the Audience Award at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Whether you hated or loved the makeover of Al Gore’s global-warming PowerPoint, this film probably won’t divide along political tribes.

Why? Because, nobody — not bleeding-heart liberals, compassionate conservatives, or liberty-loving libertarians — can watch these kids who so desperately want to learn and not feel their hearts being gently ripped from their chests.

Where’s my medication?

Or at least that's how I felt. The film follows five children — ages 6 to teensomething, living in different parts of the country — whose public schools are failing them in some way. Their parents all attempt to change the kids’ fates by entering a lottery to get them into better schools.

Between heartbreaking scenes of perfectly great kids in perfectly not-so-great (and sometimes downright awful) schools, we get interviews with leaders like Bill Gates (who explains why our failing K-12 schools could crush the American economy) and teachers' union leader Randi Weingarten (representing the villainous status quo screeching to her constituency about fighting to protect teacher tenure). Add the fact-filled cartoons about soaring dropout rates, math proficiency scores in the toilet, etc., and soon you’re feeling around in the bottom of your purse for a random Xanax or Altoid to stem the rising panic.

The miracle of charters — not

The best failing-education film ever? Yeah, but at a price. The great thing about Waiting for Superman is that it grabs you by the lapels and won’t let go. But high drama ends up messing with reality. Since every kid in the movie is trying to get into a charter school, the whole film unwittingly becomes very slanted. Why? Less than one in five charter schools outperforms comparable public schools — a fact cited in the film based on recent research out of Stanford University — but emotionally you forget it. Even if all charters were fabulous, they serve only a tiny percentage of children in the nation. Don’t get me wrong: I’m pro-charter, but also pro-truth.

Check out this interview with the director, and if you want the movie to come to your town, Guggenheim says Paramount will allow you to vote for it online (though this feature doesn’t seem ready yet). Either way, the movie is sure to be a weeper or, if you’re a lover of teachers' unions, a vein-popping gnasher.


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Even if they don't outperform charters, parents need to have a say in their children's education.

Parents who want a traditional education with strict discipline and uniforms are going to feel better with their children in a school that matches that philosophy. And parents who want a progressive philosophy and organic lunches while listening to classical music and doing service projects should be able to create that too.

Charters for the sake of charters? No. But giving parents the choice of how their children get educated? Absolutely. Because parents who have a say will be more active and their families more engaged in their education.

That's one of the most striking features of the film: how much these parents (no matter their educational background or financial struggles) care about their kids' schooling and want only the best for them.

But, in this film at least, the kids' fates are very much determined by pure luck.

I didn't necessarily feel that the movie was pro-charter but rather pro-innovation. The fact that the charter schools were able to get past much of the public school political mumbo-jumbo was what I took away as contributing to their success. The idea that you can do something differently and it can be successful was what I perceived as a way to challenge the "its always been this way" mentality.

I don't like it. Usual comics are way better that this movie...

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