'Superman' paints education picture, but does it have answers?

Davis Guggenheim shows what parents know: Something has to be done. But how?

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"Waiting for 'Superman'" argues for new strategies to education America's young people.

Davis Guggenheim shows what parents know: Something has to be done. But how?

Director Davis Guggenheim’s docudrama on what’s wrong with America’s public schools and how (maybe) to fix them is already creating controversy and plenty of interest among parents who know from their kids’ experience that something’s got to be done. But will the controversy among the usual players in the K-12 debate obscure the solution which the film offers almost as a subtext?

Here’s the plot of the new film, "Waiting for 'Superman' ": Five families want their children out of the stultifying, dysfunctional public schools they attend or will be assigned to. One is a Silicon Valley middle-class school. It isn’t so bad until you compare it with schools in the other developed nations. The others are inner-city — L.A., New York, Washington, D.C.

Each family fears, correctly, that the public schools in their neighborhood will drain their child of joy and hope and leave them with little chance or a decent future, college, and a good job. Each sees a way out. They seek admission to nearby high-performing charter schools where nearly all the kids excel and are college-bound. There is absolutely no doubt these are excellent schools and Guggenheim holds them up as examples of how K-12 can be done right.

This is a serious plot, with real tension and relief, joy and tragedy. The good schools are scarce and in demand. You can’t just show up in September and be assigned a desk. There aren’t enough places for every child who wants to attend. Who gets in is determined by lottery, the drawing of folded bits of paper, numbered ping-pong balls coughed out by a machine, computers picking names randomly.

Those who sense a similarity to Seattle’s school choice system and assignment process are not far off the mark. But in “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” the families and most of the kids attend these lotteries, held in the school gym with dozens and sometimes a couple hundred equally stressed and frightened families and kids. It’s their only chance at a better school. Director Davis Guggenheim’s cameras follow them there.

You’ve come to know these kids and their parents in the film’s first 80 minutes, seen them invest in hope. Watching their anxious, strained faces as Guggenheim draws out the suspense of the lottery number by number is truly painful. It will be honestly tearful for some viewers. This is a horrible system. It should not be this way.

That is Guggenheim’s message. American public education has lost its way, lost it a long time ago, actually. Even at their best, American schools lag Europe and other developed nations in quality. Too many American children are short-changed, leaving school as dropouts lacking job skills. Many end up in jail, costing our states and counties more to incarcerate them for even one year than a decent K-12 education (all 13 years!) would have cost in the first place.

Achievement scores have flat-lined; the achievement gap between the affluent and students from low-income families remains stubbornly as wide as ever. The director uses depressing statistics presented with animated graphics to underscore these points. 

There can’t be much disagreement that “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” draws a true picture of American education. It’s tragic. It is a tale of loss and injustice for those who can’t afford to buy their way out through private school (as, guiltily, Guggenheim has done for his children, a circumstance that led to the film), and for those who don’t win the lottery for a place in the lifeboats, the relatively few exceptional charter schools.

As in every such plot there are, of course, villains. Guggenheim finds his in the teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, and in “The Blob,” the great complex web of local school boards and administrators, state and federal school officials that (sometimes seeming at cross purposes) provide the money and direct the country’s K-12 spending. The Blob’s inertia and the unions’ commitment to adult needs are the fatal flaws driving this tragedy.

There are also heroes, if not exactly supermen. These are the innovators, among them the founders of the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) group of charter schools, D.C. Superintendent Michelle Rhee, and Geoffrey Canada, driving genius of the Harlem Children’s Zone, whose Promise Academy charter schools are featured in the film, along with Canada himself, eloquently explaining the plight of kids robbed of their futures by years trapped in lousy schools. Teaming up with them are the philanthropists, Bill Gates, particularly, and others such as Eli Broad who didn’t make it into the film, but who’s also notable for large grants designed to reform schools.

What Guggenheim has presented, then, is a sharp dichotomy, maybe just shy of real Manichean good vs. evil in which major forces, teachers unions and The Blob support the sad status quo while innovators and philanthropists work to brighten kids’ futures.

Understandably, the film has already sparked a flaming reaction. The unions and other education establishmentarians hardly enjoy their portrayal as the bad guys. They’re arguing loudly that Guggenheim has oversimplified an unbelievably complex national problem. Charter schools are not the answer, etc. (In remarks following a screening in Seattle on Wednesday Guggenheim acknowledged the research that shows only 1 in 5 charters perform better than public schools with matching demographics. “I’m not saying charters are the silver bullet … you really could achieve this in public schools,” though the film itself demonstrates that wouldn’t be easy.)

Another attack on the film comes from people, including some Seattle school activists, who in addition to their opposition to charters (voted down three times in Washington), fear that the Gates and Broad foundations and others are using their disproportionate power to push business-based school reforms, such as performance pay for teachers, an approach “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” appears to endorse. (It’s not a big point in the film because Guggenheim keeps his eye on what’s going on with the five kids and their families buffeted in the winds of the real world and isn’t interested in reporting who’s on what side today, but the Obama administration also supports charter schools and performance pay for teachers.)

There’s no doubt that “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” will be a factor in the education debate, right now as hot as it’s ever been. But if all we see is a tug-of-war over issues like charters or teacher performance pay, it’ll be a battle over the wrong things. Even Davis Guggenheim would think so. What he’s found out is that there are a few key elements common to successful schools and he lists them a couple times in the film and they’re displayed again among the hortatory urgings for the audience to “make a difference” that are mixed in with the credits.

The message from “Superman,” somewhat paraphrased, is to do these things:

  • Get a good teacher in every classroom.
  • Set and hold high standards (for academic achievement and behavior).
  • Lengthen the school day and the school year.
  • Relentlessly expect and demand that every student work hard.
  • Stick with each student until they’ve mastered the lesson.
  • Talk about the goal — college — at every opportunity.

Well, how exactly? And where will the money come from?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly is a former Seattle Times reporter who covered Seattle neighborhoods, City Hall and public schools during 14-years with the paper.