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Education system is for kids, not teachers


Waiting for 'Superman' (PG). Director: Davis Guggenheim. 111 minutes

Cute kids can carry a film a long way. Take Anthony, a fifth-grader from Washington DC. His lips distended by a mouthful of braces, he admits he's determined to stay in school, in order to avoid the mistakes made by his father, and to make his grandmother proud. Smart and smiling Daisy, from East LA, wants to become a nurse so she can help people in need. Bronx first grader Francisco just can't figure out why his classmates don't enjoy school as much as he does.

Waiting for 'Superman' uses the stories of five intelligent and motivated students as the emotional fulcrum for a sober consideration of the flaws in America's public education system. Most live in low socio-economic areas where school academic performance is generally low, and the drop-out rate is high. For all five, their academic future hangs in the balance.

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Davis Guggenheim is the documentarian who brought Al Gore's climate change manifesto to a global audience in An Inconvenient Truth. Waiting for 'Superman' also reveals uncomfortable truths and systemic failures that seem to favour bureaucracy and teachers' rights over students' wellbeing.

The stakes are high: Guggenheim draws a link between low levels of education and custodial prison sentences in later life. Strikingly, he demonstrates how the cost of imprisoning one inmate for just a few years would be enough to pay for a child's entire primary and secondary school education.

The film has its villains. Not just successive presidents who have paid lip service to this popular issue but failed to pass significant reforms. It also paints teachers unions as self-interested clubs whose safeguards for good teachers also protect the lazy and incompetent, at students' expense.

It finds fault with the system of 'tracking' students, under which low-achieving students are held to lower academic standards and given fewer opportunities to improve. Eighth-grader Emily lives in an affluent Northern California neighbourhood. She is generally a high-achiever, but struggles with maths. The tracking system represents a genuine threat to her academic flourishing.

There are heroes, too. The chancellor of Washington DC's public school system, whose tough love approach has seen her close 23 schools deemed 'ineffective'. The Harlem based reformer who devised methods of 'pipelining' students from birth to college. And the proprietors of high-performing 'charter schools', alternative education institutions that receive public funding contingent upon strict academic standards.

Waiting for 'Superman' celebrates the best of these charter schools as modelling a solution to America's education woes. Its five young heroes hope to gain admission to such schools, but with applications far outnumbering the places available, they literally need to win a lottery in order to do so. Some have as little as five per cent chance of success.

Guggenheim mimics perennial pot-stirrer Michael Moore in using humour to underline serious points. Waiting for 'Superman' uses appealingly cutesy animation to enliven statistical analyses, and to illustrate, for example, a process whereby problematic teachers are shunted from school to school, rather than being held to higher standards.

In one instance, Guggenheim presents data which indicates that, on an international scale, Americans' confidence far outweighs their academic ability. He underlines his point with a hilarious (and Moore-ish) montage of Funniest Home Video style stunt bloopers, accompanied by the sounds of pop-punk band Green Day's anti-anthem 'American Iditot'.

The film's emotional core, contained in the stories of its five young subjects, culminates on lottery day. The odds are stacked heavily against them, but that bastard hope is a hard beast to keep down. This climactic sequence is tense and emotional. There must be heartbreak, at least for some.

A caveat: advocacy documentaries are of course subjective. Filmmakers will make value judgments, and interpret empirical data according to their own perspective. But Guggenheim makes his case persuasively, and Waiting for 'Superman' should provide grist to the mill of Australia's debates about how we fund and measure the success of our schools. 

Waiting for 'Superman' is screening exclusively at Palace Verona in Sydney, Cinema Nova in Melbourne, Palace Centro in Brisbane, Nova Eastend in Adelaide, and Cinema Paradiso in Perth.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is a contributor to Kidzone, Inside Film and The Big Issue, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Melbourne's The Age and Brisbane's Courier-Mail. Follow Tim on Twitter 

Topic tags: Waiting for 'Superman', Davis Guggenheim, american education system, michelle rhee, geoffrey canada



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Existing comments

A good review. I'm looking forward to seeing the film. The challenge is to get systemic reform, not just opportunites for those favoured by location, money (does it discuss this?) or chance. In the sixties, I taught secondary school with a de-frocked minister of religion who wrought havoc on discipline and the learning of Geography for which I was Convenor. Another colleague was a guy with half a commercial pilot's licence who taught Maths. There were several Primary trained teachers one of whom did a good job teaching Geography, despite her lack of deeper understandng of the subject.

No wonder, I, a then conservative voter and many others attended the union-led strike in the Myer Music Bowl. About 25 years ago, the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association head said that they had been responsible for moving 80 sub-standard teachers out of the system. Today, teachers' pay, which has half the buying power of my salary in 1961-7, is a big disincentive for the best and brightest to take up teaching here. Even the Business Council of Australia said that they should be paid up to $130,000. Don't start me on the shameful sequestration of tax-payers' money to prop up those private schools that charge nearly $30,000 in fees, schools that are obviously out of reach to the 2 million low-income earners whose taxes contribute to them.

Bill Hampel | 24 March 2011  

I am a teacher and a counsellor . My husband is a teacheer and my daughter. I have 45 years of working with children . I invite you to visit a classroom of 30 childrne which includes 2 autistic children and heavy emotional problems. How will teachers cope without the support of the teachers unions as the government continues to exploit teachers.

Do you know how many males are teaching. why is this. ? Have you done research on the mental health of over stressed teachers ? Visit some schools. Support Children and Teachers. It is crisis time for both.

ruth Kapernick | 24 March 2011  

I don't know much about the US system. But your review had me googling the documentary because it was an interesting topic. This seems to tell a somewhat different side of the story to the film. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/11/myth-charter-schools/?pagination=false

Beth | 24 March 2011  

Tim, it sounds very interesting and I thank you for the review. The situation of teachers' pay in the US is more dire than here - especially as teachers are not paid for their summer break, but have to get second jobs.

Bill, I agree about teachers' pay. Why do we value CEOs at $50million plus and our teachers, nurses and other essential, vocational occupations so lowly? I have to disagree about the funding though. Have a look into it and you will see that governments give far less to private schools than to public; and private schools are generally far more efficient at educating children, on a per capita basis. There is much misinformation about this.
Ruth, you question males in teaching. I believe this is the result of a gender divide. Teaching in the last 40-50 years has been done mainly by women. Many of the women my husband (a teacher) works with are not concerned with teaching as a profession. It is a second income, and they are not as concerned about pay and conditions. I think if they were primary earners I think they would be more concerned.

MBG | 24 March 2011  

Thank you, Beth. That link is one that everyone who reads this article should also read.

Erik H | 24 March 2011  

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