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'Waiting for Superman' and a better education

by Tyler Wilson
| November 5, 2010 9:00 PM

America's education system is broken, and, as you might guess, a bunch of people are to blame.

While such a statement doesn't incite much controversy, it also doesn't stir people to action. The new documentary "Waiting for Superman" will do both. It puts a human face on a staggering national problem and takes a harsh look at the individuals and organizations responsible for making it better.

Director Davis Guggenheim ("An Inconvenient Truth") understands how to craft an entertaining documentary, which is the ultimate key to bringing about change. The film cites engaging speakers, eye-opening statistics and even a relevant clip from "The Simpsons" courtesy of Ralph Wiggum, America's poster child for public education.

The film argues several factors that contribute to the nation's gradual slide in quality schooling, especially in math and science. It convincingly points the finger at funding snafus at the federal and state levels, unfair testing and advance placement programs, and the lack of accountability for individual teachers.

Most controversially, it takes a few stabs at teachers unions and how difficult it can be to remove the ineffective teachers from their posts. Instead of demanding results, some school districts shuffle their poor-performing teachers from school to school, assigning "problem" children to "problem" instructors.

And in looking at a number of low-income neighborhoods, Guggenheim asks audiences to reconsider the cause of low graduation rates. Rather than looking at neighborhoods as the cause for bad schools, perhaps bad education is hindering a neighborhood's quality of life.

If "Waiting for Superman" has a slant, it's toward effective charter schools. Even as Guggenheim admits that only one in five charter schools perform at acceptable standards, the film uses good charter schools as its argument for reform. This is a definite oversimplification, but Guggenheim seems to be going for a much simpler answer: Reward good teachers and practices and stop whatever isn't working.

"Waiting for Superman" especially shines in its depiction of real children and families struggling to break out of their substandard options. The central arc of the doc follows five families preparing to enter their children in state-mandated lotteries, where only a few students out of hundreds of applicants are randomly selected to attend better-performing charter programs. These kids attend the lotteries, where their future is essentially determined by a Powerball drawing with no monetary prize. It's a tragic sight when their names aren't called.

"Waiting for Superman" exposes more problems than answers, and the solutions presented won't make sense to some audiences. But Guggenheim has crafted an engaging and thought-provoking film that, with any luck, will stir a national debate that leads to real solutions.

"Waiting for Superman" is playing at the AMC Cinemas at River Park Square in Spokane.

Grade: A-

Tyler Wilson can be reached at Read more film reviews and pop culture commentary at

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