"Are you excited about what we're going to do today?" a teacher brightly asks her elementary school class. "Yes," the class replies in unison.
The subject of "Waiting for 'Superman'", a new film by Davis Guggenheim (who won an Oscar for "An Inconvenient Truth"), is essentially those children—and how long it will take for America's public school system to extinguish their excitement for learning. The statistics are grim: education spending in America has increased to $9,000 per student today, versus $4,300 in 1971 (adjusted for inflation), yet math and reading scores in the country have both flatlined. America ranks a pitiful 25th in math and 21st in science among 30 developed countries, and the average rate of student proficiency in most states is between 20% and 30%.
To offset (yet entrench) the dreary effect of such facts, "Waiting for 'Superman'" (also mentioned in this week's Economist) is structured around five children of different ages and circumstances. What the youngsters have in common is an eagerness to learn that has yet to be dampened by overcrowded schools, poor teachers and administrative inattention. The film puts their stories in context by interviewing a handful of charismatic proponents of education reform, including Michelle Rhee, a controversial chancellor of the public school system in Washington, DC, and Geoffrey Canada, a visionary whose organisation, the Harlem Children’s Zone, has seen remarkable success in getting kids to strive for a college education.
Both Canada and Rhee locate the system's main problem in teachers—or, specifically, in bad teachers. While a good teacher can cover 150% of the required curriculum, the film points out, a bad teacher may cover as little as 50%. Since the current union-endorsed system of tenure makes no distinctions between good and bad work, even the worst teachers are effectively guaranteed a job for life. Jonathan Alter, a senior editor at Newsweek interviewed in the film, puts it bluntly: "The teacher's unions are a menace and an impediment to reform."
But politics aside, it takes only a short tour through some of the country's failing schools to see that reform is desperately needed. An overcrowded school in the Bronx resembles a correctional institution. When asked to describe her child's classroom, one mother says it evokes a "why bother" attitude. For children in such schools, Canada says, "the world is a cold, heartless place because they've been given the short end of the stick and they don't know why."
Although dismal at times, "Waiting for 'Superman'" is ultimately a galvanising film. It offers solutions—not ideal ones, but solutions nonetheless—and provides examples of the excellent teaching and functioning charter schools that reformers aspire to. It also sticks with those five children—who deserve, by their own virtues, to succeed in school. Yet serious roadblocks are everywhere. Rhee, one of the film's most active reformers, has recently seen her job thrown into limbo as Adrian Fenty, mayor of Washington, DC, lost the Democratic primary election to Vincent Gray, who counts the teacher's union among his most powerful supporters (which spent $1m during the campaign). Hopefully this film will inspire viewers to take a closer look at one of America's most embarrassing failures.
"Waiting for Superman" is in cinemas in America and Canada