PG for some thematic material, mild language and incidental smoking.
September 24 , 2010
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Waiting for Superman
By Chris Carpenter
CBN.com Program Director
Fact: 70 percent of American eighth graders cannot read at their grade level.
Fact: The U.S. Government has more than doubled the amount of funding for each student in America since 1971 yet math and reading scores have flattened. Conversely, the U.S. ranks 25th in math scores out of the world’s 30 developed countries.
Fact: Each year, about 1.2 million students in the U.S. fail to graduate from high school.
Filled with a bevy of similar statistics, Waiting for Superman is a new documentary about American public education from filmmaker Davis Guggenheim. Guggenheim is best known for his 2006 Oscar-winning global warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.
I must confess I was quite skeptical of Waiting for Superman due to the questionable veracity of Guggenheim’s earlier work. However, through the use of such statistics and the emotionally compelling stories of five at risk students struggling to get a quality education, this film soars.
Each student's story is all too familiar.
Very good at math, Anthony is a Washington, DC fifth grader who lives with his grandmother. His father is dead, his mother is out of the picture. Daisy is a sprite of a girl who aspires to one day be a nurse or doctor. She has but one challege regarding her academic future: she lives in one of the worst performing school districts in Los Angeles. Emily, an eigth grader from the Silicon Valley, Bianca, a Harlem kindergartener, and Francisco, a first grader from the Bronx, all aspire to find a better educational path. However, the odds of this actually happening are slim.
Based on their academic potential, each of these students’ parents or guardians are trying to get them into high performing charter schools to maximize their futures. While each child is certainly willing to make the effort they find themselves swimming in a system of sub-standard learning, broken promises, or ideological debate over what is best for them.
Waiting for Superman also follows a few outspoken educational leaders who are trying to reshape the academic landscape in a positive manner.
Chief among them is Geoffrey Canada, a former teacher who focused on a 97 square block area in Harlem where the dropout rate had plummeted to the point where some questioned whether there should even be a school system in that area. Through Canada’s tireless efforts to prove that education can succeed in even the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, graduation rates have skyrocketed. Guggenheim’s decision to feature Canada is proof positive that by rethinking America’s educational system there can be a future and a hope for all students.
For the all the good Waiting for Superman does in showcasing educators who are proving that education can be successful if done differently, Guggenheim chooses to downplay the positive effect many public school teachers are having. Instead, he leads viewers to believe that the only good teachers are the ones who ply their craft in charter schools. Furthermore, the five students he features each have a parent or guardian who is committed to delivering their child from the educational morass they find themselves in. What about the kids who don’t have that benefit?
Despite his desire to point viewers toward charter schooling as the best alternative, Guggenheim does a tremendous job of providing an abundance of information in easy to understand bite-size pieces. This coupled with the emotional appeal of the featured children and educators make for quite enjoyable viewing. This is welcomed in an era when documentary filmmakers are so adept at force feeding as much information as possible to viewers to make their case.
Because America’s educational system has such a myriad of challenges it is hard to gauge whether Guggenheim is right or wrong in his assessment of our nation’s educational ills. If nothing else, “Waiting for Superman” serves as a great forum of debate for ferreting out what’s wrong and finding what is right.
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