Spoiler alert:  Superman doesn’t save the day

By Megan Ake

Imagine, for a second, a square dance.  In a hot, sweaty, and fledgling saloon, the caller steps up to a microphone, his voice hoarse from dictating so many dances such as the one he’s about to call.  Just behind him, the band prepares for its performance, and the members tune guitars, test out harmonicas, and fetch drumsticks.  Eager participants gather on the worn wood floor which squeaks in anticipation of the weight it’s about to bear. 

Suddenly, the caller shouts, the band begins to thump out a boisterous tune, and the dancers jump into square dance formation.  As the dance picks up, partners spin each other wildly about the floor, swinging their partners from their arms as they try to keep up with the caller’s demands and the pace of the music.  Yet before anyone – the dancers, the caller, the band, or even the spectators - even realizes, the square dance becomes a nearly catastrophic hurricane of movement; dancers go round in a blur, reaching out for whomever is available as they attempt to move and listen all at the same time.

Now, imagine that same dance, but imagine that it’s taking place in a public school in America.  Suddenly, the saloon transforms into a school building; the caller becomes the administrators, superintendents, and school board members; the band members are now parents; the dancers morph into students and teachers; and the spectators turn into the rest of society as they look on at the whole mess.

Sure, it’s a simple analogy.  Delving any deeper into the matter requires extensive research, time, and subjects.  Yet this is precisely what filmmaker Davis Guggenheim attempts to do in his latest documentary, Waiting for Superman.  Guggenheim, the same fellow who brought attention to the global warming crisis with the Al Gore-narrated film An Inconvenient Truth, dives headlong into the world of public education and attempts to show society what real problems exist behind the bells, buses, and blackboards.

What he finds is certainly not pretty.  Superman begins as Guggenheim relates the tale of his own struggle to find a suitable public school for his children to attend.  On his journey, he discovers, despite the fact that per-student spending in the U.S. has more than doubled since 1971, the horrors of dismal graduation rates and poor reading and math scores that plague the halls of so many public schools in the U.S.

Guggenheim delivers on shock value as the film presents terrifying statistics. Math scores on standardized tests in places like Alabama, Arizona, and California are frightening; respectively, only 18 percent, 26 percent, and 24 percent of students in those states are considered proficient.  Washington, D.C., at one point, had the worst reading scores in the country.   So-called “dropout factories”, high schools that produce massive amounts of students who never receive that critical diploma, are growing at an alarming rate.

The problems are definitely there; Guggenheim makes sure that the audience sees that. What isn’t so clear in the film, however, is a fair and just solution.

As an educator myself, I see these problems in a very real, very unsettling way.   I spend five hours each day preparing lessons, lecturing, leading discussions, working with students one-on-one, yet, at times, it seems to lead nowhere.  Students may still fail when it comes time for that all-too important standardized test.

I went into Waiting for Superman hoping that Superman himself might come and not only save the day, but save the public school system as well, a perhaps larger, more difficult task. I was disappointed when all I got was conjecture that Superman exists – in charter schools and other places where teachers’ unions don’t exist.

The film spends a good amount of its reel following the lives of various underprivileged children whose parents are ferociously working to obtain entry for their child into an elite, but free, charter school.  For these kids, charter schools are seemingly the only option if they want to succeed and rise above the ashes that surround their home district.

Though Guggenheim touts charter schools as a way to solve the public education crisis, there’s a problem – only one of the five students in the film actually wins a spot at the school via a lottery system.  What happens to the four others?  Presumably, they are sent back to the still-broken, still-dismal public education system.  The charter school lottery doesn’t change that.

As if the charter school “solution” wasn’t enough, Guggenheim next moves onto teachers’ unions and their longstanding reputation of upholding tenure for allegedly “bad” teachers.  While some union contracts do, inadvertently, protect said teachers, Guggenheim misses the mark here.  Being tenured doesn’t automatically mean a teacher is inadequate in their job.  I know plenty of tenured educators that are still passionate, caring, and energetic about their jobs and their students.

Despite being flawed in its presentation of solutions, Waiting for Superman made me feel hopeful in one regard: that it would, if nothing else, provoke conversation among those “square dance” participants – the dancers, the caller, the band, and the spectators – and raise awareness that a huge problem does indeed exist in our public school system.   I’m not sure if Superman can save this one, though; it’s going to take much more than a man in a red cape to save public education from all of the villains out there.