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Waiting for 'Superman': movie review

Documentary 'Waiting for "Superman" ' takes a swipe at unions as the cause of America's failing high schools.

By Peter RainerFilm critic / October 2, 2010

Anthony (r.) with his classmates in the new movie "Waiting for 'Superman.' "

Paramount Pictures

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The crisis in America's public-school system, which among developed countries ranks 21st in science and 25th in math, is methodically laid out in Davis Guggenheim's "Waiting for 'Superman.'"

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The title comes from a recollection from one of the documentary's centerpiece talking heads, the educational reformer Geoffrey Canada, who grew up in the South Bronx and who says, "One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me Superman did not exist. She thought I was crying because it's like Santa Claus is not real. I was crying because no one was coming with enough power to save us." Canada founded and runs the successful Harlem Children's Zone, which is primarily dependent on private donations.

According to Guggenheim, who clearly intends this film to do for education reform what his "An Inconvenient Truth" attempted to do for climate change reform, the big problem is teachers unions, which make it almost impossible to fire a tenured teacher. The savior is the charter school system.

What Guggenheim doesn't delve into, aside from the welter of socioeconomic reasons that would help explain why we are in this mess in the first place, is the highly uneven scholastic record of charters. Nor is his take on tenure watertight. It can be argued that the real crisis in American public-school education originates in the relatively low pay offered its full-time teachers.

Instead of addressing the need for higher pay, and the ways to secure it, Guggenheim instead proposes eliminating one of the few incentives – tenure – that would attract even reasonably competent teachers in the first place. As is true of so many documentaries these days, Guggenheim frames his film around a competition, in this case a lottery in which five children whose lives we have followed await news of whether they have won admission to a charter school. The odds are against them – in one example, Francisco, a Bronx first-grader, is one of 792 applicants competing for 40 spots at the Harlem Success Academy.

Your heart goes out to all these kids, but Guggenheim's take on education stacks the deck against them even further by implying that only charters offer a ray of hope. Would that it were that simple. Grade: B- (Rated PG for thematic material, mild language, incidental smoking.)

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