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Jan. 25 2010 - 10:01 am | 1,421 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

Waiting for Superman

Can documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim do for education what he did for global warming? The director of “An Inconvenient Truth” unveiled “Waiting for Superman” at Sundance on Friday, and the documentary was picked up by Paramount Vantage. That means it will be seen on more screens than other earnest, but little known education docs like “Children Left Behind.” Will the message get out to the popcorn crowd that the richest nation in the world is systematically failing its children, year after year after year?

I haven’t seen it (stuck here in the blue purple state of Massachusetts), but the word out of Sundance looks positive. Variety describes it as  “”Exhilarating, heartbreaking and righteous,” continuing,

“Waiting for Superman” is also a kind of high-minded thriller: Can the American education system be cured? Can it be made globally competitive? Can it, at least, be made educational?

I’m not so sure about the thriller part — kinda hard to have a thriller without a resolution — but the film is sure to draw attention to our struggling schools. The doc follows several families who are trying to work their way through the system; the title comes from a girl’s dream that someone will magically appear to rescue her.

Talking heads include college dropout and education philanthropist Bill Gates, the visionary Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone, and controversial DC school chancellor Michelle Rhee. From what I’ve read, the documentary is particularly tough on teacher unions and gonzo on charter schools, both of which are hot points of contention in any discussion of what’s failing education.

I suspect there’s a bent toward getting rid of bad teachers, aka unions, as does Matt Belloni in The Hollywood Reporter.

“In fact, for all its focus on underprivileged, inner-city kids, sections of Superman feel like they could have been cut together by Bill O’Reilly. Slo-mo footage of union leader speeches opposing reform that could help problem schools. Hidden-cam video of a teacher reading a newspaper and checking his watch as his class goofs around. New York educators being paid millions to not teach. A major subject of the film, reform-minded DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, runs into a crippling teachers-union road block in her effort to shift pay structures to reward good teachers.”

Agree or disagree, a documentary about public education ought to at least inspire conversation to a wider audience. How many people will see it at their favorite indy cinema and realize that they face the same dilemma that filmmaker Davis does? In the following interview, he notes that he supports the ideal of public education. But when it comes to his own kids? Um, hem, haw. That’s the dilemma.

Superman, where are you?

More on the film when I get a chance to screen it. For now, here’s Guggenheim:


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    “In the following interview, he notes that he supports the ideal of public education. But when it comes to his own kids? Um, hem, haw.”

    My parents were strong believers in public education. Despite that, my brother ended up in private school for 6th grade and I did in 9th. They did their best to make it work (PTA, active in local school district, etc.) but would not sacrifice their kids’ needs. It takes time to make changes, and kids only have one childhood.

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    About Me

    I spent a good chunk of my adult life as an arts reporter/critic/columnist for the Boston Globe. Among other things, I covered the cultural wars of the early 1990s (remember Mapplethorpe?), reviewed theater, and profiled all sorts of interesting characters. I also wrote an early column about online culture, which led me to become one of the first online war correspondents during the conflict in Kosovo, an odd but exhilarating gig for an arts maven. While I was a fellow in the National Arts Journalism program, a colleague handed me a gloomy article called “Print is Dead.” I eventually got the message and took a buyout from the Globe in 2001. I had vague dreams of saving the world, but instead had three kids in 17 months. Therein lies my newfound interest in public education. I am hoping to create a dialogue about what’s wrong, what’s right, and what’s up in our schools today.

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    Here’s a piece on new ideas in education, in the Boston Globe Magazine.