Film Exposes Inconvenient Truths About Education Status Quo

Published September 24, 2010

Review of Waiting for Superman, directed by Davis Guggenheim. Paramount Vantage/Walden Media, 2010, 102 minutes

Davis Guggenheim, winner of a 2006 Academy Award for An Inconvenient Truth, weighs into the education reform debate with his new film, Waiting for Superman. Center-right moviegoers might be inclined to dismiss Guggenheim for his association with Al Gore, but that would be a mistake. Guggenheim’s new film uses unimpeachable sources to make a powerful point about the need for effective change.

Waiting for Superman is an extremely moving documentary that derives its title from a story from Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone charter school.

Canada relates in the movie that one of the most disillusioning moments of his childhood came when he learned that Superman was not real. Canada noted Superman always protected the good people, and ensured justice would prevail. As a young Geoffrey pondered the implications of a world without Superman, a deep fear overwhelmed him.

Playing Rawls’ Lottery

The unseen hero of Waiting for Superman is not a comic book character but the political philosopher John Rawls. Rawls, a Harvard professor whose thinking profoundly influenced the American center-left, advocated a provocative view of societal ethics.

Rawls created a thought experiment known as the “veil of ignorance”: Imagine you could restart the world, but you would have no knowledge of your starting point in your new life. You could be the brilliant child of a high-tech billionaire, or you could be born to a low-income single mother. Rawls argued that, under the veil of ignorance, the present “you” would want to leave a path out of poverty for the future “you,” just in case you lost the cosmic lottery.

Rawls’s views evolved over time and were subject to many interpretations, but the passion for equality of opportunity resonates strongly throughout his writings.

His unseen hand moves throughout Waiting for Superman as the film focuses not on theoretical lotteries but on real lotteries held by several high-performing charter schools. In instances where student applications exceed available places, state laws typically require charter schools to select children randomly for admission.

Beyond the Inner City

Waiting for Superman follows several students seeking to escape underperforming inner city schools in New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. The filmmakers weave heartbreaking personal drama into an overall presentation of the flaws of the nation’s education system. Together, these themes are incredibly powerful and mutually reinforcing.

To their credit, the filmmakers examine educational issues outside the easy pickings of dysfunctional inner city schools. They also spend some time following a middle-income charter school applicant from a suburban district school reeking of money but offering only academic mediocrity. This portion of the film drew from the “Not as Good as You Think” research of the Pacific Research Institute, and it ably demonstrates the pervasive nature of our K-12 education crisis.

Guggenheim skillfully weaves short interviews with experts such as Michelle Rhee, Howard Fuller, Lance Izumi, and Geoffrey Canada into the narrative of the film. As the documentary reaches its conclusion, the cameras fix on the faces of the students and parents waiting in quiet desperation at the lotteries. More and more numbers are called, and the odds against the protagonists grow longer and longer.

It feels incredibly wrong to have the future hopes and dreams of children decided in such a fashion.

Urgent Need for Change

Waiting for Superman poses a stark Rawlsian question: If you were born as a disadvantaged child, would you want to be assigned to a school based on your ZIP code regardless of its record of academic failure? If inner city schools aren’t good enough for you in theory, they aren’t good enough for disadvantaged children in practice.
There is no Superman—only us. As this film vividly shows, our children need the adults to pull our heads out of the sand and get about the urgent business of improving the nation’s embarrassingly dysfunctional system of education. They have been waiting far too long already.
Matthew Ladner ([email protected]) is vice president of research for the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based independent government watchdog, and is coauthor of Report Card on American Education: Ranking State K-12 Performance, Progress and Reform (American Legislative Exchange Council, 2010).