The US school system is in trouble. For at least two entire generations results have been static at best and high school drop out rates are high. With many public schools seen as ‘academic sinkholes’ basic proficiency in Maths, English and Science in many areas of the country is staggeringly low. With powerful unions providing tenure to teachers effectively giving them immunity to underperform, the profession is in a dire and seemingly hopeless situation.
Brought to the screen by Davis Guggenheim, the man behind Al Gore’s excellent 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, the spotlight is shone on New York’s public school system through the stories of a small number of families with children at various stages of their education. One common thread permeates throughout – if you get into the wrong school you have almost no hope of graduating and making it to college. In a modern America where not having a degree is a huge barrier to being a success, the simple fact is that most kids will either not graduate at all or will graduate below par and repeat the cycle of their parents, ultimately through no fault of their own.
With the vast majority of state schools failing to provide kids with the necessary education and support, hope exists in the form of a few schools known as Charter Schools that operate very similarly to regular public schools but which offer more flexibility in the curriculum. Funded by a combination of public and private money they abide by fewer regulations than public schools, have a charter setting out expected results and can have a specialism such as Science or Art.
For many parents and children, a Charter School is the only hope for a bright future, however many of them are oversubscribed by 15 or more applicants per place. In order to decide the fate of each child, law states that a public lottery be held to determine each year’s intake. This perverse system leads to something akin to the Saturday night Lotto draw and results in the same few winners and many losers in the sad spectacle that has become of applying to a good school. That this system even needs to exist illustrates the woeful lack of quality education on offer via state schools and seeing this first hand as the families await their fates bookends a film which otherwise talks to parents, teachers and those who want to shake up the education system but face resistance.
Davis Guggenheim is a man who clearly wants change and the US education system is more in need than ever before. The problem is that by presenting his views in a certain way there is a high level of bias in his arguments and whilst this obviously achieves his aim it does not give the viewer the full story. Do a little digging and you find that in response to Waiting for Superman a documentary presenting a counter argument (imaginatively titled The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman) was created by some New York public school teachers. For such a radical reaction to occur does rather suggest that all is not quite as Guggenheim would have you believe.
Despite the one sided story Waiting For Superman is nevertheless interesting, equal parts heart warming and heart breaking, and ultimately well produced. As with many incendiary subjects being tackled from one side of the fence though, approach with caution and an open mind.