'Waiting for "Superman"' asks how to rescue public schools

Posted: October 01, 2010

Superman and Green Lantern have nothing on Geoffrey Canada, educator and bright light of Waiting for "Superman," Davis Guggenheim's devastating portrait of American public schools.

Guggenheim, Oscar-winning director of An Inconvenient Truth, tells the stories of five students waiting to hear whether they've won the charter-school lottery, and offers his diagnosis. In interviews with Canada and other reformers, he prescribes a course of action.

Survivor of the "failure factories" that are American high schools, Canada, founder of the Harlem Children's Zone, knows what it takes to get students from cradle to college diploma. But you have to start at the cradle, with medical help and oversight. Trouble is, not all school administrators agree with him.

The most challenging obstacle encountered by reformers like Canada and Michelle Rhee, the embattled chancellor of education for Washington, D.C., are the unions extending tenure protection to teachers who underperform.

Eight years after No Child Left Behind, the congressional act that legislated standards-based school reform, 70 percent of America's eighth graders cannot read at grade level. Given this trend, the forecast is that in 10 years, only 50 million Americans will have sufficient education to fill 123 million highly skilled jobs.

Guggenheim's film is full of statistics and graphics. One of the most surprising comes from a scholar tracking the high correlation between high school dropouts and prison inmates. It would be cheaper to send dropouts to private school and improve their employment chances than pay for prison.

"Superman" is best when focusing on the faces behind the statistics. There is Anthony, a wide-eyed Washington fifth grader who lives with his grandmother and has a talent for numbers. And Daisy, an ethereal 10-year-old who wants to be "a nurse, doctor, and veterinarian" but lives in one of the lowest-performing neighborhoods in the Los Angeles Unified School District. There is also Francisco, a Bronx first grader with a shock of hair high as his hopes.

These three students, along with Bianca, a Harlem kindergartner, and Emily, a math-challenged eighth grader from the Silicon Valley, have parents or guardians who hope to get them into high-performing charter schools. Daisy has a 1-in-13 chance of winning the lottery. For most of the others, the odds are even slimmer.

As Guggenheim's camera gives us a close-up of the Educational Lotto, the implication is clear: Why gamble on the future of America's children? Instead of helping some kids beat the odds, how do we change the odds for all kids?


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/

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