Davis Guggenheim's call-to-arms documentary on the failures of the U.S. public- education system — thoroughly laudable in intention if maddening in its logic and omissions — originated with his own guilty conscience. An Academy Award winner for 2006's An Inconvenient Truth, the director, whose debut doc, 2001's The First Year, heralded the dedication of five public-school teachers, now drives his own children (mother: Elisabeth Shue) past three crumbling public schools on their way to an expensive private one. "I'm lucky — I have a choice," Guggenheim, who narrates throughout, admits, before asking an important question: What is our responsibility to other people's children?
Maybe, for starters, demanding a stronger, securer social safety net. But macroeconomic responses to Guggenheim's query — such as ensuring that all parents earn a living wage so that the appalling number of kids living below the poverty line in this country is reduced — go unaddressed in Waiting for Superman, which points out the vast disparity in resources for inner-city versus suburban schools only to ignore them.
Ducking thornier, more intractable problems (and relying too heavily on animated graphics and clips from pop-culture detritus like Welcome Back, Kotter), Guggenheim instead comes up with a proposal that no one could possibly take exception to: We need better teachers. But the biggest impediment to firing incompetent instructors and replacing them with excellent ones, the film argues, are the teachers' unions and their myriad rules regarding seniority and tenure; Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation for Teachers, is made to look especially villainous, shown in a clip rousing her members by proudly proclaiming the AFT as a "special-interest group." (Weingarten has attacked the film on the Huffington Post and in the September issue of the AFT's newsletter.)
Again, few would disagree that the unions' bloat and bureaucracy have often had a deleterious effect on public education, nonsensically protecting the rights of people who have no business being in a classroom. As Michelle Rhee, the take-no-prisoners chancellor of D.C. schools who is a reformer hero not just in Guggenheim's film but also in the eyes of the Obama administration, puts it, "There's this unbelievable willingness to turn a blind eye to the injustices that are happening to kids every single day in our schools in the name of harmony among adults." But Guggenheim's insistence on not engaging with the injustices that children of certain races and classes face outside of school makes his reiteration of the obvious — that "past all the noise and the debate, nothing will change without great teachers" — seem all the more willfully naïve.
In addition to Rhee (who, after the results of the D.C. mayoral primary last week, may not stay in her job), almost all of Guggenheim's saviors of education — some, like Harlem Children's Zone's Geoffrey Canada, are genuinely astounding, tireless innovators — support or have started charter schools, which can hire nonunion teachers and receive public money but are not subject to the rules and regulations of public schools (and which do not have high success rates, a fact Guggenheim refers to only in passing). But the charter schools that the filmmaker champions — like SEED in D.C. and the Harlem Success Academy — all rely on lotteries, a system in which a child's future is determined solely by the luck of the draw, and one decried, rightly, by the filmmaker in the beginning.
But it is precisely these acts of sheer chance — picking a numbered ball or a name from a computer — that Guggenheim spends too much time documenting, as he tracks the plights of five bright, adorable, determined children who are hoping to get into charters. These kids, four of whom are black or Latino and live in impoverished urban neighborhoods, give the film its real emotional (and moral) heft, talking about their favorite subjects and academic dreams. To film their — and their parents' — agony as they wait to hear their names called (and the crushing disappointment when they don't) doesn't really advance Guggenheim's arguments so much as work against them — and provide borderline exploitative melodrama.
Will heartbreaking scenes like this drive an audience (or Academy voters) to action, as Al Gore's global-warming presentation, supplemented by a cartoon polar bear, seemed to in An Inconvenient Truth? "Great schools won't come from winning the lottery. They will come from YOU," the final credits announce, before exhorting us to text "POSSIBLE" to 77177 as we are uplifted listening to a song John Legend wrote especially for the film. For a crisis so dire, one that Guggenheim is clearly impassioned about, these palliatives come across as absurdly glib.