I really like documentaries so here's what I thought of it from a purely documentary point of view. It was well-shot but I found the narrative somewhat hard to follow. Basically, it tells you that public education in the U.S. is not doing well and it needs to change. They do this via several heart-tugging stories across the U.S. of bright kids (mostly under 10) who want a good school (and so do their caring parents) but can't get into one. They are either in NYC or LA where, yes, there is an abundance of under-performing schools. This is sprinkled in with interviews from Geoffrey Canada, an educator of the Harlem Children's Zone and Promise Academy charters, Michelle Rhee, the Washington, D.C. superintendent, a brief comment from Bill Gates, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers and a few others. And then there are little cartoons about school spending, teacher quality, etc. It's quite the mish-mash. It was not a bad film. It clearly had a POV but they did give time to Randi Weingarten. However, if you knew a little about public education, it would probably make you mad.
Here's what the Waiting for Superman website says (partial):
As he follows a handful of promising kids through a system that inhibits, rather than encourages, academic growth, Guggenheim undertakes an exhaustive review of public education, surveying drop-out factories and academic sinkholes, methodically dissecting the system and its seemingly intractable problems.
However, embracing the belief that good teachers makes good schools, Guggenheim offers hope by exploring innovative approaches taken by education reformers and charter schools that have - in reshaping the culture - refused to leave their students behind."
Exhaustive review? Hardly. And yes, you can go anywhere in this country and find drop-out factories and academic sinkholes BUT you can also find fantastic public schools. Not a one was mentioned here. Not a single one. That he could only find good things happening in charters should tell you something. He points out the underwhelming results of NCLB but doesn't say why that might be. He points out that the average private school cost in the U.S. (and I'm sure that average from all K-12 private schools) is $8300 which is less than we spend per pupil in most U.S. public schools. He also makes sure that tracking gets a bad name.
The overwhelming message I got was:
teachers bad, charters good(Or rather teachers' unions bad but the teachers belong to them so guilty by association.)
If only we could throw off the yolk of teachers' unions (like charters), all schools would be innovative and great (like charters). The only "bad" thing he mentioned about charters was the stat that only 1 in 5 charter schools do well (and during the panel session after the film that got back-pedaled as well).
I did ask a question during the panel session with the director, a woman from the UW Center for Reinventing Education and another guy whose name I missed but he was a former teacher. I commented that the director failed to mention that public schools, unlike charter and private schools, have to take all comers. That means serving all special education needs, the unmotivated, those who don't speak English well, everyone. It's a lot less difficult when you get to pick who won't be at your school. (That said, I acknowledge that many charters focus on low-income areas which is to their credit but also they know those people are usually the ones with the lower-performing public schools.) Then I asked why the director failed to mention principals or parents. He mumbled something about his first documentary being about the first year of teaching for a group of new teachers so he followed that track. That wasn't a particularly good reason given that this film was about changing how we view public education, not how we treat teachers. The panel member who had been a teacher did acknowledge that it was very important to have a good principal who can lead and that parent support can be crucial.
The other thing about the film that bothered me is that, of course, the children's stories were very poignant. But it was somewhat manipulative because their parents were all trying to get into charters that were oversubscribed so they were all subject to a lottery system. So there's all the kids and their parents waiting for the golden ticket. (And frankly, I wouldn't take my child to a lottery in a big cafeteria where they could see others' joy and not see their own number pulled.)
For each child followed in the film, they showed their lottery outcome and for those who didn't get in, there was this title "Not Accepted" put on the screen next to their face. But it wasn't true that they weren't accepted. Any child can go to a charter (as long as the charter as written meets their needs) because, after all, they are public schools. What happened is that their number was not picked. There's a difference but Mr. Guggenheim wanted to make sure we felt as rejected as the child.
At the end there was what I would term (after being at many SIIF films) polite applause.
Yes, go see this movie (or wait until it comes out on DVD probably in early 2011). It is probably a good film for those interested in public education. (It was interesting to see Michelle Rhee in action and boy, I had no idea how short on background she is to be a superintendent. What I found ironic is that her big idea is to slash her central administration just as we have Dr. Goodloe-Johnson expanding ours. ) But it does not explore public education in a wide-ranging manner nor fully explain why charters would be a good direction to go in. Still waiting for that documentary.