Review: Waiting For Superman


Directed by: Davis Guggenheim
Written by:Davis Guggenheim, Billy Kimball
Released: March 24, 2011
Grade: B+

Every child should have access to a quality education.  This ideal has been spouted by politicians for decades.  There’s a humorous clip in Waiting For Superman that shows a string of U.S. Presidents preaching about education and why it is one of their most important policies.

Has anything changed though?  Has the education system in the United States improved?  Or has it deteriorated further?  These questions are asked in the latest film from Academy Award winning documentarian Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth).

Guggenheim has tackled this controversial subject matter from a number of angles.  First and foremost, he looks at the children themselves.  He has picked a group of kids from low social-economic background and shown the difficulties that they face in getting a decent education and progressing on to college.

Evidence suggests that the public school system in America is lagging behind the rest of the world.  Amongst 30 developed countries, they are ranked in the bottom third in both science and math.  Roughly 70% of students in the 8th grade cannot read at that level.

Those statistics aren’t good but there are certain schools that do perform very well.  You can actually check their results on certain websites (similar to our My School system here in Australia).  Why do they outperform other schools?  Guggenheim believes it comes down to one similar answer – they have the better teachers.

The problem this creates is that many parents want to send their kids to these “better” public schools.  When there is an over-enrolment, the school is forced to host a public lottery.  The parents turn up and pray that their number is drawn.  It’s crazy stuff.  A child’s education is effectively put in the hands of Lady Luck.

Guggenheim then shines the spotlight on those with the power to make a difference – the politicians, the bureaucrats, the school boards, the unions and the teachers.  Many have tried to initiate change but they have been met with the brick wall known commonly as “the system”.  What adults say and what they do are very different things.  They may say that a child’s education is important… but in reality, it’s their personal job security that comes first.

Like any documentary, I’m sure some will disagree with the points that Davis Guggenheim is making.  That’s to be expected but it will help generate a badly needed debate on this subject matter.  I’m not saying Guggenheim has all the answers but he makes a persuasive argument that there are fundamental flaws within America’s education system.

Waiting For Superman left me with plenty to think about but I wish the film had of focused more on the stories of those fighting against “the system”.  In particular, the tale of superintendent Michelle Rhee and her battle against the teachers unions.  They were more interesting those revolving around the public school lotteries (which were a little overdone).

We’ve been treated to an impressive crop of documentaries over the past few months (GasLand, Exit Through The Gift Shop, Inside Job) and here’s another one to add to your viewing list.