Waiting for ‘Superman’ (documentary)

For his latest documentary, “Waiting for ‘Superman,'” director Davis Guggenheim has chosen a subject far less controversial than that of his last major work, which was “An Inconvenient Truth.” There is much disagreement on the topic of global warming. (Or, rather, there is a little disagreement, but it is very loud.) This time, the premise is virtually inarguable: the U.S. public school system is screwed up; our students have fallen behind their counterparts in most other developed countries; and kids in poor neighborhoods are getting the worst of it.

You can’t say with a straight face that there isn’t a problem. The controversy, of course, is in deciding how to solve it. Guggenheim’s compelling documentary, a potent mixture of facts and figures and heart-tugging stories, spotlights some education reformers who have succeeded, thereby giving a glimmer of hope in what is otherwise a bleak situation. And viewers who are skeptical of Guggenheim because he’s the one who pointed the camera at Al Gore for “An Inconvenient Truth” may be surprised at how conservative “Waiting for ‘Superman'” is.

In 1999, Guggenheim made a TV documentary called “The First Year” that showed his admiration for teachers and public education. Narrating the new film (which he co-wrote with Billy Kimball), he comes back to the subject. “Each morning, wanting to believe in our schools, we take a leap of faith.” If we live in the suburbs, there’s only a so-so chance of our faith being rewarded and our children getting a decent public education. If we live in a metropolitan area or an economically depressed neighborhood, the odds are even worse.

Guggenheim presents the statistics with minimal flair (a “Simpsons” clip here, some stock footage there), but they’re sobering. The amount of money spent per pupil has doubled since 1971 (and that’s adjusting for inflation), yet our students’ test scores have fallen from the top almost to the very bottom compared to other first-world nations. We do worse than nearly everyone. We excel in confidence, though: most American students believe they get better test scores than other kids, even though they don’t.

The film focuses on a handful of students who are shining examples of youthful optimism, all good kids, mostly in impoverished neighborhoods: Anthony in D.C., Daisy in Los Angeles, Francisco in the Bronx, Bianca in Harlem. (Incongruously, there’s also Emily, who’s a little older and a lot whiter than the other subjects and lives in an affluent part of California.) The students want to succeed and have parental support, but the deck is stacked against them. At the high school Daisy will attend, for example, only 3 percent of students graduate with the credits required to enroll at a university.

Private schools are out of the question. Public-funded charter schools are an option, but only one in five of those is doing “awesome” according to Guggenheim (whatever “awesome” means), and students have to hope to win a random drawing to secure a spot at one.

We meet a few administrators who have had luck improving the schools where they are. Their stories, coupled with the kids’ case studies, are inspiring. The film’s suggestion seems to be that we should try doing what these administrators have done.

Teachers’ unions are the villains of the piece, and Guggenheim makes no effort to present their side of it. He acknowledges that they were originally needed because teachers were being taken advantage of — but what happened to turn them from a blessing into a burden? “Tenure,” which allows even awful teachers to keep their jobs, is partly to blame. One in 60 doctors loses his or her license, one in 100 lawyers is disbarred — but only one in 2,500 teachers ever has his or her credentials revoked. Surely that shouldn’t be. But the film would be improved if Guggenheim had taken a few minutes to report the unions’ perspective on the subject, even if he disagrees with it.

He also glosses over the crucial fact that it’s good teachers — not good administrators or good systems but good teachers — who really help the kids. How can we attract a greater number of quality teachers? That seems like the real question.

Still, if “Waiting for ‘Superman'” is a flawed call to action, it is nonetheless a rousing one. Its human stories stir the emotions, and its number-crunching produces outrage. I hope it will spark discussion, so that one day soon our children is more learned better.

B (1 hr., 42 min.; PG, a little very mild profanity and thematic material.)