Beware of any polemicist who claims to have children's best interests in mind while advocating for longer school hours. Maybe Bill Gates—whose towers of money seem to replace any need for actual expertise—thinks that longer hours, pre-K schooling and (gulp!) school during summer will help fix America's schools, but I'll give Waiting for "Superman" director Davis Guggenheim five bucks for every kid he can find me who wants to spend more of his fleeting childhood going to school than having fun.
Or maybe kids should be more like one of the movie's main subjects, a fifth-grade ball of sunshine named Daisy, who says that kids who don't have fun in school just aren't paying attention. Daisy is undoubtedly one of those kids who remind the teacher to assign homework for the weekend.
If these kinds of squeaky-clean, school-loving kids don't make you want to gag, then the machinery of Waiting For "Superman" might tug your heartstrings enough to distract you from the fact that it makes an impossibly complicated issue sound simple. Actually, Guggenheim doesn't make fixing the school system sound simple, he says it's simple. In on-screen text. Repeatedly.
Guggenheim's simplification of his subject is most evident in the animated visual metaphors he uses. In one example, as a cartoon teacher goes from student to student pouring a milk carton full of numbers and letters into their brains, he narrates that educating "should be easy." Guggenheim congratulates himself for the time he's spent with teachers, repeatedly making reference to his own 2001 documentary about a group of school teachers and their first year on the job, but his central statement that teaching should be easy is manipulative and insulting.
Throughout the film, Guggenheim avoids the issue of how to staff schools with competent teachers, even while acknowledging it as the most important step to change. In addition to the animations, Guggenheim uses interviews with experienced educators and the anecdotal cases of a handful of families with young children like Daisy who hope to get into charter (or charter-like) schools. A charter school, the film briefly explains, is essentially a school that uses public money but operates outside the rules and restrictions of the normal system. Because Guggenheim is proposing that these are the institutions that could rescue America's youth, you'd think he'd spend some time explaining how charter schools are created and how they're funded. By the national education budget? The tax dollars of the local community? Do they get more money than the average public school? Do the teachers have higher salaries? After Waiting for "Superman," I still don't understand exactly who creates these things and why there are so few of them that families must enter a lottery to enroll their children.
Guggenheim, in one of the film's corniest moments, compares the achievements of his model schools to breaking the sound barrier. He provides a few details about what exactly goes on in these amazing schools (at one of them, lagging students are assigned individual tutors), but for the most part he's vague. I don't think the film provides viewers with as simple a stat as the average teacher-student ratio at charters. Then again, the numbers are fired off so rapidly that I may have missed it, which is a suspicious way of presenting your hard evidence, to say the least. What one is meant to come away with is that charter schools are magical miniature castles of learning, where the food in the cafeteria makes your brain cells multiply, the principal gives you Christmas presents and Rachael Ray teaches home ec.
One thing Guggenheim does point out—and harps on—about charters is that the teachers are not unionized. Like most viewers, I knew almost nothing about the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) before seeing the movie. And because of Guggenheim's polemical approach, I don't trust much of what he tells me about it. The AFT certainly seems to be an organization that impedes change: According to Waiting for "Superman," the organization refuses to allow merit-based pay and has guidelines that make the termination of terrible teachers almost impossible. But Guggenheim's presentation of AFT President Randi Weingarten as a creepy, power-wielding, headset-wearing motivational speaker (à la Tom Cruise in Magnolia) makes his anti-union case unreliable. (Admittedly, Weingarten makes an easy target of herself with that headset.)
Guggenheim's main beef is that the union makes it impossible to fire bad teachers, as if that were the only problem with American public education. He makes no attempt to suggest a proper response to the enormous labor shortage that would result if all the bad teachers were axed. Waiting for "Superman" is woefully unconcerned with concrete answers and dismissive of the tangled set of problems that make the school system what it is. Judging from some reviews, Guggenheim's attempt to make a cinematic call to arms is working, but his stubborn refusal to acknowledge the difficulty of any of the solutions he offers makes for an incoherent, troubling film built on a shoddy, aggressive argument.