From David Guggenheim, the director of “An Inconvenient Truth,” comes a documentary that focuses on the state of the public education system in the United States.
Guggenheim narrates the film by weaving stories of children who are hoping to gain entrance into charter schools to escape lackluster public schools along with interviews of current education reformers. He lends credibility to the film by bringing up statistics of how the U.S. public system compares on a local and global scale. With such a mix of elements, the portrayal of the public education system ends up being a good movie but not a great one.
The film begins with Guggenheim stating his inspiration for the film, opening with a shot of a child inside a bright yellow school bus, gazing hazily at his surroundings. It’s clear that it’s a beautiful school day, with the sunlight reflecting off the camera lens. The bus hurriedly passes a number of public schools, with the camera giving a broad view of empty basketball courts and bare playgrounds. This stark contrast of the two images – happy school bus versus isolated school grounds – sets the tone of the film.
Guggenheim could have simply sent his children to any of the public schools that the bus passes by. However, making the choice to give his children the best education possible, he chooses to send them to a private school instead. Guggenheim questions why he and other parents choose to send their children to private schools rather than the immediate schools in their districts.
In order to discover students’ stories from all parts of the U.S., Guggenheim travels from major metropolitan cities in the east like Washington, D.C. to smaller areas in the west like the Silicon Valley. He speaks to the students about their aspirations and experiences in public schools.
The hope and enthusiasm of the children seen in these personal interviews is a feature that Guggenheim plays with. The stories of the children pull at the viewer’s heartstrings and you can’t help but feel like rooting for the children who are working against a system that they do not even know about – a system where bad teachers can’t be easily fired and where teachers unions rule by power politics.
Apart from the students’ stories, Guggenheim highlights the optimism of parents and education reformers as much as possible. These parents travel far and wide to find schools where their children can succeed.
Take Francisco’s mother, Maria, who traveled over an hour with public transport to apply for admission to a charter school. These schools are so popular that students must do a random drawing to receive a spot to the school. As a result, the academic success of the children relies on the luck of the draw.
Other parents such as Nakia work two jobs to support her family’s education. Nakia sends her daughter Erica to a parochial school that costs $500 per month. Even when she was laid off from her job, she still fought to make ends meet to pay for her daughter’s schooling.
Guggenheim also shares the stories of various education reformers such as Michelle Rhee, the superintendent of schools located in D.C.., Reformers like Rhee have innovative new ideas for how schools should run or the kind of emphasis that is needed in public education.
Between these various personal stories, Guggenheim gives a list of statistics. Many times these statistics are shocking and are different compared to the personal nature of the interviews. This juxtaposition of personal stories and statistics doesn’t quite work. Guggenheim aims to inform his viewers and to shock them. However, the mixing of these two elements in many moments of the film makes it difficult for the viewer to fully empathize with the message of the story because the viewer is constantly pulled in different directions.
The climax of the story is the day of the draw. All the parents and children are in anticipation, as well as the viewers who also wonder if the childrens’ numbers will be called. Guggenheim paints a clear picture as to why this draw means so much for the families in attendance. This is their one chance to make things better, not only for themselves but for future generations as well.
The ending of the movie is open-ended, which allows viewers to make their own decision about the state of the U.S. public education system. “Waiting for Superman” is a film that is informative and thought-provoking, yet also depressing and saddening.
Rating: 4 out of 5