Michelle Rhee: Superman?

By Miriam Coleman

The director of An Inconvenient Truth examines the buckling public school system in a new documentary starring education reformer Michelle Rhee—inspiring the question: Who, if not Superman, will save American schools?

In Shirley Jackson’s iconic short story The Lottery, a village enacts an annual ritual that ends in a randomly selected villager being stoned to death by her friends and neighbors. It’s hard to shake the shadow of Jackson’s dark fable while watching Waiting for Superman, Davis Guggenheim’s new education documentary that came out in select theaters this month. The imagery of chance, from bingo balls spinning in their cages to the craps students shoot in a classroom, runs like a bad omen throughout the film, reminding us of the odds stacked against schoolchildren and the injustice of a system that gambles with their fates.

Guggenheim, whose An Inconvenient Truth found novel and terrifying ways to illustrate the perils of global warming, explores the public education system through the sagas of five families struggling to find a decent education for their children. In examining the wider context that brought the families’ local schools to their current, dispiriting state, Guggenheim marshals a jumble of news clips, talking head interviews, pop culture kitsch, and cleverly animated statistics. The micro and macro threads combine to create a powerful and riveting, though at times maddeningly superficial, introduction to the crisis in American education.

Waiting for Superman vividly conveys the sense of fear and dread that parents inherit when sending their children off into this system, as well as the way the specter of failure grinds down the aspirations of the students herded through these gloomy halls. One particularly effective segment uses Google Earth-like imaging to trace the path of dropout factories through one Los Angeles neighborhood, as failing middle schools feed into a high school where only three out of every 100 students will graduate with the course requirements to attend a University of California school. A reform-minded administrator who has taken over nearby Locke High notes that in 40 years, 60,000 students passed through its halls—and 40,000 did not graduate. “Think what that’s done to this neighborhood,” he says.

Education reformer Geoffrey Canada (right) with students at his New York charter school.

As a counterpoint, Guggenheim introduces audiences to Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, an ambitious nonprofit that aims to shepherd an entire New York City neighborhood out from a cycle of poverty. Starting with intensive parenting workshops and continuing through graduation from its charter schools, Canada offers a uniquely comprehensive approach to education reform. The documentary draws its title from Canada’s devastating childhood revelation that Superman didn’t exist, which meant “there was no one coming with enough power to save us.” Though audiences might be inclined to view Canada as a superhero swooping in to snatch children from the jaws of desolation, Guggenheim cautions us against seeking salvation from charismatic individuals instead of fixing a broken system.

To that end, Waiting for Superman highlights the struggles of Michelle Rhee, the outgoing chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools who since 2007, had taken on the grueling task of overhauling a system long known for its history of low-performing schools. Rhee, who tried to institute charter-like reforms such as extended hours and incentive pay across the entire D.C. public school system, also closed failing schools, fired teachers and principals by the hundreds, and incurred the wrath of both the teachers’ unions and local families. “I’m not a career superintendent,” says the embattled reformer in the film. “This will be my one superintendency, so I don’t have to worry about pissing the unions off.” This bold declaration acquired additional poignancy last week when Rhee resigned following the failed election bid of Adrian Fenty, the mayor who hired her.

Daisy has dreams of becoming a veterinarian.

Rhee’s story also dramatizes the battle over teacher tenure, which Guggenheim calls “the most intractable problem in public education.” After Rhee proposes a deal in which teachers can give up tenure in exchange for higher pay (up to a six-figure salary) based on performance, the union refuses to even allow a vote on the issue. Guggenheim assembles a compelling case against tenure and its attendant obstructions against firing incompetent teachers. He includes footage of New York’s notorious “rubber rooms,” where tenured teachers under disciplinary review while away the hours to the tune of $65 million a year. Unfortunately, Guggenheim doesn’t give the teachers’ unions much opportunity to explain their position. He offers only a token explanation as to why unions were needed in the olden days, along with damning sound bites from union leaders. If this is truly the bedrock issue plaguing American education, Guggenheim has missed a valuable opportunity to explore it substantively.

The phrase “we know what works” echoes throughout this documentary, but Waiting for Superman offers only a superficial examination of the solutions. According to Guggenheim and his featured reformers, the solutions include increased class time, greater teacher accountability, and, above all, great teachers. But what, exactly, makes a teacher great? Guggenheim doesn’t address this. In fact, the perspective of teachers active in the classroom is almost entirely absent from the story. Perhaps Guggenheim felt that he’d covered the territory sufficiently in his 1999 documentary on freshman teachers, The First Year—he even uses a few clips from that earlier effort. Yet he never gives current teachers an opportunity to explain just what they’re up against. The lack of their perspective here makes Guggenheim’s villainizing of the teachers’ unions seem all the more unbalanced.

Waiting for Superman culminates in the excruciating spectacle of public lotteries for the few spots available in high-performing charter schools. Each of the five children in the film applies for such a slot, and we watch their faces as their chances of gaining admission tick down. We witness the ecstasy in the faces of the winning families, who believe they have found a way out of the morass, and the despair of families left stuck in it.

A large segment of education-reform partisans remain skeptical of the growing charter school movement, and recent studies have shown that only 17 percent of charter schools perform any better than ordinary district schools—and 37 percent are even worse. But given the slim chance most students have of even finding a way into these select institutions, people on both sides of the debate will have to agree with Guggenheim’s conclusion that a system that serves so few cannot be a viable solution.

Guggenheim wraps up his film by proclaiming that it really is possible to save public education—though neither through lotteries nor Superman. Systemic change is needed, yet the question remains, as Michelle Rhee asks, “Do we have the fortitude as a city and a country to make the difficult decisions?” Although the issues haunting public education are thornier and more tangled than Guggenheim acknowledges, the fact that Waiting for Superman is pushing these questions into the daylight offers some hope of addressing them.


Waiting for Superman

(2010, Paramount Vantage)