Waiting for Superman (2010)

Rated: PG for some thematic material, mild language and incidental smoking.
Length: 111 minutes
Grade: CABB=B
Budget: Unknown, but small, perhaps %500,000
Box Office: $6 million

Written and Directed by: Davis Guggenheim (Gracie, An Inconvenient Truth, Gossip, and a smattering of TV)
Also written by: Billy Kimball (Some TV)
Starring: The students and families of several failing schools.

This documentary from the man who made An Inconvenient Truth is an expose of the brutal realities facing inner city minority children because of their broken schools and what might be done to make things better.

Entertainment Value: C
This was nowhere near as compelling or entertaining as I had anticipated it being. I’m a fanatic about education and educational issues, and I found it a bit soft on meaningful content. I think the problem is that it tried to tell these stories and grab you that way, but it doesn’t really tell enough of them to really captivate. And at the same time, especially the second half, I found myself bored by it all. That being said, it’s still worth seeing, but I just don’t want you to be expecting this amazing thing, such as The Corporation, when it’s really just sort of okay. I will say this, despite a fairly mediocre first 100 minutes, the final sequence with the lottery is moving to the point of tears. Seriously. I cried continuously for 4-5 minutes during that portion just watching the horror of it all.

Superficial Content: A
Drugs/Alcohol A-, Sex/Nudity A, Violence A-, Language B+
There is one character whose father is said to have used drugs and died. Some extremely mild profanity. Although this is PG, I simply can’t imagine any child old enough to want to watch this who shouldn’t be allowed to.

Significant Content: B
This is a difficult one to assign. On the one hand, you see some extremely devoted people trying to do the very best they can for their students or their own children. And clearly the system of teacher’s unions, incompetent teachers, and overall educational bureaucracy is the villain. But on the other hand, it’s not so obvious what the solution would be, other than some radical dismantling of the current behemoth that is education in America. The whole point of the movie is that parents desperately want better for their kids but there just aren’t enough slots available in alternatives to the public school failure factories they live near. That’s why they wind up enduring these unimaginably barbaric admission lotteries to find out whether their kids will have promising futures or not.

Artistic/Thought Value: B
The movie doesn’t really seem to have a particular agenda other than reframing the discussion in terms of what’s best for the kids rather than what’s best for the system or the adults in that system. I can imagine highly invested union teachers finding this statement by me ridiculous. But most criticism of unions is pretty fair and understated, if anything.

Discussion Questions:
~One complaint regularly heard about the inability of poor and minority schools to function properly is that they have the worst sort of kids from the worst sort of families to deal with. But the movie claims that the community is at least as much a result of the schools failing as a cause of it. What do you think of the idea that the schools have failed their communities rather than that the communities are failing their schools?
~Clearly, unions are a primary target of this movie. Do you think it makes a serious case against them? How might things be changed, especially given their tremendous political influence?
~Where did the concept of tenure come from originally? Does the concept make sense at the K-12 level? Consider some of the differences between the difficulty of obtaining it in a university and the ease of obtaining it in K-12 education.
~One idea about low income parents is that they don’t really care about education. How does this movie reveal the truth of the matter?
~What do you think this movie is advocating should be done to fix education in America? What would you do if you were able? Are there any major issues or sources of the problem you think this movie has neglected to consider?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The lemon dance and the NYC holding pattern.
~The end lottery scene. What is so upsetting about this? Why do some people rejoice? What does even their celebration mean for the non-winners? Considering the lengths parents go to in trying to have just a chance to be in these lotteries, what does that say about the parents and the schools?

Overall Grade: B
It may be because I already know too much about this issue to find any of this surprising or revealing. Nevertheless, the information does need to be more widely disseminated, and there is really no substitute for watching the lottery scene and pondering the implications.

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