Saturday 27 November 2010

Yo, teach: "Waiting for "Superman""

A documentary on the failings of the U.S. education system? So what, you might say, we've got university occupations and homework of our own to be getting on with. To his credit, Davis Guggenheim goes at the topic from a variety of angles in his new film Waiting For "Superman". The director's 2001 documentary The First Year concerned itself with rookie teachers, and he's kept his cameras trained on the schools featured for much of the past decade; his findings are here backed up by interviews with pupils who demonstrate a mixed range of abilities, from the fiercely ambitious (pre-teen Daisy, who's already been in contact with her college of choice) to the impoverished and struggling; he's also sought out educators who've spent their careers trying to make a difference within a generally indifferent system.

The film takes as its starting point the bipartisan No Child Left Behind act signed into law by President Bush in January 2002, with the aim of ensuring 100% literacy and numeracy rates among America's youth by the year 2012. With two years to go, most states are topping out at 35%, and there are signs the kids are only lagging further behind the rest of the world in other key subjects. Public schools have been tainted with the tag of "failure factories", the lottery system used to determine which students receive places at the better schools appearing simultaneously fair (in terms of it being the only just way of allocating places) and grossly unfair on those whose numbers don't come up, a sign of exactly how hit-and-miss education policy has become.

A complex issue, then, and the film has a lot of information to disseminate over its two hours: on funding, on bureaucratic structures, on the arcane business of employment law. We learn that, desperate to recruit educators of whatever skillset, schools have begun to offer tenure, an extension of the collegiate idea of a job for life, as routine to new, as yet untested employees - the concept fiercely protected by teachers' unions, who continue to defend their clients against charges of sexual misconduct and professional incompetence while ensuring those in the dock receive full pay for the (often lengthy) duration of each hearing. (In seeking to lend its thesis an obvious villain, the film doesn't really acknowledge that this kind of protection has always been the unions' job, but the idea of a structure built with the needs of adults rather than children in mind seeps through nevertheless.)

Guggenheim - returning to crusading, An Inconvenient Truth form after slacking off among rockstars for last year's It Might Get Loud - mounts his case in engaged, Michael Moore-like fashion, using clips from The Simpsons, School of Rock, Welcome Back, Kotter and several vintage public information films to underline his points; it's an eminently accessible watch. By way of cutting through the red tape and institutionalised gloom, Waiting for "Superman" identifies a couple of real-life heroes, who've come to shake things up at a localised level, or otherwise set up their own schools altogether.

These are Geoffrey Canada, a teacher-turned-administrator who learned his trade in one of Harlem's toughest neighborhoods, and whose charter school program continues to go from strength to strength to strength, turning back-of-the-class stragglers into busy-minded college material; and Michelle Rhee, a plucky outsider who - in her role as schools administrator for Washington D.C. - shut down several of the failure factories (to widespread outcry) and got those public schools remaining to function more efficiently. The point Guggenheim is making is that these individuals aren't Supermen, but regular civil servants who have only so many hours in the day (and little outside support) to effectuate much-needed change. Their successes are the exception rather than the rule - you can see as much from the closing lottery sequence, where the despairing faces of unlucky students and families outnumber the joy of the chosen few by a factor of at least four to one.

The thought strikes you, halfway through Waiting for "Superman", that America has problems enough right now - political, economic, environmental - but that education should, as ever, find its way to the top of the pile, because they'll need the best and brightest minds to figure these other problems out, and for that, they'll need the best and brightest teaching. Guggenheim's contribution to the debate is a decent film, one you hope will make a difference to the lives of those millions of children whose futures are at stake, but a necessarily specific one - it may be down to British teachers and administrators, beset as they are with Ofsted reports and a hundred other problems of their own right now, to decide the film's ultimate relevancy.

Waiting for "Superman" is on selected release.

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