Friday, October 29, 2010

Movie Review: Waiting for Superman

To download to the audio version, right click here and choose "save as..." or "save link as..."

To listen, press the play button on the player below

This was the weekend of the political documentary. Today was I Want Your Money talking out the taxing and spending cycles that have gone on in the USA for nearly a century. Yesterday's movie was Waiting for Superman and of the two this one got me more riled up. Although they are both good, I would not wait and recommend seeing Waiting for Superman as soon as it becomes available in your area. It released on October 8, 2010 and released in Honolulu on the 22nd, two weeks later!

Coming from the director of 2006's An Inconvenient Truth, Davis Guggenheim takes a look at the public school system in the US. Back in 2001 he looked at five teachers as they started their teaching career in The First Year. He saw first hand the effort these teachers put into their classrooms. Even with this extra insight to schools, he admits right at the front of the movie that he has made the decision to send his kids to private school. That's a good disclaimer to know right away and kind of lets you know where he's going to head with the narrative of the movie.

The title of the movie came from an interview with Geoffrey Canada, an educator and administrator from Harlem. With archive footage of the old Superman TV show with George Reeves he says that the day he learned there was no superman he cried. He cried because he realized there wasn't someone there as a backup to help people. In his own way, he has become a superman in the Harlem area with the school Harlem Children's Zone. Canada, the man not the country, has shown that low income students can perform when the environment is right.

Guggenheim follows five children in different parts of the country: Los Angeles, Washington DC, Bronx, Harlem and Silicon Valley. There is a traditional family, two single moms, a household where mom works instead of dad and where grandma has stepped up to take care of her grandson after his dad passed away. We see the hopes from both care givers and students and where they are at and where they want to go in regards to schools. Not all schools and instructors are created equal and the families know this. Guggenheim shows why.

Through the use of interviews, media clips and cute graphics, the problems are laid out and explained with details and numbers. What was telling were clips of each of the past Presidents saying that they wanted to be the Education President. Even though more money, even when taking inflation into account, has been poured into education, we as a country aren't showing improvements and in some ways are going backwards. National, state and sometimes local mandates create a system of land mines that teachers, parents and administrators must walk through.

I watched this film transfixed by the information presented and when the 102 minutes was over, I have never walked out of a theater so angry, mad, frustrated, helpless and sad at what I had seen. This would include watching The Cove! Part of the story hit home after what happened in Hawaii with what was called Furlough Fridays. Due to budget restrictions, instead of the union allowing cutting pay for all the teachers evenly across the board, the decision was made between the executive branch, the Department of Education and the Board of Education to take every other Friday off. Many parents were upset about this and rightfully so. Unfortunately, I think their anger was directed in the wrong direction.

Michelle Rhee was highlighted in the movie where as Chancellor of the Washington DC school District she tried to make an improvement. With pay as an incentive, she tried to get rid of tenure and pay those that performed a six digit salary. Because the union wanted to participate in a form of communism (my words) where they didn't want to have levels of teachers, but each was paid the same, the union wouldn't even bring the proposal to the teachers for a vote. It was demonstrated how district after district in the US can't get rid of bad and under performing teachers and instead shuffles them around. The politicians and administrators know what the problem is but because of contracts they can't fix it. It was announced earlier this month (October 2010) that Rhee would be resigning from her position at end of the month.

Through all of this, the kids should be foremost. I have to give it to the parents that showed they were concerned and wanted the best for their children and were involved in their child's educational process. But to get into the schools that proved they could educate the children coming through the door when the number of requests exceed the number of seats, it's left up to chance. A randomly computer generated number, a pulled piece of paper or even a bingo ball decided the fate of these kids. One comment was made in the film that it wasn't about the kids, it was about the adults.

It was heart wrenching to watch the lottery process. One of the kids, Daisy from LA, really knows that she wants to be a nurse, doctor or veterinarian. To see the look on her face as the numbers were being pulled showed that she knew fully well that her future would be determined by that lottery process. Just like pulling scratch tickets from the local 7-11 (except Hawaii and Utah as they don't have state lotteries) there are winners and losers but instead of a few dollars, we're talking about affecting someone's life for either the positive or the negative.

As I review what I wrote I can see that I've gotten a bit out of experience/review mode and into preachy mode. That's the impact this film had on me. I believe if you watch it you'll have a similar reaction. It was rated PG for some thematic material, mild language and incidental smoking. The closing credits were creative and informative. While no easter egg at the end, I'd suggest watching the credits the whole way through.

The Movie Monkey

To subscribe to the audio podcast of the reviews via iTunes click here. Audio versions are released the following Wednesday.