Megan’s Movie Night: Waiting for “Superman”

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Friday, June 14th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Waiting for Superman.

It’s a documentary that came out a decade ago, but its themes are more relevant than ever.

WORLD Radio’s Megan Basham now has a review.

MEGAN BASHAM, FILM CRITIC: Nine years ago director Davis Guggenheim was best known for his Oscar-winning global warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. So when he turned his attention to a subject more often championed by the other side of the aisle he took the entertainment industry by surprise.

CLIP: One of the saddest days of my life was when my mom told me Superman did not exist. I was a comic book reader and I read comic books. I was reading—I don’t know. I was in the fourth grade, fifth grade. My mother, I was like, “You know, Ma, you think Superman—” She said, “Superman is not real.” And she thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real. And I was crying because there was no one coming with enough power to save us. [run music underneath Megan’s narration]

Waiting for “Superman” offers a scathing look at the U.S. public-school system and those who stand in the way of reforming it. Re-watching today, as 2020 presidential candidates are starting to roll out their education platforms, illustrates how little has changed. It may even highlight ways we are moving backwards.

The stakes Guggenheim lays out are stark. As the last decade has demonstrated, decent-paying factory and manufacturing jobs are no longer a certainty. They’re not even a probability. American students’ math, science, and reading scores are pitiful. But U.S. pupils are first in the world in how good they feel about their abilities.

CLIP: I have a lot of choices. I want to be a nurse, I want to be a doctor, and I want to be a veterinarian. How come? Because I just love animals and I would like to help someone in need. 

Unless something radically changes in our education system, today’s kids could be in for a rude awakening. They’ll soon discover they’re not qualified to fill the jobs of tomorrow’s global economy.

How did we get to this point? It’s not for lack of spending or legislation. We spend more per pupil than almost any other industrialized nation. And each administration ushers in some new education program. With painful specificity, Guggenheim points out the real culprit: suffocating bureaucracy and those who have a stake in making sure every inch of red tape stays put.

Viewers have argued in the years since its release about some of the solutions Waiting for “Superman” presents. For example, Guggenheim seems to support greater federalization. But his major accomplishment is in making it impossible to ignore who’s responsible for educational gridlock. Every attempt the reformers he highlights make to improve, streamline, or overhaul the system runs up against the same brick wall: teachers unions and the politicians who owe enormous amounts of campaign dollars to them.

After only a year or two, public-school educators earn tenure. Guggenheim highlights the Herculean task districts face when they want to fire any teacher who’s reached that milestone. When a Chicago teacher is fired after a student takes video of him reading the newspaper in class, his union reps intercede.

CLIP: And I see all of this going on. So the guy asks me, “What are you going to do?” I said, “I’m going to fire these people.” My staff is in the back of the room going like this, like, “Man, you can’t fire nobody. You can’t say that.” I thought I was in charge!

He wins his job back—with back pay. In New York, teachers under disciplinary review for sexual or physical misconduct sit in what’s known as the “rubber room.” They play cards, read, and chat while continuing to draw a salary, sometimes for years. A quick Google search turns up plenty of recent news reports showing rubber rooms still exist.

And when District of Columbia Superintendent Michelle Rhee tries to offer her teachers dramatic merit-based pay raises in exchange for forgoing tenure, the union refuses to put her proposal to a vote.

Guggenheim excels in allowing opposition figures to respond, often with words that condemn them further. American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten comes off as calculating and dishonest in her organization’s defense.

CLIP: This scorched earth debate may actually make some people’s career. May make somebody popular in terms of, “I’m the change agent.” But it’s not going to change schools. [Cheering, “We will not be moved! We will not be moved!]

Despite his previous collaboration with Al Gore, Guggenheim doesn’t hold back from showing which political groups benefit from teachers union support and what they’ve received for their money. Tracing the funding trail is the head of this film. But its heart is the families hurt by the status quo. Watching them go up against casino-like odds to gain spots in innovative charter schools makes Waiting for “Superman” more than a dry lesson in our nation’s education woes. This is a heart-wrenching true story about what adult special interests are costing our children.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Megan Basham.

(Photo/Waiting for “Superman”)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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