Last night I saw Waiting for "Superman," the documentary about education reform that officially opens in Boston this Friday. Unlike most American films, it's not a chore to sit through and it's full of memorable images. A few impressions:
--Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim uses frequent close-ups of the colored balls in a lottery machine, and it's not just a metaphor. Most major school districts in the US have a handful of innovative schools that offer escape from the "dropout factories" that predominate in urban areas. They go by different names (charters, magnets, KIPP schools, and even boarding schools), but they all have many times more applicants than desks, so kids are usually selected at public lottery drawings. In Superman, we witness a few cheers and a lot of shell-shocked faces at these events. It's like watching the steerage passengers on the Titanic draw straws to see who gets one seat on a lifeboat. But I suppose this ritual is a good thing for state governments: It sends the message that the best way for families in poor families to turn their lives around is through sheer luck. So keep buying those scratch tickets!
--The film has a great animated sequence on the annual "Dance of the Lemons" in one urban school districts. This refers to the end of the school year, when principals try to transfer their bad teachers to other schools -- the risk, of course, being that their replacements will be even worse, since they were the lemons that other principals were trying to get rid of. This is an argument against the practice of tenure, under which it's practically impossible to fire teachers in public schools who have logged a minimal amount of time on the job. Guggenheim does not show a lot of sympathy for teachers' unions, but people who don't have the benefit of tenure -- that is, practically anyone who's not an educator, a Supreme Court justice, or an occupant of rent-controlled housing -- are likely to share his prejudice.
--A heroic character in Superman is Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of public schools in Washington, DC. Rhee has tried to push through major reforms in that district, such as offering teachers higher pay in exchange for giving up tenure. Earlier this month, after this film was completed, Rhee's boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, was defeated in the Democratic primary, which means Rhee will almost certainly lose her job soon. There is a scene in Superman in which she confronts DC residents angry over her decision to close several (presumably underperforming) neighborhood schools. That's a real political dilemma: I think most inner-city residents genuinely want better schools, but there's no way that consolidating schools ever plays well. People always see the closing of "their" school as an affront (if not evidence of a political conspiracy), no matter how bad that school is.
This last point is the biggest shortcoming in Superman. The film offers possible solutions to bad schools (and they don't necessarily involve spending more money), but it doesn't tell us how to build a political constituency for educating "other people's children." I walked out of the theater thinking,"No one could see this movie and not feel the urgency to change things." But then I remembered the big splash that Guggenheim made with a previous documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. And people seem to have gotten over the fear of climate change quite nicely.