Waiting for Superman is a documentary about the failure of the American educational system, and it’s an incredibly compelling experience. It’s hard to watch the movie and not feel outraged—our children are failing! The rest of the world is smarter than us! We are facing a crisis of epic proportions! (You’d expect nothing less from the director who managed to turn Al Gore and a PowerPoint presentation into the new populist center of the environmental movement.) It’s a polemic! Get mad! Arrr! But once you leave the theater, you start to notice some discrepancies.
The film points fingers directly at bad teachers, complaining that it’s impossible to fire them thanks to out-of-control teachers unions. This feels like a way-too-pat answer to a very complex problem. For instance, all the parents in the film are perfect: They work long hours to send their kids to private school or tutoring. They research every possible alternative to get their kids into better schools. They support their kids’ educations wholeheartedly. Never once does Superman even begin to suggest that any of the problems of our educational system might be due to lack of parental interest. This is probably savvy filmmaking—you wouldn’t pay to see a documentary that explicitly identifies you as a problem, would you?—but it feels as though an enormous segment of the issue isn’t addressed. And to point fingers at a union and suggest that workers’ rights are the sole source of difficulty—to make teachers the villain of a movie about the educational system—makes me feel itchy on an ideological level.
Further, Superman doesn’t really bother addressing America’s pervasive testing culture, in which students spend a huge chunk of their school years preparing for standardized government tests for school funding. Some experts claim that this testing culture has done more to prevent teachers from getting to more important matters—like, um, critical and independent thought—than any number of bad teachers. But Superman is too in love with its fabricated catchy story line (the climax of the film is a series of raffles to win entrance to better schools: Will our kids thrive or fail in life? Everything hangs in the balance!) to do anything but give a cursory critical glance at its own thesis.