Despair, villainy and no hero to save the day

24th September 2010 at 01:00
United States: A new documentary, Waiting for 'Superman', lays the blame for failing schools with teachers and teaching unions

The problem of the United States' busted public schools comes down to one simple truth, says polemical film-maker Davis Guggenheim. "There can be no great schools without great teachers." Focus on that, he says, and obvious solutions will follow.

Guggenheim's new feature-length documentary Waiting for "Superman" opened in movie houses here last week. A searing indictment of the American public school system, the film is being tipped as an equal to his Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth.

As the title implies, there is no single superhero in this tale ready to swoop in and sort out the mess. But there is a villain. And as the release date approaches, the US's national teaching union is bracing itself for impact.

Waiting for "Superman" follows the fortunes of five children hoping to escape their failing neighbourhood schools for a place at a better-performing charter school. Government-funded but in most cases operating outside union control, charter schools are frequently arenas for experimentation. The good ones are also massively oversubscribed, and the few available spots are allocated by lottery.

In a scene used in the movie trailer, an antiquated lottery machine randomly dispenses numbered balls while a hall full of tearful children wait to hear if their number is called. Which children will be given a chance to forge ahead with a decent education, and which left to fall behind, determined by the chance drop of a ball.

Alongside the drama of the childrens' stories is an analysis of the problem. That schools are failing here is uncontested: as many children will drop out of high school as will graduate, while among 30 developed countries, the US ranks 25th in maths and 21st in science. "Either the kids are getting stupider every year or something is wrong with the education system," says Geoffrey Canada, educational reformer, CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone in New York and one of the film's heroes.

But the cause of the problem and what should be done about it are far more controversial. Guggenheim's support for the removal of failing teachers has found him crossing swords with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

Braced for an onslaught of criticism, the AFT's president, Randi Weingarten, has been taking pre-emptive action. In a note sent to the media, she writes that the film is "inaccurate, inconsistent and incomplete".

Commitment to education reform comes from on high. President Obama's $4.35 billion Race to the Top initiative has refined the tests of student achievement in Bush's No Child Left Behind and set out to strengthen teacher accountability. Even the Los Angeles Times published a ranked database of 6,000 local teachers based on its own analysis of their performance.

But some fear that the charged emotional tone of Waiting for "Superman" could cloud debate rather than deepen it. Americans may finally be taking their crisis in education seriously, but will Guggenheim's film take them any closer to knowing how to solve it?

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