Despair, villainy and no hero to save the day

1st October 2010 at 01:00
A new documentary lays the blame for failing schools in the US with teachers and teaching unions

The problem of America's 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 cinemas in the US 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. If the pre-release buzz is anything to go by, it's set to mobilise public outrage at the schools crisis the way An Inconvenient Truth redefined America's attitude to climate change.

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, America's national teachers' 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 places 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, waits 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, are determined by the chance drop of a ball.

Alongside the drama of the children's 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, for example, 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 contention that the teachers make the school, his support for the removal of failing teachers and his portrayal of the unions putting members' job security above the interest of the children have found him crossing swords with the American Federation of Teachers.

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 dismissed Guggenheim's simple truth as simplification. The film is "inaccurate, inconsistent and incomplete", she writes. Most charter schools perform no better than regular public schools, she argues, and those held up as shining examples, like the schools in the Harlem Children's Zone, have been bolstered by additional private funding.

As the head of the union, Weingarten must talk tough in defence of her members. And yet, a participant in the film, she is reported to have cried on watching it. By all accounts she knows that change is on the way and is quietly doing her part to usher it in.

Commitment to education reform comes from on high. President Obama's $4.35 billion Race to the Top initiative saw the allocation of grants to states according to their reform efforts. He 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?

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today