'Waiting for Superman' educates audiences

First things first: "Waiting for Superman" is a must-see. Not because it is a well-made documentary. It's not — no matter the intense media buzz that has surrounded the film since its release.

It's a must-see because the educational issues it addresses are compelling and the stakes are high for all those children who find themselves, in the words of Geoffrey Canada, head of the Harlem Children's Zone schools, waiting for Superman.

These are the children surrounded by poverty and blight, buffeted by the social riptides that now define so much of our inner cities and their schools. These are the children who cope each day with the frayed societal fabric and dysfunctional emotional infrastructure of neighborhoods and families. These are the children waiting for someone to arrive with the power to change their lives.

Helping them is a moral imperative, and the film conveys a sense of urgency. The question is: How?

Director Davis Guggenheim, in "Waiting for Superman," constructs a disheartening but true reality: far too many of our urban public schools are failure factories. America ranks 25th in math and 21st in science when compared to other developing countries. By 2020, only an estimated 50 million Americans will be qualified to fill 173 million highly skilled, high-paying jobs. Graduation rates for some inner-city schools can hover at less than 50 percent. It is unconscionable.

Guggenheim argues in his documentary that our teachers and by extension the schools are, in effect, Superman. To be sure, great teachers can make all the difference. And if those superior teachers are working in charter schools, then, truly, Superman has arrived.

There are two problems with Guggenheim's thesis. First, while there is a correlation between student performance and outstanding teachers, simply having great teachers is only a beginning. To think otherwise is magical thinking, as is a belief in Superman. Granted, teachers, and the unions that represent them, need to comprehensively reevaluate performance assessment and tenure. But the ills that are manifest in our public schools go well beyond our teachers, and to believe that simply getting rid of bad teachers and closing bad schools — a strategy utilized by Michelle Rhee, chancellor of schools in Washington D.C., as shown in the film — our schools will be transformed, that also is magical thinking.

Second, to believe that charter schools represent a panacea is to ignore the recent data regarding their efficacy. Margaret Raymond, a Stanford University economist, studied half of the nation's 5,000 charter schools. She found that 17 percent were superior to public schools; 37 percent were worse; and 46 percent were the same. In other words, though charter schools are smaller, nonunion, take in fewer students with special needs, and are funded with public and private money, they cannot alone overcome a reality that is far more insidious.

There are two correlatives that impact children doing well in school. Guggenheim ignores both in his film. One is the role of a caring and supportive family (or, in the alternative, the absence of such a family). The parents of the five children whom Guggenheim follows are all profoundly committed to their children's futures. One parent says, "I don't care what I have to do. I don't care how many jobs I have to obtain. But she will go to college."

The truth is that far too many children feel a parental void in their lives; children are too often raising children, families are crumbling at ever more alarming rates under the weight of unemployment, continuing a chronic cycle of poverty and dysfunction (a second correlative), which also are not addressed in the film.

Far too many children arrive at their schools, be it large, inner-city schools or charter schools, damaged. No school alone, no teacher alone, can seriously succeed unless we address much larger social issues. Our schools are merely the canaries in the mine shaft, symptomatic of a far larger and systemic failure.

If we as a nation truly want to address the ills of our public schools, then we must view them in a far more complex way.

Randi Gartner, head of the American Federation of Teachers, in an interview given following the release of "Waiting for Superman," in which she is somewhat demonized, touched on the idea of wraparound schools. Indeed, our schools can be places where we begin to save our children and ensure they will not be lost to us. But the effort will require a massive commitment and intervention, a Marshall Plan of sorts, not unlike Harlem Children's Zone (which is well funded), wherein each child is treasured, and what is done is whatever it takes to make sure that he or she does not get left behind.

It means small classes, well-paid teachers, counseling, a national curriculum, preschools and after-school programs, intensive tutoring, parent and student accountability, staff accountability and a new and far more egalitarian way of financing our schools (let's use the Pentagon model). And it will likely mean a dismantling, at least in part, of the anachronistic organizational structure of our schools, a remnant of a late agrarian and early industrial society.

What we need is a national discourse that goes well beyond "Waiting for Superman." But if this film can contribute to that dialogue, then all to the good. And what else is a documentary for?

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

If you're a fan of Woody Allen's work, have followed closely the evolution of his filmmaking over the decades, and remember with fondness films from "Annie Hall" to "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," then his recent film, "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," is definitely worth seeing.

Trying to characterize the film can be a bit sketchy: call it a romantic farce, lite; perhaps, a comedy of manners sans the witty, even bawdy dialogue; or call it, simply, pure Woody Allen in his later years.

The expectation is that the films of Allen will always be crisp and funny and the situations delightful though maudlin. Of course there will be an undercurrent of existential angst seasoned with the ever-present realization that man is mortal, the clock ticks. "Tall Dark Stranger" doesn't disappoint.

While there is something very engaging about the film, it also feels a bit restrained, as if Allen is now content to peruse the cul-de-sacs of the human condition without breaking a sweat. A chuckle and not a stroll in bumbling agony.

He has, as always, managed to recruit a wonderful ensemble of actors led by Anthony Hopkins as Alfie, a man who has abandoned his wife, Helena (Gemma Jones), of 40 years because, as he says, she is getting old. Blinded by his fears of aging, he hooks up with a 20-something actress-hooker, Charmaine (Lucy Punch). Seen together, they are a familiar juxtaposition, one that is all but universal, yet still fresh and sad and comical. His daughter, Sally (Naomi Watts), feels trapped in a loveless relationship, married to frustrated author, Ray (Josh Brolin), who spends much of his time looking across the alley at a lovely guitarist, Dia (Freida Pinto).

Their lives intersect in the film, somewhat predictably, and yet are just interesting enough to infuse the narrative with moments of interest and energy.

Allen, now working exclusively abroad, sets "Tall Dark Stranger" in London. The city never looked better. If he is feeling all of his 70-plus years, he has refrained from becoming dark or morbid. While there's a vitality to this film, it's almost as if he's grown, well, resigned. Much of his previous sharp writing now seems burnished, smooth and elegant in its own way, but lacking something (his signature wit and punch?).

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