The most suspenseful sequence of any movie I've seen this year comes near the end of the documentary Waiting for Superman, when five kids from around the country and their parents attend lottery drawings that will determine whether they can enter the charter schools they desperately want to attend.
By then, director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, It Might Get Loud) has made us privy to the lives and homes of the children, such as Anthony, a Washington fifth-grader who was held back in second grade because his father died of a drug overdose that year; Francisco, a first-grader from the Bronx, N.Y., who likes math and wants to be a reporter; or Daisy, a Los Angeles fifth-grader who yearns to become a doctor or veterinarian.
The obstacle all the kids share is that they attend public school systems that Waiting for Superman argues are broken and designed to resist repair.
Among the dense amount of information in the film is the statistic that although the U.S. government has doubled the amount of money we spend on every student since 1971, math and reading scores have flattened. There are 2,000 public schools known as "dropout factories" — schools in which an incoming group of 1,200 freshmen dwindles to 300 sophomores every year. Of the world's 30 developed countries, the United States students rank 25th in math scores. In footage recorded by a student on a video camera hidden in his school bag, we see a teacher reading a newspaper at his desk during school hours.
And because of a fiercely defensive teachers' union, bad or lazy instructors are almost impossible to fire, while good teachers cannot be given extra compensation for merit. When Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools system, comes up with a proposal for teachers to vote to marry salary to performance, union leaders refuse to participate in a vote. Meanwhile, Guggenheim shows clandestine footage of some of the 600 suspended New York City teachers who spent three years awaiting disciplinary action, whiling away their days reading books and magazines, at a cost of $100 million to taxpayers.
Although education reform has long been a campaign promise (there's a neat compilation of footage of several U.S. presidents all vowing the same thing), an alternative has popped up: Charter schools have conclusively proven that educating willing kids from every social and economic background is possible (today, the country's top charter schools are sending 90 percent of their graduates to college). But the competition for admittance is fierce, and the number of seats limited.
The problems that plague public education today are too broad for a single movie to cover (this one doesn't delve, for example, into the effect uncooperative or incorrigible kids have on the system). But by focusing on these five kids and their hopeful families, Waiting for Superman puts a human face on a crisis worthy of a superhero.