‘Waiting for Superman’ Depicts an Educational Landscape in Turmoil

by Nathan St. Pierre ’12

The United States is the richest country in the world, and yet, compared to the 26 developed countries in the world, ranks last in mathematics and fourth to last in reading. David Guggenheim’s documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” shines a light on why many of America’s public school systems produce such disappointing results.

Guggenheim directly correlates these low test scores to a soaring high school dropout rate. Only 75 percent of students in high schools in the country will graduate. This compares unfavorably to Japan’s 93-percent graduation rate, Switzerland’s 88-percent rate and France’s 85-percent rate.

As “Waiting for Superman” presents it, hundreds of American schools have become failure factories, where more than 50 percent of students drop out. Some young people are essentially forced to attend these unfit schools due to the location of their residence. The students could try to go to an excellent school further away or a charter school, but that may be too expensive and enrollment space is extremely limited.

It is not simply by chance that some of these schools produce failures instead of graduates. Guggenheim shows that school faculty, especially teachers, have an immense impact on whether a school succeeds or fails. It’s true that a good teacher can inspire students to make them want to work hard and learn. Unfortunately, the opposite is very much true as well.

An easy solution would be to remove the bad teachers and hire more deserving ones instead. However, getting rid of a teacher is not as easy as firing a McDonald’s employee. Guggenheim notes that when a teacher has been in the school system for around three years, the teacher is granted tenure. This essentially prevents the school system from getting rid of the teacher. It is still possible, but it involves years of investigations, observations and hearings which, in the end, often fail to terminate the teacher due to a mistake in one of the many papers the school must complete.

“Waiting for Superman” also depicts how the federal government often throws money at the education problem and hopes for improvement. Guggenheim asserts that there is no point in giving money to school systems if it is not effectively spent. For example, government money is used to fund more testing through the No Child Left Behind Act, but does not do anything to directly solve the problems of poor academic performance or high school dropout rates. It just helps point out who is failing.

In “Waiting for Superman,” Guggenheim proposes that problems with the education system cannot be solved with money or federal laws. Education reform can only be solved if people are willing to work as a community with school systems to come up with creative solutions to a complex problem.