“Waiting for Superman”, when Life is Literally a Lottery.

"Waiting For Superman".

“Waiting For Superman”.

The  2010 documentary Waiting For Superman is yet another one of those remarkable and riveting films that take a mundane and quietly depressing issue, and turn it into a brilliant film and a rallying call to action. Directed by Davis Guggenheim of An Inconvenient Truth (’06) fame, this time around it’s on the American education system.

In a gloriously biased and impeccably uneducated manner, many of us have long had our suspicions about the schools over there, without necessarily knowing anything about them. This alas confirms all our worst prejudices.

For those who can’t afford to educate their children privately, and at huge expense, the only option is to send them to the public school in the district where they live. And, as pretty much everybody in America seems to know, these are all quite simply awful.

The inspirational Geoffrey Canada.

The inspirational Geoffrey Canada.

For a long time it was thought that woeful inner city public schools were merely a reflection on the areas they were located in. But increasingly people are coming to believe that it is the other way around. And that it is the quality of the schools that feed into and determine the area they’re housed in. So if you can fix the schools there, you can begin to ease the social inequality that has crippled so many urban centres.

The film follows five kids and their parents as they grapple with their passionate desire to give their child the best possible education, against their need to do so in the dreadful public school system. And you’ll never guess what colour skin four out of the five kids we follow have? Whatever about the White House, the rich keep getting richer and the poor just get blacker.

Against this bleak backdrop, and a system crippled by militant unions – thank God we’re free of that here in Ireland eh… – a number of educators, a handful of politicians, and an industrialist (Bill Gates, again) have come to focus on charter schools as an alternative to conventional public schools.

Critics of the film have claimed that it overstates how successful charter schools have been. And that only about 20% of charter schools are statistically better than most public schools. And it’s true that the film pins its narrative to those 20% of charter schools that do do better. But the few charter schools that are better are spectacularly more successful. And there’s the rub.

Because what that means is that all of those financially challenged parents who are nonetheless determined to give their kids a better chance at having a life than they ever had, are desperately trying to get their kids into one of those charter schools. And the only thing the charter schools can do to equitably determine who does and does not get in, is to hold a lottery.

Like democracy, an education is taken for granted until you're deprived of it.

Like democracy, an education is taken for granted until you’re deprived of it.

And so we watch in horror as our five children gather at their prospective schools, to attend a lottery there with thousands of others, to see whether their number will be randomly selected. And whether they will, against all the odds, have a life.

Like watching vintage social satire in a classic – i.e. early – episode of The Simpsons, your first reaction on seeing this film is, dear Lord, what a country to find yourself living in. But just as that thought is forming, you realise of course that this is the kind of country that produces film makers, teachers and parents like this.

It’s a country in other words that manages to manufacture monumental problems such as these. And to inspire the making of films like this that address them. And brilliantly so.

You can see the trailer to Waiting For Superman here.

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