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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