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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: Waiting for Superman

February 14th, 2011

Waiting for Superman - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

Waiting for Superman was one of the highest grossing documentaries of 2010 and not only did it earn stellar reviews, but for a while it seemed like it would be a lock to win the Oscar for Best Feature-Length Documentary. ... Then it wasn't even nominated. There's a large gap between "Not nominated for an Oscar" and "Not worth seeing", so I still have very high hopes for the film, but it does raise the question of whether the Oscar voters were right or not.

The Movie

Waiting for Superman is co-written, directed, and narrated by Davis Guggenheim, whose previous films include It Might Get Loud and An Inconvenient Truth. Here he tackles a subject that is closer to the latter than the former, as it has a lot of political implications. It starts with him referencing one of his earliest films, The First Year, which looked at a group of public school teachers. Now that he has kids of his own, he sends them to private school. Obviously, that's not an option for most people, so instead he looks in on five families waiting to see if their kids' will get into charter schools.

While a lot of the movie is us looking in on those kids, we also get a lot of facts about the sad state of education in the United States. How the number of kids who are at their grade level in math and reading is shockingly low. And how low the graduation rates in some areas are. And how much more likely it is for people who drop out of high school to become criminals and get sent to prisons, at taxpayer expense. Part of the problem, according to Davis Guggenheim, is the bureaucracy, including rules set forth in the Union contracts. A lot of these facts are presented in a very compelling way, but other, very important facts, are just glossed over.

One of the main points Guggenheim is making in the movie is that charter schools are a major solution, since they don't have to deal with school district rules or union contracts. However, he mentions, very briefly, that only one in five are producing exceptional results. Other studies I've seen independent of this movie show that the average charter school is worse than the average public school. How is that not the most important fact of the film? Some of it was so intellectually dishonest, it was an outright lie. According to the movie, the two biggest teacher unions combined are the single biggest political contributors in the U.S. and have given $55 million in campaign contributions, over 20 years. In 2004, the Finance, Insurance and Real Estate sector gave $28 million to George W. Bush. That's one sector in one cycle and one candidate. In 2008 the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $72.7 million in lobbying, and that was just one year. So no, the teachers unions are not as major a political force as this movie makes them out to be. I would say smaller districts doing battle to keep evolution out of schools have a much greater negative effect, or Texas's seemingly annual battle to use their textbooks to fight a culture war is more detrimental. The role of politicians is only mentioned ever so briefly, and while the words "No Child Left Behind" come up, it is not mentioned that this bill created a lot of new bureaucracy, but didn't supply the money needed to implement it. Unions bad. Charter Schools good. That seems to be the argument being put forward.

The number one factor in determining a student's success in school is parental involvement. If a parent has to put forth a lot of effort to get them into a charter school, that probably means they will be more involved. Why this isn't addressed in the film is also troublesome. It gives the impression that instead of trying to fix the public school system, the film would rather move to a charter school system

The Extras

Extras on the DVD include an audio commentary track and 30 minutes of deleted scenes. Those are the two main extras while the rest are quite short. (On a side note, Mr. Duffy is right. Charter schools can improve their results simply by getting rid of kids that are struggling, which is something a public school can't do. As the main feature said, charter schools have few special needs students.)

I do not have the Blu-ray so I can't compare it to the DVD, but it does cost only $4 more, which isn't a bad premium to pay.

The Verdict

Waiting for Superman is a frustrating movie at times. There is definitely something that needs to be fixed with the education system, but when only one in five charter schools is delivering significantly better results, and the average is worse than the average public school, they are clearly not the answer. Maybe there are some aspects that are worth adapting into the public system at large, but this film seems to be a love letter to a system that is no better than the one we have now. Because of that, I don't think the DVD or the Blu-ray is worth buying, but those interested in this subject will find enough of value here to give the film a rental.

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Filed under: Video Review, Waiting for Superman