Advocacy documentaries are supposed to leave you fired up and ready for action. If done properly, they should posit a problem, use evidence to support that there actually is a problem, then leave you with the knowledge and ability to go out and fix that problem.
It’s therefore especially surprising that a documentary about the public educational system in America can’t manage to pull this off. It’s education, for crying out loud — like the oil spill and the continued popularity of the Kardashians, it exists in a realm outside debate. Everyone’s convinced our education system is rife with problems we’ve let devolve into crises, and we must fix them immediately.
The film has no trouble laying out these problems. The notion of our educational system’s supremacy has long since vanished, as international rankings frequently put us behind such otherwise backwater nations as Estonia and Canada. And all of the reasons mentioned by the movie — the inordinate power of teachers unions, a failure to allocate money where it’s most needed, apathetic teachers protected by tenure — sound plausible as possible causes of our deficiency.
What’s the solution? The film follows — well, briefly excerpts the lives of — five students, with academic prognoses ranging from struggling to hopeful, as they try to find alternatives to the failing public schools they’d otherwise attend. All of them wind up pinning their hopes on lottery draws to nearby charter schools, which are working wonders.
This part of the film — watching these kids and their families being forced to leave their educational opportunities to the whims of chance — is heartbreaking. Education is a right, not a wish to be granted or ignored by the gods of good fortune. The fact is, were it not for the proximity of these amazing charter schools, these students would, in most cases, have to survive in schools that better resemble abandoned warehouses.
Indeed, in addition to demonizing teachers unions, lionizing charter schools seems to be the main point of the film. I have no quarrel with this per se — the results of the profiled schools are astounding, and in several cases replicated in multiple locations. Their formulas for success, which basically boil down to “spending more time with children and treating them as individuals instead of learning automatons,” seem common-sensical enough to work.
“Charter schools,” however, is not a sufficient answer to the question of how to fix our schools. As narrator/director Davis Guggenheim off-handedly mentions, only one in five charter schools is producing these amazing results. The rest are just as lousy as their traditional public counterparts — or even worse.
In the end, the film seems to suffer most because of its overarching metaphor — the titular “Superman.” We’re told during the credits that there is no Superman waiting to emerge. That idea is communicated to a certain extent during the movie, as well: No one thing, be it charter schools, eliminating tenure or lessening the power of teachers unions, is going to fix all the problems.
But there’s also no comprehensive plan presented that incorporates one or any of those proposals; we only see the few charter schools discussed doing amazing things. Left unsaid is whether we should add more of them, adopt their ideas for public schools, or anything else.
For actionable items, we get little more than trite platitudes such as “teachers becoming great” and “you [the audience] willing to act.” Even the film’s website suggests our efforts are best aimed toward donating more and getting involved: individual approaches to a systemic problem.
Oh, you’re also encouraged to “pledge” to see the movie. I already did that part — now what?