Are America?s schools broken beyond repair?

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated September 23, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

In the powerful, passionate, and potentially revolution-inducing documentary Waiting for ?Superman? filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) argues that every American child deserves a good public-school education; that, in fact, providing every child with the opportunity for a good public-school education is vital to our nation?s welfare; and that if the current educational system is flawed, it?s up to us—you, me, parents, teachers, taxpayers, registered voters—to fix it, right now. The first two statements aren?t likely to ruffle feathers. (Show of hands: Who?s against literacy?) But the heartbreaking difficulty of achieving the third goal—along with Guggenheim?s expert storytelling skills in the service of advocacy—is what buoys us through Waiting for ?Superman? on waves of despair, hope, outrage, and finally, constructive, motivating anger.

The film appeals to the head in contending (often via jaunty animation, archival pop cultural clips, and similar infotainment tricks from the Michael Moore school of showmanship) that one of the biggest obstacles to educational reform is the intractability and political power of teachers? unions, which protect the incompetent and subpar among members. But the movie goes right to the heart in focusing on the fates of some irresistibly real kids and the loving, frustrated parents and grandparents who care for them. These adults submit to dumb fate and a pathetic lottery system to determine whether their kid will be ?lucky? enough to get a spot in an oversubscribed ?better? public school than the one they?re stuck in. You?ll weep as you await the outcome. But maybe, too, you?ll consider becoming a teacher, a really good one. In which case, you?re the Superman these kids are waiting for. A-