I was on a transatlantic flight recently, taking advantage of the downtime to catch up on the movies I’d missed in theaters, when I caught Waiting for Superman, a documentary about American public schools, and without a doubt the most frightening movie I saw last year. It was also the most heartbreaking, and, in the interest of full disclosure, I was in tears by the film’s end, no doubt attracting my share of strange looks from my fellow passengers.
Waiting for Superman, directed by Davis Guggenheim (who also directed An Inconvenient Truth) tells the story of America’s public schools as seen through the experiences of a handful of kids from different backgrounds and economic circumstances. It reveals an education system that is not just broken, but that actively threatens the future of our nation by under-educating many thousands of children every year.
It’s a highly troubling story to say the least, and reveals American public school students to be some of the worst-educated in the developed world. It’s a systemic problem rooted in dysfunctional policy and corrupt teachers’ unions, and, if the film’s message is to be believed, may soon lead to America’s decline among the world’s great powers.
The film is not without hope, however, revealing people who are actively working to turn the system around. One of them is Geoffrey Canada, the extraordinary leader of The Harlem Children’s Zone (and a past guest on the show). Another is this week’s guest, Michelle Rhee. One of the most striking sections of the film focuses on Rhee’s turbulent battle to reform the DC public school system as its embattled chancellor, a tenure which ended late last year.
Rhee is one of the few rays of hope in an otherwise incredibly bleak picture of what kids in U.S. public schools face every day. Now, she continues her work as the leader of StudentsFirst, a national nonprofit aimed at education reform. If there is a hope for America’s kids (at least those without the option of private education), it’s in people like Rhee and Canada and their undying commitment to fixing our schools.