Commentary: Need for school reform permeates "Superman" film

A long-held American ideal is, as Abraham Lincoln put it, "to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life." But we know, as Lincoln knew, that the accident of birth – where you come into the world and are raised, who your parents are (and the resources at their disposal) – give some a head start in that race and hold others back from even reaching the starting line.

Equally long-held in this country is the belief that education can overcome the accidents of birth to give people that fair chance in the race of life.

So now comes along a powerful new film by Davis Guggenheim (best known for "An Inconvenient Truth"), challenging us all to turn that faith in the power of educational opportunity into reality.

"Waiting for 'Superman' " profiles the lives of five children, born into circumstances they did not choose, with adults in their lives who know in their bones the power of education but who struggle to find schools where their children can shine.

The film uses the lottery to win a scarce spot in a high-performing public charter school as a metaphor for the lottery of life – and how the public schools that could improve the life chances of children just are failing too many kids. Even with education, the great equalizer, we are "placing children in the hands of luck." Opponents of the film – yes, it has drawn protests, in Sacramento and elsewhere – have been all too ready to accuse the filmmaker of presenting charters as "the solution" to the very real problems of public schools and to denounce him as "anti-teacher." They are utterly wrong on both counts. They have totally missed the point.

The premise of the film is hinted in the title, "Waiting for 'Superman.' " No one is coming with enough power to save us, Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children's Zone, tells us. Young children in poor, unsafe neighborhoods learn very quickly that "the world is a cold, heartless place, that they've been given the short end of the stick, and they don't know why."

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