Gather round, students, for a lesson about America’s piss-poor educational system: too many teachers are letting kids slide by with far-below-minimum requirements. Johnny can’t read; neither can Juan nor Jamal, as certain neighbourhoods are cursed with public schools that prove we do, in fact, live in a class-based society.
Don’t even ask about the stranglehold of unions or the bad-apple-enabler known as tenure, by which it’s very hard for a teacher to lose his or her job. Some crusaders are fighting the good fight, like Washington DC’s muckraking chancellor Michelle Rhee and Geoffrey Canada (savour the irony of that surname), the charismatic founder of Harlem’s Children’s Zone. But when it comes to building the foundation for our future citizens, a lot more than class has been dismissed.
That’s the thesis behind this earnest documentary from An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim, which both points fingers and presents success stories that could pave the way forward. It’s a work of advocacy blessed with footnoted statistics (animated charts and graphs don’t lie, people) and a budget that allows for perks like ‘Simpsons’ clips – and strapped with a titular metaphor that, anecdotal or not, couldn’t be more strained.
The plentiful pop-doc touches ensure that this wake-up call won’t put you to sleep, even if the ratio of spoonfuls of sugar to medicine sometimes seems skewed. Still, it’s hard to argue with the film’s climactic, Spellbound-ish cross-cutting of charter-school lotteries, a trick that’s as brutishly effective as it is corny.