October 8, 2010 at 1:00 am

Review: 'Superman' strongly pitches school reform

Francisco, right, and his mom in “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” a film that lays out what’s wrong with America’s educational system. (Paramount Pictures)

Superman isn't coming to save our public schools.

So it's up to you.

That's the basic message of Davis Guggenheim's "Waiting for 'Superman'," an important if inevitably incomplete indictment of America's education system.

Guggenheim ("An Inconvenient Truth") has taken on a huge subject here and there are great chunks of it he simply passes over (our public colleges, for instance). But the information and ugly realities he cues in on are so pressing and frustrating that the effort has to be lauded no matter what.

Essentially an antiquated system filled with dropout factories has, especially in inner city situations, spurred the creation of alternative, often charter, schools; and massive numbers of children who find themselves in lousy schools are entering lotteries to move to better ones.

As Davis lays out all that's wrong with the current system, he follows five young students from across the country who are hoping to beat the odds and win a place at a better school. Their fate literally comes down to a bingo draw of randomly assigned numbers.

As the film builds to the drawing of those numbers, and the inevitable disappointment some will face, Davis makes a solid case for radical change while talking to innovators like Michele Rhee in Washington, D.C., and Geoffrey Canada in Harlem.

At the same time, he exposes the dog-headed resistance of the Democrat-backed teachers unions that support teachers' rights to lifelong tenure, no matter how bad their classroom performances.

Davis easily ties a sick education system to a sick society. But when it comes down to it, in the end he has no clear cure for what ails us. At the very least, though, he has exposed the disease for all to see.

tlong@detnews.com (313) 222-8879