Arts Desk

Songs for “Superman”: A Playlist for Our Troubled Schools

In the press kit for the education documentary Waiting for "Superman" director Davis Guggenheim recalls his misty reaction to "Shine," a John Legend song written for the film's end credits: "The first time I heard it, I cried."

He wasn't the only one.

I made no secret of my disgust for the saccharine, manipulative ballad in my review of the film for the current issue of City Paper. While Guggenheim is trying to fix public schools with "great teachers," Legend, with lyrics like "Can't eat if we don't feed them/can't read if we don't teach them," must think what today's kids need is an extra dose of schmaltz.

But I don't want to be mean. My favorite teachers taught me that the best criticism is constructive, so in response to Legend's misfire, I'd like to offer up a musical selection that better suits the two-hour meditation on public education that is Waiting for "Superman."

One of the film's proposed solutions is to raise expectations for teachers. Belle and Sebastian have that covered:

Some people don't like co-ed schools. Spinal Tap makes a case for all-girls institutions:

A good education, Guggenheim reminds us throughout the movie, is a pillar of the American dream. Yeezy agrees:

MC5 had some thoughts on high school back in 1970. Forty years later, have we made any progress?

Guggenheim's most forceful argument comes with his repeated pleas for better teachers, but better acts than John Legend had songs to offer on that topic. Once upon a time an English teacher named Gordon Sumner got a bit too close for comfort with one of his students:

The tension between teacher and student can run both ways, as Van Halen pointed out:

Once in a while, as Waiting for "Superman" argues, students get that teacher who really transforms their lives. But wait, they already made a movie about that! In 1967!

While Guggenheim focuses on public schools in his movie, we shouldn't ignore the fact that private and parochial institutions can be troubled. Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys wasn't taken with his upbringing in his Catholic schooling.

One of the most important statistics for schools is their college acceptance rate. But Animal Collective offered a differing opinion on their 2004 album Sung Tongs:

Despite the thinness of his answers, Guggenheim wasn't wrong in his bleak assessment of the state of public education. There are many potential solutions—charter schools, more testing, breaking the teachers' unions, Michelle Rhee. The list could go on and on. But when all else fails, maybe we should just listen to The Replacements:

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