News / USA

Failing US Public Schools Waiting for 'Superman'

Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim offers 'inconvenient' truths about education in America

"Waiting For 'Superman'" sheds light on the education crisis in the United States.
"Waiting For 'Superman'" sheds light on the education crisis in the United States.


Penelope Poulou

"Waiting for 'Superman'" is the new documentary by Academy Award winning director Davis Guggenheim. He won an Oscar for "An Inconvenient Truth," about global warming. This time, Guggenheim sounds the alarm about the decline of public education in the United States.

According to the film, among 30 developed countries, the U.S. ranks 25th in math and 21st in science. American students have fallen behind in almost every category except one: kids from the United States rank number one in confidence.

Guggenheim focuses on five inner city kids who attend underperforming schools. They dream of getting into better schools. But the film suggests it's not easy. They literally have to win the lottery, the school lottery.

"A hand pulling a card from a box. Or a computer generates numbers in random sequence," says the film's narrator. "Because when there's a great public school there aren't any spaces. So we do what's fair. We place our children and their future in the hands of luck."

"It's outrageous, it's outrageous. And you know, that's why I made the film. It's because I connect to these kids," says Guggenheim, who feels guilty because he sends his own children to private school. "My way of getting involved is to make a movie.  But there are other ways: Get involved in your community school, demand better teachers, demand reform."

The film's premise is that poor teachers and apathetic school bureaucracies leave kids uneducated.

The film showcases prominent education reformers, including Geoffrey Canada, who created the Harlem Children's Zone in New York City. The project has offered quality education to thousands of inner city students. Canada says the main ingredient for a good education is good teachers.

"We have to make sure that we only put the best professionals in front of our young people," says Canada. "We have to encourage more young people to become teachers."  

Canada was an innner city child himself. "One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me Superman did not exist. Even in the depth of the ghetto, you just thought 'he's coming.'" 

'Waiting for 'Superman'' director Davis Guggenheim (right) and education reformer Geoffrey Canada (center) with Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates (left).
'Waiting for 'Superman'' director Davis Guggenheim (right) and education reformer Geoffrey Canada (center) with Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates (left).

That story inspired Guggenheim to name his film "Waiting for 'Superman.'"

Canada believes teachers can be Supermen for their students.

Michelle Rhee, the controversial chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools, agrees.

"You wake up every morning and you know that kids are getting a really crappy education right now," she says in a sequence from the film.

Guggenheim asks her, "So you think that most of the kids are getting a crappy education right now?"

"Oh, I don't think they are. I know they are," Rhee answers.

In July, Rhee dismissed more than 200 teachers. And that made D.C. teachers - traditionally protected by tenure - unhappy.

Many argue that Rhee's reforms were to blame for Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty's recent ouster in the primary elections. In November, Rhee herself may be out of a job.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, also appears in the documentary. She feels the film should not focus only on teachers.

"Not to just scapegoat the individual teachers or say or highlight one piece of the education system," she says.

Bill Gates, whose foundation has spent $300 million resuscitating American schools, stands behind Guggenheim's documentary.

"He lets you see through the eyes of the children where they are getting the chance to either go to a great school or not go to a great school," says Gates. "And gives you a sense that if you don't go to a great school your job opportunities are worse and worse."

"Waiting For 'Superman'" throws light on the education crisis and presents a story of five kids who cast their lot with chance.

You May Like

Afghanistan, Pakistan Leaders to Hold Icebreaking Talks in Paris

Two sides are expected to discuss ways to ease bilateral tensions and jointly work for resumption of stalled peace talks between Afghan government and Taliban officials

Corruption Busting Is Her Game

South African activist is building 'international online community of thousands of corruption fighters'

Former SAF Businessman Gives Books, Love of Reading to Students

Steve Tsakaris now involved in nonprofit Read to Rise, which distributes books in Soweto, encourages lower-grade primary school students to read

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs