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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.

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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.

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