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Waiting for Superman to Save Our Public Schools:
An Interview with Director Davis Guggenheim

By Hannah Goodwyn Producer - Documentarian Davis Guggenheim is most known for An Inconvenient Truth, his Oscar-winning film about climate change. In Waiting for Superman, the father of three examines the sad status of public schools through the eyes of five students.

Anthony, Bianca, Daisy, Emily, and Francisco are desperate to get a good education, so that they can get into college and on the path to the careers they dream of having. With the odds against them, the five are forced to hope for the best as they apply and wait for the lottery results for spots in better local schools.

Waiting for Superman director Davis Guggenheim spoke with recently about what he learned about the state of the U.S. public school system and how it can be changed so every child gets a good education. An Inconvenient Truth had its supporters, but it also had its critics. What would you say to those who might be skeptical about this new one?

Guggenheim: This movie is politically ecumenical. I guess if you were to say if there is a bias in the film, it's a bias towards the kids. I want to see the kids in my movies succeed. I'm tough on all of the politicians in the movie. The reformers that I follow are not political; they're pragmatists that want to see real change. The people will judge for themselves. What is interesting is that everyone is embracing this film, Republicans, Democrats, any persuasion. It's not inspired by any kind of ideology. What inspired you to make Waiting for Superman?

Guggenheim: I was originally offered to make the movie, and I actually said "no." I thought that the subject of education was too complicated. The next morning I was packing my kids up in my minivan and taking them to school with juice boxes and backpacks. Out of the corner of my eye, I started to see the local public schools that I was driving by. And it started to haunt me that my kids whom I send to private school were having a great education, but the kids in my own neighborhood were not. I said, "Well, maybe that is the approach that I should make for this movie. What if I made a movie that was about the kids?" and said, "Why can't we give every kid that great education?" Is there an increase in parents pulling their kids out of public school, taking them to private school or even doing home schooling? And how can we ensure kids get a good education without giving up on the public education system?

Guggenheim: You look at the trajectories; and as our schools have declined, you see the other alternatives increase, private school, home schooling, all of the other alternatives are going up. Actually, now with the economy, private schools are kind of going down a little bit. The point of the movie is we have to make great schools for every kid. You shouldn't have to win a lottery. You shouldn't have to be born to the right family to have a chance at the American Dream. What's your education story?

Guggenheim: I grew up in Washington, D.C. After my first day of school—I remember this vividly—coming home and saying, "Mom, why did I take a school bus from Washington across the Potomac River into Virginia, a 40 minute bus ride?" And I said, "There is a school down the block?" She goes, "Well, because our schools in Washington are broken." That was a little bit over 40 years ago. Our schools in D.C. were failing 40 years ago, and that's what this story is about, this sort of chronic, systematic failure. The thrust of the movie is we have to look at some tough questions. We have to ask the adults in our world to change if we are going make great schools for every kid in America. Good leaders and good teachers are hard to come by. What was your reaction when Michelle Rhee, one of the administrators featured in the film, recently announced her resignation?

Guggenheim: Michelle Rhee's a great leader. She was doing great things for the kids of D.C., so it's a shame that they're going to lose her. She got caught up in city politics, which is a shame. My hope is that the next chancellor will continue the work that she was doing. She was doing incredible work for the kids of D.C. In your research, what were the qualities that you could see in the schools, in the leaders and the teachers that were really working?

Guggenheim: The exciting thing that I document in my movie is that there is a new generation of reformers, teachers, principles, superintendents who are not political. They're not driven by politics or ideology; they're pragmatists. Because a lot of them are teachers, and they've been in the classroom, they basically said, "Enough is enough. We need to just build more great schools and do them one at a time. It's not ideologically driven; it's about doing the hard work of building great schools. These pragmatists are what's so inspiring about the movie. They've proven you can go into even the toughest neighborhood, and you can reach these kids where everyone had given up, and you can send 90 percent of them to college. The exciting thing is that the message of it is really for everyone; it's not political. It's about, "Can we recommit to making great schools for everyone?" In Waiting for Superman, you hit on the fact that it's not just the inner cities that are suffering in the public schools. Emily, an eighth grader from Silicon Valley, comes to mind.

Guggenheim: Yes, the problem of our schools is everywhere. What you find with Emily's family is that there's this sort of a deal that some people make. "The schools in my neighborhood aren't good, so I'm just going to buy my way out of the problem and go move to an expensive neighborhood, and that will be fine." But what you find in some of these suburban schools, these schools with high ranks still aren't built to give every child a great education. Emily's school was ranked one of the top high schools in the country. Yet, it's really only built for getting the top 10 or 15 percent into college, and Emily would be lost in the shuffle. The problems that affect our inner city schools the most also affect every suburban school now. Your documentary The First Year (1999) looked at the seemingly hopeless problems in public schools. Waiting for Superman shows how reformers are changing things. How can these changes be experienced on a national level?

Guggenheim: That is the big question now is how to bring some of these successful schools to scale. The good news is that the ingredients for success are not that complicated. What you want to do is think of these high performing charters as incubators for success. What they have is five things: a huge emphasis on great teachers; great leadership (a great, thoughtful principal who knows how to run a school); longer school days; more school days; and high expectations. Those things aren't that hard, but they take a lot of political will. Having been in different cities across the country, you now know it's possible. I've been to some of the toughest neighborhoods in our country, and these schools are performing miracles because they have the tools and they have the freedom to achieve these great successes. What can parents do?

Guggenheim: If you look at great reform, it always starts from parents. If you look at the movement to reform the special education movement, it was driven by parents who were fierce advocates for their children. That's what we need for every kid. We need fierce advocates. We need parents demanding that their schools be great and pushing their children to work harder, but also saying, "I want a great teacher in every classroom, and I want the system to be built to fight for the kids and not for the adults."

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Hannah GoodwynHannah Goodwyn received a great education at her public schools, and hopes that changes are made so that every child has the same opportunity.

She serves as the Entertainment and Family producer for For more articles and information, visit Hannah's bio page.

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