“Waiting for ‘Superman’” director discusses documentary on education system

If you’re an ASU student and you’re reading this, congratulations, you’ve already won the lottery.

Not the state lottery nor the Mega Millions, but the metaphorical lottery of getting a good education. It’s a lottery that’s a reality for some students in Davis Guggenheim’s new documentary, “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” but for many who see the film, it represents the bigger picture.

“The lottery in this movie is a metaphor for the kids who have a great education and losing the lottery is a metaphor for kids who don’t,” Davis Guggenheim, the director of “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” told The State Press in a conference call.

“Waiting for ‘Superman’” follows five students from different backgrounds as they go through the public elementary school system where they live. What is revealed on these journeys is a system that is broken — and has been for decades. The aforementioned lottery is held at a charter school with a repaired system in an impoverished area where there are many more students seeking a better opportunity than seats available.

“I believe that education is the most important issue of our time, and our schools are really in trouble,” Guggenheim said. “It’s morally wrong that we’re failing so many kids, and it’s really economically unstable.”

Guggenheim, who last directed “An Inconvenient Truth,” is aware that “Waiting for ‘Superman’” is a controversial film, but hopes that its message will rise above the controversy.

“Early on, I showed this movie to Randi Weingarten, the head of the teachers’ union, and we had a long conversation afterwards,” Guggenheim said. “We talked about what we agreed about, we talked about what we disagreed about, but we said, ‘Let’s stay part of the conversation; let’s be productive.’”

Part of the film examines charter schools, which are publicly funded like public schools but are free of teacher unions and do not have to follow the same rules as public schools as long as they produce certain results set forth in their charter.

“Only one in five [charter schools] do really, really well,” Guggenheim said. “But charters are a real key because the ones that do really well, the high performing ones, have found ways to reach every kid and send 90 percent of those kids to college. We can find those ingredients the high performing charters have and implement in our main stream schools.”

Public schools have not failed us, Guggenheim said, they just cater to a certain crowd.

“There are a lot of schools that really do well by the top 15 percent,” Guggenheim said. “The problem is that serving just the top 10 or 15 percent is just not enough anymore. As [Newsweek magazine columnist] Jonathan Alter says, ‘If you don’t have a college degree in this country, you’re screwed, and the country is screwed because we need educated workers for this new economy.’”

When Guggenheim was initially approached to make a documentary about the United State’s public school system, he was weary of dealing with such heavy content. As someone who enrolled his children in private schools, he was conflicted.

“I originally said no when I was offered this documentary just because I thought it was too difficult and I though it was too complex,” said Guggenheim. “I had a breakthrough when I was driving my kids to school: ‘What if I told this from my point of view, the point of a parent? Someone who wants great schools but can’t find them.’

“I though that was a unique point of view to tell the story. By describing my story, maybe people would have an easier time trying to understand the issue.”

With the film, Guggenheim understands that he may have missed some things, or not gotten the story 100 percent correct in many peoples’ eyes, but he hopes that won’t deter anyone from seeing it.

“People who see the movie will see that I make some pretty strong cases for things,” Guggenheim said. “I may not be completely right, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.”

Reach the reporter at pmelbour@asu.edu


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