Anthony, one of the five students profiled in Davis Guggenheim's new film, Waiting for Superman.
Anthony, one of the five students profiled in Davis Guggenheim's new film, Waiting for Superman. Paramount Vantage
Davis Guggenheim, the director of the documentary Waiting for Superman, sets out to do for the school reform debate in this country what he did for the debate over global warming in An Inconvenient Truth — scare us.
"Among 30 developed countries, we rank 25th in math, 21st in science, and in almost every category we've fallen behind," says Guggenheim, as the film's narrator.
The threat this time is not to our planet, but to our children and our nation's future. Guggenheim conveys the threat with devastating statistics and hidden cameras sneaked into what he calls "dropout factories." But the film's real power resides in the voices of five children — Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy and Emily — and their parents' desperate search for a good school.
These kids are trapped in mediocre, dysfunctional public schools, so they've pinned their hopes on a lottery that could get them into privately run, publicly funded charter schools — schools that the movie presents not so much as the alternative but the antidote to what Guggenheim calls America's "failed public education system."
To change that system, Guggenheim pins his hopes on a handful of hard-charging school reformers anointed as the film's "superheroes." There's Washington, D.C.'s no-nonsense Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.
"You wake up every morning, and you know that kids are getting a really crappy education right now," Rhee says.
Then there's Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of Harlem Children's Zone who, with millions of dollars in private donations, has built an extraordinary safety net for poor children who attend his charter school and doesn't understand why regular public schools can't do the same.
Geoffrey Canada's nonprofit Harlem Children's Zone, with the help of private donations, helps poor children attend his charter school. He doesn't understand why regular public schools can't do the same.
Geoffrey Canada's nonprofit Harlem Children's Zone, with the help of private donations, helps poor children attend his charter school. He doesn't understand why regular public schools can't do the same. Paramount Vantage
"Either kids are getting stupider every year or something is wrong in the education system," Canada says.
Waiting for Superman gives generous screen time to reformers and their financial backers, most notably Bill Gates. The film is effective and powerful, says Timothy Knowles, head of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago.
"It's got heroes and villains, triumphs and tragedy," Knowles says. "The promise I think is that a beautifully made, emotional film will help focus the country on what it will take to create reliably excellent schools."
But there are two big problems with the film, says Knowles. He says Guggenheim "exalts" charter schools as a singular strategy for improving education, despite their mixed record. Second, he says, Guggenheim's blistering attack on teachers' unions is unfair and counterproductive. The film accuses unions of protecting incompetent teachers. The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, gets just enough screen time to explain and defend teachers' rights to due process, but in the end she's the perfect foil, Guggenheim's Lex Luthor.
Public school teachers care about kids, too, says Weingarten, but you wouldn't know it by watching this film.
Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee (from left) and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, on NBC News' Meet The Press.
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee (from left) and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, on NBC News' Meet The Press. Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire
"And the fact that the movie does not portray one great public school, does not portray one great public school teacher, it gives no credit to any of that and no balance to any of that," Weingarten says.
Weingarten says Guggenheim's analysis of what ails public education is simplistic, misleading and divisive.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has seen the film twice, disagrees.
"I didn't see the movie as polarizing in any way," Villaraigosa says. "I've heard criticisms that it's anti-union. I think it's pro-kids. I think what this movie does is it puts a face on the personal trials and tribulations of families who are confronting the crisis in public education."
As the 1 hour, 42-minute-long film winds down, Guggenheim brings us back to the drama that's been building — the fate of its five young protagonists. Will their lottery number come up? Will they get into a better school? We all hold our breath.
The thesis in Waiting for Superman is clear: America has left too many kids' education up to chance. And Guggenheim wants to enlist every American to help change that. The movie's website even has a sign-up sheet and donation box. You have to wonder, though, if Guggenheim has thought about what's easier — stopping global warming or making sure every child in America attends a good school.
Waiting for Superman opens nationwide in October.