With Public Schools a Mess, We Can't Wait for Superman

Four years ago, director Davis Guggenheim turned a simple Powerpoint presentation featuring a former vice president into a worldwide phenomenon: His documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, shocked the nation with its frightening look at global warming, netting Guggenheim an Oscar and Al Gore a Nobel Peace Prize while thrusting the climate crisis to the fore of the public discourse.

That feat might just seem like a cakewalk in comparison to tackling the crisis facing our public school system. But Guggenheim is game. His new film, Waiting for Superman, which screened Thursday night at the Silver Docs Festival in Silver Springs, Maryland, and opens this September, is nothing less than a wake-up call to all Americans. It is both a searing indictment of our education system and a desperate call-to-action to save our struggling schools.

According to the film's grim statistics, the crisis is more severe than most of us realize. Public schools are failing millions of American children with 1.2 million dropping out every year. We have doubled the per-pupil federal spending, but achievement has flatlined, and this generation of Americans will be the first to be less literate than the previous one. And while the United States was once the world's gold standard for academics, we now rank 25th in math and 21st in science among 30 developed nations.

Our schools are a disgrace, and rather than intelligence or character, a child's destiny is often determined by his or her zip code.

At its emotional core, the film follows five children -- Anthony, Daisy, Bianca, Francisco, and Emily -- who aren't lucky enough to live near a good public school. We learn about their families, the hardships they face, and the ambitions they have for the future. Faced with the prospect of attending a failing institution, being unable to pay for private school, or getting placed on a slow academic track, these children must enter lotteries to get a slot at one of the few great schools in their city.

The moments before these lotteries are heart wrenching. We see the hope and dread in the faces of both parents and child, who only barely understands why this is a such crucial moment. These children put a human face to this tragedy.

Trying to nail down the causes of this situation, Guggenheim interviews a slew of educators, experts, and public officials like Bill Gates, Geoffrey Canada, who started the successful Harlem Children's Zone; Michelle Rhee, chancellor of DC public schools; and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. The diagnosis? Bureaucracy is hopelessly convoluted; funding is a conflicting mishmash; bad teachers are nearly impossible to get rid of; and low expectations lead to lower performance.

In the process, Guggenheim flips some old convictions, showing that bad schools can drag down a neighborhood and that a well-run school can perform at a high level anywhere. He also illustrates -- through gorgeous, whimsical animations -- how the economy has changed, moving toward specialized jobs, but the schools have remained the same.

This is a dangerous movie, particularly for the teachers' unions. Guggenheim argues that the main problem with schools is bad teachers; but tenure, built into the unions' contracts, prevents schools from getting rid of them. Tenure leads to the Dance of the Lemons, where bad teachers are passed from school to school, and to the infamous rubber rooms of New York City, where teachers under investigation for disciplinary reasons can spend years collecting full salary but not working.

It's all pretty damning stuff, but Guggenheim is careful not to cast teachers as the villains. That honor he bestows on the adults: all of us, the people who are responsible for these children but, when confronted by such intractable problems, just give up and look away.

The director has the courage to admit he is complicit. For his own children, he went with an expensive private school; he dared not put their fate in the hands of a public school. And as he drives by those schools that he rejected everyday, guilt gnaws at him.

Guggenheim is hoping, with the help of Waiting for Superman, we won't look away, that we will start having a real discussion on how to reform our schools. We already know what we have to do -- hire and keep good teachers, set high standards of achievement, and incorporate ideas from the best performing schools.

Now we just have to stop waiting for some "Superman" to come save our schools, and take action ourselves. Go to www.waitingforsuperman.com to pledge to see the movie and learn about actions you can take right now.