Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim has given us smaller Hollywood flicks like Gossip and Gracie. He has also helmed fantastic episodes of Deadwood and 24, and recently gave us widely different documentaries in The Inconvenient Truth and It Might Get Loud -- but one thing you may notice while scanning across his filmography is that he's pretty fascinated by the American education system. His 2001 documentary The First Day is a passionate and fascinating look at some of L.A.'s most difficult schools, and his latest film, Waiting for Superman, takes an even wider look at how we in America educate our children.
Or, more specifically, how we've generally failed to educate our children.
Equal parts sickening, fascinating, and inspiring, 'Waiting for 'Superman'' (the title refers to a child's dream of being rescued) takes firm aim at our national education system and asks a few simple but angry questions. Like, for example, how can one of the richest and most privileged countries in the world fail so resoundingly at educating its youngest generations? How long must our system fracture before someone comes up with a plan that actually works? Why do so many politicians promise education reforms ... but practically never follow through? And, perhaps most importantly, what can a dedicated parent actually DO to help ensure their kids a legitimate and high-quality education?
Guggenheim makes his points by introducing us to all sorts of people who are directly affected by our floundering education system -- and for the most part, it's just not pretty. We meet Washington D.C. Education Chief Michelle Rhee, who has some revolutionary new ideas on how to keep teachers happy and inspired ... but the teachers' union doesn't like them. We get to know a small handful of great kids, all of whom seem smart and sweet and dedicated ... oh, but there simply isn't enough room for those kids at the (relatively) local charter school.
And then there are the chalkboard heroes: the average hard-working educators who are sincerely and passionately dedicated to educating our young ... who are constantly short on resources, egregiously underpaid, and unacceptably under-appreciated. One interview subject, a teacher named Canada, is so effortlessly inspiring and simply noble that he may inspire your own kids to become an educator. The only place a man like this can make a difference is in a charter school, which (obviously) has a rather high enrollment list, and therefore its pupils must be chosen by lottery.
Imagine being the low-income parent who must entrust her child's secondary education to a bunch of bouncing lottery balls. A country that spends billions on weapons but comparatively little on the education of our future leaders ... well, you do the math. And Guggenheim captures it all: the overworked and well-intentioned teachers, the beleaguered bureaucrats, the desperate parents, and the confused kids. Waiting for Superman works well enough as a basic primer on how our education system got so damn broken in the first place, but it also offers some ideas and hopes for the future of American education.
Full of refreshingly honest insights and some powerfully upsetting statistics, the film seems angry and critical, but never hopeless. We'd like to think that every kid in America has his own fair shot at a strong education ... but we know they don't. Not really. Movies like Waiting for Superman would like to change that.