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Schools: The Disaster Movie

A debate has been raging over why our education system is failing. A new documentary by the director of An Inconvenient Truth throws fuel on the fire.

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Waiting for "Superman" is a paean to reformers like Washington, D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee (left), while it casts AFT president Randi Weingarten (right), in the words of Variety, as "something of a foaming satanic beast."  

The Harlem-based educator and activist Geoffrey Canada first met the filmmaker Davis Guggenheim in 2008, when Canada was in Los Angeles raising money for the Children’s Defense Fund, which he chairs. Guggenheim told Canada that he was making a documentary about the crisis in America’s schools and implored him to be in it. Canada had heard this pitch before, more times than he could count, from a stream of camera-toting do-gooders whose movies were destined to be seen by audiences smaller than the crowd on a rainy night at a Brooklyn Cyclones game. Canada replied to Guggenheim as he had to all the others: with a smile, a nod, and a distracted “Call my office,” which translated to “Buzz off.”

Then Guggenheim mentioned another film he’d made—An Inconvenient Truth—and Canada snapped to attention. “I had absolutely seen it,” Canada recalls, “and I was stunned because it was so powerful that my wife told me we couldn’t burn incandescent bulbs anymore. She didn’t become a zealot; she just realized that [climate change] was serious and we have to do something.” Canada agreed to be interviewed by Guggenheim, but still had his doubts. “I honestly didn’t think you could make a movie to get people to care about the kids who are most at risk.”

Two years later, Guggenheim’s new film, Waiting for “Superman,” is set to open in New York and Los Angeles on September 24, with a national release soon to follow. It arrives after a triumphal debut at Sundance and months of buzz-building screenings around the country, all designed to foster the impression that Guggenheim has uncorked a kind of sequel: the Inconvenient Truth of education, an eye-opening, debate-defining, socially catalytic cultural artifact.

“Superman” affectingly, movingly traces the stories of five children—all but one of them poor and black or Hispanic—and their parents as they seek to secure a decent education by gaining admission via lottery to high-performing charter schools. At the same time, the film is a withering indictment of the adults—in particular, those at the teachers unions—who have let the public-school system rot, and a paean to reformers such as Canada and Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools, who has waged an epic campaign to overhaul the notoriously dysfunctional system over which she presides.

Among leaders of the burgeoning education-reform movement, the degree of anticipation surrounding “Superman” is difficult to overstate. “The movie is going to create a sense of outrage, and a sense of urgency,” says Arne Duncan, Barack Obama’s secretary of Education. New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein concurs. “It’s gonna grab people much deeper than An Inconvenient Truth, because watching ice caps melt doesn’t have the human quality of watching these kids being denied something you know will change their lives,” Klein says. “It grabs at you. It should grab at you. Those kids are dying.”

The education-reform crowd is not alone in waiting for Waiting for “Superman”—though for those on the other side of the ideological fence, it would be more accurate to say that they are bracing for “Superman.” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a character in the film, complains that it is “unfair,” “misleading,” and potentially “dangerous.” Indeed, not long ago, United Teachers Los Angeles posted on its website a flyer describing “Superman” as “scathing” and “attacking U.S. teachers” and calling for volunteers to appear in a TV ad to give “the other side of the story.”

The excitement and agitation around “Superman” might seem hyperbolic, overblown. Yet both are symptomatic of a signal moment in the annals of American education, when a confluence of factors—a grassroots outcry for better schools, a cadre of determined reformers, a newly demanding and parlous global economy, and a president willing to challenge his party’s hoariest shibboleths and most potent allies—has created what Duncan calls a “perfect storm.” It’s a moment when debates are raging over an array of combustible issues, from the expansion of charters and the role of standardized-test scores to the shuttering of failing schools and the firing of crappy teachers. It’s a moment ripe with ferment and possibility, but also rife with conflict, in which the kind of change that fills many hearts with hope fills others with mortal dread—and which gives a movie like “Superman” a rare chance to move the needle.

Davis Guggenheim had no intention of starting a fight with his movie. At first, in fact, he was about as interested in making “Superman” as Canada initially was in appearing in it. After An Inconvenient Truth, Guggenheim was deluged with offers to take on every conceivable cause: cancer, Africa, the oceans, you name it. Guggenheim just shook his head—and his reaction was no less negative about tackling education: “I don’t think it can be done,” he said. “It’s a storytelling quagmire.”


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