The U.S. education system is broken. Do the math: Every year, roughly 1.2 million students fail to graduate from high school, and 10 years from now, 123 million U.S. jobs will be high-skill, yet only 50 million Americans will be qualified to fill them.
All of this, and much more, is illuminated in “Waiting For ‘Superman,’” a film directed by Davis Guggenheim opening Friday.
Although it’s among the most notable documentaries of the year, Guggenheim — the man that gave the world “An Inconvenient Truth” — admits that getting “Superman” to the screen was not an easy feat emotionally.
“It’s the hardest film I’ve ever tried to make,” he says. “It was complex and challenging knowing where to start to dig in and find out some of these uncomfortable truths.”
Like the reality that eight years into No Child Left Behind — and four years left to reach the goal of 100 percent proficiency in math and reading — the U.S. is stumbling. Most states sit around 20 to 30 percent proficiency.
Guggenheim, the son of Oscar-winning filmmaker Charles Guggenheim, had originally turned down doing a doc on the education system.
“I told a film studio that it would be a storytelling quagmire, the ‘education system,’” he says. “But then one day, I was driving my kids to school — and we’re lucky enough to be able to go to a private school — but I started to count the public schools in our neighborhood as we went by and I began to think, ‘My kids are getting a good education, but what about other people’s children? What about kids in my own neighborhood that are being failed by schools? And what if I made a film about them?’”
In between exposing harsh truths about the system, Guggenheim offers levity in that he chronicles the lives and hopes of five students — Emily, a Silicon Valley eighth-grader who fears she’ll be deemed unfit for college; Daisy, a Los Angeles fifth-grader with big plans for her future; Francisco, a Bronx first-grader; Anthony, a Washington, D.C., fifth-grader coping after the loss of his father to drug addiction; and Bianca, a Harlem, N.Y., kindergartner.
“Every kid wants to learn, every kid has big dreams,” Guggenheim says of what he’s learned during filmmaking. “The question is, what happens with those dreams? There’s something so earnest and lovely and pure about these kids, but what’s effective and terrifying in movies is that audiences can see what the characters can’t see. We see what can happen to Daisy if she doesn’t get into the right school.”
IF YOU GO
Waiting For ‘Superman’
With Geoffrey Canada, the Black family, the Esparza family, the Hill family, Michelle Rhee, Bill Strickland, Randi Weingarten
Written by Davis Guggenheim, Billy Kimball
Directed by Davis Guggenheim
Running time 1 hour 42 minutes