Quality education isn't guaranteed in America, but it should be. Davis Guggenheim follows five students and their parents as they try to navigate the public school system in Waiting For Superman. The poignant film exposes what the director calls "a system that's built for adults, but not really (one) to serve the kids." I recently interviewed the director while he was in San Francisco.
LilSugar: Is this film "Superman"? You bring up some of what people already know and much of what they don't in the documentary. Did you make this movie with the intention to save the public school system, or did it evolve as you were filming?
Davis Guggenheim: What's amazing about public education is that everyone wants great schools. It's not like they are going to argue about that. The problem is people (over time), they give up because they think it's too complicated or it's impossible to fix. And, I'm trying to make a movie to get people to care again and to believe it's possible and to fight so every kid can get a great education.
LS: Are parents who choose to send their children to private school exacerbating the problem, or helping because then there is then less competition to get in the good public schools?
DG: I take my three kids to a private school and I drive past three public schools on the way and it haunts me because the kids in my neighborhood aren't getting what my kids have. What about those kids, don't they deserve what my kids are getting? And, I also feel like my kids are missing out — they aren't going to their neighborhood school. I'm part of the problem and sort of creating this double system where some kids get a good education and some kids don't. I started the movie saying I'm part of the problem. I'm lucky and I think that has to change. I've seen parents go to extreme measures to find a good school for their children and it shouldn't end there. You should say I'm going to do what's right for my kid and go the extra mile to help other kids. My wife and I went to our public school and we offered our help and want to be good neighbors so we keep going back. We aren't going to fix our schools until everyone is outraged and demands that all of our schools work.
To see the length of time Guggenheim believes it will take to solve this problem,
LS: Watching the portion of the film about the rubber room (where teachers sit and do nothing all day) and the lemon dance (where bad, tenured teachers are traded) was infuriating. A viewer leaves the theater wondering how they can help. There seems to be money, but it's in the wrong places. There seems to be people who care, but their hands are tied. How can someone make a difference?
DG: A movie is really great for bringing people together. You can go to our website and pledge to see the movie. You can actually bring your group to see the movie and you can discuss the issues within that group. You may disagree with parts of it (the film), but a movie can really focus people and say — this is urgent and it affects you. We're kinda stuck in a rut right now and the first step to fixing our schools is to see the movie. That's not that hard.
LS: The documentary talks about the decline of the school system and how many presidents (over decades) have allowed the country sit in this mess. How long will it take to get out of it?
DG: Change can happen really fast. Before WWII, we could only make a couple planes a year. And when we all got excited and committed, we made thousands of planes a year. And when there's political will in America — America's kinda slow to react. In history, we didn't really want to deal with WWII and then when we did, we jumped right in. We've been not wanting to deal with our schools and if we could jump right in — the solutions are there. (We need to create) a next generation of great teachers, our best and our brightest — development them, encourage them, pay them. Then reform the schools and tear down the bureaucracies and put the money into the hands of principals. Train principals to do a great job. If there's a will, it can happen fast.