Skip to main content

The Uncomfortable Truth: Davis Guggenheim Takes on the US Education System

By Agnes Varnum

From Davis Guggenheim's 'Waiting for Superman'. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Editor’s Note: On October 21 at the Linwood Dunn Theater in Los Angeles, IDA will present Davis Guggenheim in conversation with Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz. The two will explore his wide-ranging body of work that includes culturally significant and brilliantly crafted films. Learn more and purchase tickets.

As I drove to the screening of Waiting for Superman, knowing I'd be writing this article, the question on my mind was, "Can Davis Guggenheim do for education in America what An Inconvenient Truth did for climate change?" The bar is high--not only did it do well at the box office when movies were having trouble in theaters, it foregrounded the climate-change issue across the country, proving that people were ready to discuss the difficult subject. In hindsight, that film appears to illustrate Malcolm Gladwell's "tipping point," using a politician's PowerPoint to inspire a national discussion that was already brewing.

Waiting for Superman isn't Guggenheim's first stab at the issue of education. In 2001, he wanted to show his young children that teachers are heroes. His first doc, the Peabody Award-winning The First Year, followed five teachers over the course of a year in the Los Angeles public school system. "The film is raw, edgy, spare--so beautiful and inspiring it makes you want to go out and do something for those struggling kids, those impassioned teachers," wrote Phil McCombs for The Washington Post. Guggenheim says that since making that film, "Ten years later, nothing has changed. The dysfunction still exists."

For him, Waiting for Superman is "the uncomfortable truth about why our system is not working." Beginning with Guggenheim's smooth voiceover, the film leads with a first-person account of driving his children past their local public school to get to the private school they attend. "I knew that you couldn't tell this story without someone pulling you along in a specific, chosen direction," Guggenheim says, on his choice to include himself in the narrative. "I needed to take you on the path." He acknowledges his affluence makes private school possible but he wishes he could support public school, and with that, he sets up the point of view for the remainder of the film--public schools are an unfulfilled promise to our children and, by extension, our society.

Anthony, Bianca, Daisy, Francisco and Emily--the protagonists of the film--share their hopes for their future; their parents bite their lips and furrow their brows as they face hard realities about their kids' education without funds for private school. Stacked up against these students' dreams are the facts: Dropout rates are high, test scores are way down and spending is at an all-time high.

Representing a diverse geographic, ethnic and economic cross-section, these children face grim options. Daisy wants to be a veterinarian, but her chances of reaching that goal are slim if she follows the fate of the majority of students in her school, one of thousands of so-called "dropout factories" across the country. Watching these great kids standing at such a dangerous precipice is truly heart-wrenching.

The film moves deftly among individual stories to the wider landscape of facts and figures, using eye-catching animation and a bevy of smart, engaged talking heads. Davis notes that in An Inconvenient Truth, where he faced the challenge of animating the story beyond former US Vice President Al Gore's speech, "It was good to go from information and then yank the audience in the direction of the historical. Zooming in and out had to be done by necessity. It works on this story as well." Taking a full year and a half to cut Waiting for Superman, Guggenheim and his team edited as if the film comprised two different narratives--"Other People's Children" and "The Folly of the Adults." In the last few months, they wove the stories together.

Workforce needs have changed over the past few decades but the school system hasn't. Microsoft founder-turned-philanthropist Bill Gates speaks to the need for qualified engineers in the tech industry. The US education system isn't turning out enough qualified workers, requiring importing of workers from Asia to make up the shortfall. Among developed countries, US education ranks near the bottom.

Why? Education reformers Geoffrey Canada, founder of Harlem Success Academy charter school in New York, and Michelle Rhee, chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools, point to teachers unions forcing bad teachers on schools and strangle-holding change, while Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers attributes the situation to the lack of resources and appreciation for an important yet disrespected profession.

 "I try to attack the logic, the psychological constructs of the issue so the audience can feel the issue anew," Guggenheim explains. "You can't just say, ‘Isn't it terrible?' Now, you have to do more." Producer Lesley Chilcott describes an escalating outreach plan, starting with encouraging website visitors to pledge to see the film. As people make a pledge, there are a series of benchmarks that result in benefits to students and teachers when numbers are hit. At 30,000, those who pledge get a $5 certificate for Donors Choose, a site where anyone can donate to classes in need; at 40,000, Office Max donates supplies to teachers; at 50,000, First Book sends out much-needed books; and so on as the film racks up more supporters.

Gladwell's tipping point isn't a flash in the pan, but rather a groundswell that slowly rises without much notice until an event pushes the trend over into mass appeal, the breaking of a wave. Is now the time for the issue of education reform, as it was in 2006 for global warming? "It's embarrassing to have the same hopes," Guggenheim admits. "It feels a little like I'm tempting fate. I think the issue is just as important. The need and the stakes are so high and people respond to the film. It has a potent effect on people, and I want it to move the needle."

Chilcott has her own hopes for the film, stemming from her experience teaching English in Japan, where she was treated with great respect by the aging executives she taught. "Sensei is the most valued position you can hold," she explains. "We're missing that in America; it's not cool to be a teacher. We need a culture of teaching as a prestigious career." She points to Finland, one of the top education systems among developed countries. "If you teach in Finland for 10 years, you can get an interview for anything else that you want to do," she notes. She points to signs of hope, like a friend getting into Yale Law School, but not AmeriCorps' Teach for America.

Similarly to An Inconvenient Truth, the end credits to Waiting for Superman are interwoven with inspiring messages that direct you to text "POSSIBLE to 77177," or visit main portal for how to become active in the issue. "The heartening thing is that the solutions are there; we know what works," says Guggenheim. "People have proven that reform can be done. Even kids whose parents can't give them everything they need... schools can do it."

 "It's not enough to make a movie; you have to create a movement," Chilcott maintains. In the Superman stories, people who need help hope that he will arrive soon to save the day, but hoping for someone to come along and fix the education system, or for one's number to be called in the charter school lotteries, are simply not viable long-term options. "We know what makes a good teacher, we know what makes a good school," says Chilcott. "We just need the political will to make it happen." Waiting for Superman makes a strong case for why everyone, even those without kids, should take an interest in the discussion about schools, but only time will show, as the film rolls out across the country, whether or not it is the right moment for a wave around education reform to break and produce results.

Waiting for Superman opens September 24 through Paramount Vantage and Participant Media.


Agnes Varnum is the communications manager at the Austin Film Society in Austin, Texas.