Director exposes the public school system: A Q&A with Davis Guggenheim

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

A silent plague has affected every American public school student for the last four decades. As educational spending has more than doubled since 1971, reading and math scores have remained stagnant, leaving our country unprepared for economic growth.

As Bill Gates discussed in the new documentary “Waiting for Superman,” 123 million high skill American jobs will be available by 2020, but only 50 million of us will be qualified for them. “Waiting for Superman,” in select theaters today, personalizes the issue, following five students who are struggling to find better schools that won’t leave them behind.

Guggenheim, director of Al Gore’s Academy Award winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” sat down with The Miami Hurricane to discuss his new film and America’s potential in a time of crisis.

The Miami Hurricane: “At this point in your career, you could take on any topic you want in a documentary. Why education?”

Davis Guggenheim: “For me, it’s just a passion. I was a C- minus student. I was a kid on the margins. And I had great teachers that pulled me through. They’re the reason why I’m here. And I just feel like, why can’t every kid in America get a good education? I imagine people at your school, these are the ones that have done well; these are the ones that the education path has served. But I’m sure people at your school feel like there’s a brother or a cousin who the schools didn’t serve. Why can’t we serve everybody?”

TMH: “Definitely. I thought about that in the audience. I thought, ‘How privileged am I?’ I consider myself a politically aware person, but I had no idea about the depth of the educational crisis. When did that realization come to you? When did you say, ‘Woah, something needs to happen here?’”

DG: “Well, the schools are broken. I think we all feel like maybe they’re not so good. But when you really look at it, we have 1.2 million kids dropping out every year. That’s 1.2 million kids that don’t have the basic skills to work in the modern economy. And it’s gotten to the point where the schools that are doing really well have a lottery. Families that have big dreams for their kids and kids that want to go to these great schools, they actually have to put their name in, get a number, and pray to the gods that they’ll win this lottery. When I saw this lottery, when I saw families jumping up in the air because they won, and I see families that are just crushed because they know their kids have to go to this other school where their kids kind of flounder, that’s when I said, ‘Wait a second. This is not America. We have to fight to give every kid in America a great education.’”

TMH: “You’ve said that you think that audiences are craving films not just about our country’s problems, but also the possibilities. What possibilities do you want the audiences to see after watching the film?”

DG: “Ten years ago, I made a film about Teach for America teachers. People come out of college and instead of going to work for a bank, they sign up for two years and they go into these schools… [The teachers] were working their butts off, but the system around them was broken and there was this feeling that it was not possible. Now, 10 years later, it’s possible. There has been a rising up of these high-performing charters that have been breaking the mold. In the high-performing charters, 90 percent of their graduates go to college, even in the most poor, struggling neighborhoods. Now, we have this feeling that it’s possible. And we have the ingredients to success that we can bring to every school. So [we have this]feeling that it’s not hopeless, we can do this, and we can deliver the American dream to every kid.

To watch the The Miami Hurricane’s full interview with Guggenheim and to find out how you can make a difference, please visit themiamihurricane.com/multimedia.

Nick Maslow may be contacted at nick@themiamihurricane.com.

September 22, 2010


Nick Maslow

Of the Staff

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The Miami Hurricane is the student newspaper of the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. The newspaper is edited and produced by undergraduate students at UM and is published weekly in print on Tuesdays during the regular academic year.