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Sundance: Waiting for Superman

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A nation's cinema can only be as good as a nation's film goers. A film festival is only as good as its festivalgoers. At the Sundance Film Festival, which just ended, festivalgoers are good. Good in wanting serious, challenging films about complex subjects. Good in wanting films that are fit for grownups. And they continue to make Sundance the premier showcase for independent films, especially for documentaries.

The Jury Award for best US documentary was Respeto (see my review), about a platoon of US soldiers in dangerous Afghanistan. The winner of the Audience Award for Best US Documentary was Waiting for Superman, a no-hold-your-punches investigation of our failing public schools.

Personally, I was not interested in seeing this film. For three decades, every few years, the media has gone ape over this issue: our schools stink, Asian and European students are scoring higher than American students, our economy is being impacted adversely, but here is the solution to our national crisis. A national dialogue ensues, everybody gets excited for several weeks, and then the issue dies. Dies, that is, until a few years later. I'm sick of hearing about our screwed-up schools and nothing changes.

But I did see Waiting for Superman. The Sundance buzz was heavy about David Guggenheim's latest, who also made The Inconvenient Truth and It Might Get Loud. This is how Sundance operates. Buzz starts on a film, grows more intense, and then you just have to see it. On the other hand, buzz can be high and then the buzz plunges. That is what happened to the film with the greatest buzz -- it was number one on Sundance's website -- before the festival opened. Howl was all the rage until it began screening and then it dropped into the abyss. The reputation of Waiting for Superman only grew stronger.

Guggenheim's documentary focuses on aspiring students and their parents, mostly minorities, together struggling against the odds to get admitted into urban charter schools. Lacking the money for private schools, or move to the suburbs where the schools are better -- although not always good -- having only neighborhood high schools that are "drop out factories," these Americans have very few options. For many their only option is finding a decent charter school. But the odds for these young students to get selected in the lottery for a charter school is often worse than for students applying to Yale University.

And the film has villains. The clearly marked, cleared attacked villain that stands in the doorway to reforming our failing system of public education. The two major teacher unions! The two major teachers unions that together are the largest contributors to the Democratic Party; the Democratic Party that refuses to support legislation to require teachers to perform better and the Democratic Party that refuses to support legislation for the more innovative, less bureaucratic, effective charter schools.

Davies Guggenheim demystifies our education problems and illuminates a path forward. Forget the endless new teaching gimmicks, forget new psychologies of teaching, hold teachers accountable and taking the running of our schools away from the self-interested education bureaucracies and teachers unions. As empirical evidence shows, when this is done, charter schools work.

Until the 1970s, American schools were the best in the world. Since then there has been a huge growth in poor elementary schools and poor middle schools that feed students to drop-out high schools. But there is no secret how to change our schools, although there are those who want this to remain a secret. We have tried throwing a ton of money at the problem, created a litany of newfangled reforms, even passed new laws, but nothing has worked. Our schools remain dismal.

What Waiting for Superman drives home is to improve our education system requires improving our teachers. Requires demanding our teachers get deep in the trenches, be allowed to be flexible and innovative, persist, and to be held accountable. This the teacher unions and the Democratic Party will not accept, even for the sake of our children.

The rights to Waiting for Superman have been purchased by Paramount Vantage and the documentary's theatrical release will be in the autumn. Look for it, and go see it.

Our interview with Davis Guggenheim: