It's the documentary everyone's talking about. Waiting For "Superman" is a gripping story about the state of public school systems in America, told through the eyes of five hopeful students. Each is eager to get an education, but in a system riddled with ineffective teachers, staggering dropout rates and schools that are literally falling apart, the odds are more than stacked against them.
Their only hope is to enter a lottery to win the opportunity to enter a high-performing charter school that will provide them with the education they need to succeed.
Waiting For "Superman" director and Oscar® winner Davis Guggenheim, the man who also brought us An Inconvenient Truth, hopes this story starts a nationwide conversation about America's public schools.
"I remember when I was 5 years old, I asked my mother, 'Why do I take a 45-minute bus ride to go to school [in another city]?' And she said, 'Because the schools in our city are broken,'" Davis says.
Forty years later, Davis drives his own children past three public schools to a private school—but he says he's haunted by the other children who are being left behind.
"I just could not escape the fact that I was driving by these schools and not doing my part," he says. "I was helping my kids, but what about other people's children? How can I make a movie that will make parents care about other people's children as much as we care about our own?"
Education in America is an issue that's very important to Microsoft founder Bill Gates. In a country that stands for equal opportunity, he says our public schools are failing to offer that.
"If you go to one of these tough schools, your chance of going to a four-year college is even less than your chance of going to jail," Bill says.
Bill believes that to keep America at the forefront in terms of education, we must take what some teachers do very well and incorporate that into a system with higher expectations and longer schools days—two steps several high-performing charter schools have already taken.
Because charter schools are not required to follow union or district rules (such as those that dictate the length of a school day), they have more room to try innovative and perhaps more effective structures of teaching.
As a nation, America has fallen far, far behind in education. The proof is in the statistics.
Among 30 developed countries, the United States ranks 25th in math and 21st in science. Not only that, but as other countries are improving their schools systems, education experts say the American system is getting worse.
"There are more than 2,000 dropout factories in our country," Davis explains. "A dropout factory is [a high school] where more than 40 percent of the kids do not graduate. And that means that we have 1.2 million kids without a diploma leaving our schools."
This is our problem as a nation, Oprah says. "We are not going to be able to compete in a global economy with 1.2 million kids dropping out every year," she says.
"I don't care what I have to do. I don't care how many jobs I have to obtain, but she will go to college," Nakia says in the film.
However, when Nakia falls behind on some payments, it's Bianca who must pay the price. The day of her kindergarten graduation, the school doesn't allow Bianca to participate in the ceremony. The mother and daughter both end up in tears.
"That's a heartbreaking moment," Oprah says.
Nakia says she tried to find the right words to help Bianca understand the situation. "I told her: 'You did graduate. You just weren't a part of the ceremony. You mattered just as much as anyone else did,'" Nakia says.
Davis says there are kids in every neighborhood just like Bianca. "There are mothers just like Nakia in every neighborhood," he says. "We have to imagine that there's a school in our neighborhood that we have to make ready for little girls like Bianca."
Clearly, our education system is in dire straits, so who's at fault? Michelle Rhee, chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools, says children are not the problem, adults are.
"Everybody knows I love good teachers, and there are so many thousands of you—great ones—in this country," Oprah says. "So we're not talking about you if you are a good teacher."
Michelle says we can trace the problems back to an entirely different group of educators. "The reality is that we have some ineffective teachers, some bad teachers, who are in classrooms every day who are doing a disservice to our children," she says. "The data shows if [children] have three highly effective teachers in a row versus three ineffective teachers in a row, it can literally change their life trajectory."
Therefore, Michelle has dedicated her superintendency to turning the system on its head by closing dozens of failing schools and firing more than 1,000 ineffective educators. In the Learning Matters documentary series, footage from an actual firing shows just how serious Michelle is.
Oprah calls her "a warrior woman," but Michelle's actions have created a firestorm in the world of education. Still, Michelle remains committed to identifying and removing bad teachers. She even fired the principal at her own daughters' school.
"My point is that if I'm not willing to put my own children in those people's classrooms, then I am never going put another mother in the place where she has to make that decision," she says.
In Waiting For "Superman", Davis uncovers a secret code some principals use to deal with bad teachers, called "the dance of the lemons."
In this shocking scenario, principals simply trade off their bad teachers—their lemons—to principals at other schools, hoping that the lemon they receive isn't as bad as the lemon they got rid of.
"Why can't you just fire bad teachers?" Oprah asks.
"It's actually incredibly difficult to fire an ineffective teacher. You have to basically meet a criminal standard," Michelle says. In one case, Michelle says a teacher in her district would disappear from the classroom, skip work day after day and fall asleep in class, but when the district tried to terminate her, she only earned a 10-day suspension.
"Finally, last year we were able to terminate this person, but it was after [she] had been in the classroom for 10 years," Michelle says.
If we eliminated our worst teachers, Bill says it would have a tremendous impact on America's worldwide standing. "If you do that," he says, "then we go from being basically at the bottom of the rich countries to being back at the top."
However, the current system isn't set up to allow such simple firings because tenure guarantees teachers their jobs for life—sometimes after just two years, say Michelle and Davis.
"It's automatic," Davis says. "You show up for two years, and you get tenure.
In Waiting For "Superman", Michelle tries to break apart the notion of tenure with a new proposal that would allow Washington, D.C., teachers to choose to give up their tenure in exchange for double their salary—up to $140,000. At the time, the union refused to put it to a vote.
Emily is another child featured in Waiting For "Superman" who entered a lottery for the chance to attend a charter school rather than the public high school in her neighborhood. She was one of the lucky few who got chosen.
Because of something called "tracking," which many schools do, Emily explains that she would not have received the opportunity to take advanced classes.
Tracking is the term used to describe how schools group students based on their academic ability. Students who test well are placed on a higher track and in more challenging classes, while students who don't test as well are placed on a lower track and in classes where they often face lower expectations.
"Many families and their children are unaware that their academic future will be decided by a school official who will place them on a track," Davis says. "Lower tracks have lower expectations and often worse teachers, so students placed on lower tracks often find they are running fast but falling behind."
"I'm very smart and intellectual, but I don't test well," Emily says. "If I had gone to my neighborhood school, I would have been put in the low classes. I'd be on the road to failure."
Now, Emily is at Summit Prep, a charter school that does not track its students or group them based on academic ability.
Six-time Grammy winner John Legend wrote the song "Shine," for Waiting For "Superman" and believes that this crisis is the civil rights issue of our time.
John attended a public school from eighth to 12th grade that's been classified as a "dropout factory." Yet, he says he benefited from tracking because he tested well and was therefore placed in the advanced placement classes. These classes are often taught by a school's best teachers.
"It's fine when you have an exception to the rule like myself and some of my other classmates in the advanced classes," John says. "But that's not a way to run a whole school."
Even though there is a lot wrong with the school system in America, some schools are offering hope.
"Imagine this," Oprah says. "A school where high school freshmen, reading at a fourth-grade level, can jump ahead five grades in a single school year. Or a school where teachers stay until 11 at night to help children with their homework, and where children say school is like a second family to them."
These are the types of things that are happening in Aspire Public Schools, LEARN Charter Schools, YES Prep Public Schools, Mastery Charter Schools, New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy, and Denver School of Science and Technology—six high-performing charter schools that are raising the bar and inspiring a love of learning.
"We invited the founders, the principals and teachers from those six innovative schools," Oprah says. "They are the real-life superheroes of education."
For 15 years, Oprah's Angel Network has been helping students in the United States and many other countries realize their educational dreams.
"From a few pennies in a bucket to an $80 million force, your money has lifted up thousands around the world," Oprah says.
With the Angel Network coming to a close, it's now time for the last giveaway in the organization's history.
Oprah turns to the founders, principals and teachers of Aspire, LEARN, YES Prep, Mastery, Science and Denver to share a surprise announcement.
"I know that thousands of kids are waiting to get into your schools, and I value nothing more in the world than education," she says. "So the Angel Network is giving each of your charter school networks $1 million!"
Are you fired up about the state of America's schools? Share your reactions to this show and join the education debate. After all, as Oprah says, we're all in this together.
"Just because your kids are in a good school, because your kids are graduated from school, doesn't mean that it is not our country's problem," she says. "Our country will suffer if we continue to look the other way."
Then, tune in to The Oprah Show on Friday, September 24, to watch a follow-up with parents and teachers who want to voice their opinions, and go see Waiting For "Superman," which opens in New York and Los Angeles on September 24. Get more opening dates.