Harvard Dropout Gates Pitches ‘Superman’ Film on Awful Schools

From left, Bill Gates, Geoffrey Canada, director Davis Guggenheim, producer Lesley Chilcott and musician John Legend from "Waiting For Superman" at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival. Photographer: Jeff Vespa/WireImage via Bloomberg

Bill Gates knows the importance of education, even if he did drop out of Harvard University to start Microsoft. That’s why he’s promoting “Waiting for Superman,” Oscar-winner Davis Guggenheim’s new documentary on the sorry state of U.S. public schools.

Speaking at a press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the movie was shown over the weekend, Gates said U.S. schools aren’t producing enough skilled workers for high-tech companies like Microsoft.

“It’s harder to find these people in the U.S. than you would expect,” said Gates, who also appears in the film. “If you look at the computer science department in the top (colleges), the majority of students are not U.S. born. That says something about our education system.”

Gates said the U.S. must improve the system to compete in the global economy.

“Jobs out there are more demanding,” he said. “We have less and less jobs that are attractive to dropouts.”

Gates, whose charitable foundation plans to spend $3 billion on education over the next five to seven years, was joined at the press conference by Guggenheim, producer Lesley Chilcott, education reformer Geoffrey Canada and musician John Legend, who wrote an original song for the film.

Low Rankings

Guggenheim, who won an Oscar for the Al Gore global warming documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” said the decline in U.S. public schools has reached the crisis stage. According to the filmmakers, 1.2 million U.S. students drop out of high school each year and American teenagers rank toward the bottom in math and science among 30 developed nations.

“We are failing millions of kids in America,” Guggenheim said. “The erosion of education has been going on for a long time. Incremental changes no longer can do it. We have to make fundamental changes.”

“Waiting for Superman” tells the story through the eyes of five schoolchildren and their families. Four live in poor inner-city neighborhoods, while the other comes from an affluent area. But they all face enormous challenges in getting a decent education from their local public schools.

Charter Lotteries

As a result, they all try to get into highly regarded charter schools by entering a lottery for the limited number of available spots. Most don’t get in, leaving them to the mercy of failing public schools.

“Every time I see the movie and watch those lotteries, I think they’re going to win,” said Guggenheim, whose two oldest children attend private schools in Los Angeles. “I still believe that their dreams will be delivered.”

Canada says teachers unions are a major roadblock to education reform because they oppose performance evaluations that would weed out incompetent instructors. Under the current system, it’s almost impossible to fire any teacher with tenure.

Canada, whose Harlem Children’s Zone has dramatically improved graduation rates in one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods, said union contracts include too many rules that prevent reform.

“Imagine your community is on fire and the fire department works for three hours and then they have to have a half-hour off,” Canada said. “You’re looking at your house burning down and they say, “We can’t put out the fire because we’re not scheduled to work.”

Increased Spending

Just spending more money won’t solve the problem. Over the past 30 years, the amount spent annually on each public school student has more than doubled. During the same period, however, reading and math scores have barely changed in the U.S. while rising in most other developed countries.

“Running a significantly better school doesn’t have to cost dramatically more,” said Legend, who has an Ivy League degree from the University of Pennsylvania. “A lot of the best charter schools operate on almost the same per-student budget as these failing public schools.”

Gates said even if major changes were made today, it would take years to see the results.

“It takes two to three years to put a new approach into place,” he said, “and then it’s at least a decade before you have substantial benefits from improvements you make now.”

To view the press conference, go to: http://www.tiff.net/thefestival/mediagallery/pressconferences and click on “Waiting for Superman Press Conference.”

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