Although Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman” has received the lion’s share of media attention, it actually followed in the footsteps of “The Lottery,” which was released in May after being shown at the Tribeca Film Festival the month before. Directed and edited by Madeleine Sackler, who was also a co-producer, the documentary focuses on the attempts of four desperate families to get their children admitted to the Harlem Success Academy through the use of a chance drawing.
Despite the similarities between the two documentaries, I wanted to give Sackler an opportunity to respond to a series of questions about what I considered to be essentially an infomercial. She consented, even though she knew that I had already written a 900-word scathing op-ed about “Waiting for Superman” that was published in the Sacramento Bee on Oct. 16 (“ ‘Superman’ offers mirage, not a miracle”). What follows is a condensed and edited version of the interview.
Q: What was your purpose in making “The Lottery”?
A: I wanted to give poor families who were dissatisfied with traditional public schools a chance to make their voices heard. For too long, their children have been underserved. I thought the best way to do that was to present case studies.
Q: How do you respond to critics who say “The Lottery” is an infomercial?
A: I understand why some viewers will think it was not balanced. However, I offered the teachers union an opportunity to make its case. I repeatedly tried to contact Randi Weingarten, but her office dragged its feet until I finally gave up.
Q: Why didn’t you at least include the Darling-Hammond study showing that charter schools don’t perform as well as traditional public schools?
A: My purpose was to focus on what families go through to get the best education for their children. I was not interested in presenting studies. I’m a documentary maker - not an academic. I’m not saying that all charter schools are good, but when they don’t produce results, they go out of business. That’s not what happens with other public schools.
Q: Do you think that the success of the Harlem Success Academy can be replicated in other cities with large numbers of poor students?
A: I don’t know, nor do I think anyone else knows either. But I believe that we can’t stop trying because of the daunting challenge. Too much is at stake.
Q: What about parents who are not involved in their children’s education enough to take advantage of the opportunities open to them?
A: The way lotteries in Harlem are operated practically makes it impossible for parents not to participate. Charter operators there go door-to-door to make parents aware.
All they have to do is fill out a simple form and return it to qualify for the drawing.
Q: Since “Waiting for Superman” followed “The Lottery,” why do you think it has received far more publicity? Do you resent the disparity?
A: It may have to do with the amount of money available for promotion. Also, Davis Guggenheim has a following because of the success of his first documentary. But I have no hard feelings at all.
Q: Do you have any other documentaries on education in mind?
A: Not at the moment. “The Lottery” was my first one. I hope it won’t be the last.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.