Are American schools broken?

By Nicole Sperling
Updated September 21, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

DIRECTED BY: Davis Guggenheim

When Oscar-winning director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) set out to make a documentary about our nation’s troubled public education system, he knew he had to do more than just lament the reality of today’s underperforming schools. He had to break through to audiences and get them to do something. The lightbulb went on when he read a piece by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman about the lottery system used to admit students to a highly coveted urban boarding school in Baltimore. ”Families are sitting in a gymnasium, waiting for their children’s futures to be determined,” Guggenheim says. ”It’s incredibly suspenseful.”

Over the course of a year, Guggenheim and his producing partner, Lesley Chilcott, followed five families from New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., on their quest to get their kids into better schools. The filmmaker juxtaposes the stories of these families — who have different racial, economic, and ethnic backgrounds — with a look at some reformers trying to fix failing school systems. ”At the core of this movie are the kids — beautiful, beautiful kids,” says Guggenheim. ”When you meet them, you realize that [the system] can either cultivate them or crush them. I want audiences to want as much for these kids as they do for their own.”