Interview: Davis Guggenheim on Waiting for ‘Superman’ (2010)

(In 2010 I interview Davis Guggenheim, director of An Inconvenient Truth and It Might Get Loud, about his education documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’, for the Austin Chronicle.)

Richard Whittaker: What was your intention when you started making Waiting for ‘Superman,and how did it change during filming?

Davis Guggenheim: It’s amazing when you start doing press for a movie, and you start to realize these things you didn’t know. And I just thought of this right now, this idea that it’s a horror movie, and you wonder who the killer is, and you realize the killer is you. I went and said, “I’m going to find out what the real forces are behind our broken schools,” and I’m a lefty, I’m a Democrat, and I believe in unions, but I realized that the Democratic party, my party, hasn’t been doing what it should have been doing because it’s been getting money from the teachers’ unions to ignore the problems, to ignore the kids they should have been serving. I believe that unions are essential, and I’m part of a great union, and I was with my dad shooting documentaries in coal mines talking about the dignity of the worker, but the unions are this weird force that’s keeping our schools down.

RW: How does that work in Texas, where unions are effectively castrated, and teachers, far from having tenure, are on year-to-year contracts?

DG: But in Texas you still have 206 drop-out factories, 206 high schools where more than 40% of kids don’t graduate, and I suspect that for every drop-out factory there are five or 10 other schools that are pushing their kids through so they can have a great education and be productive citizens. Even though Texas doesn’t share a lot of the things that other states share, there’s still a chronic problem that states have different standards, and we have these huge bureaucracies that determine where money goes, and it usually means it’s not going to the school. We still have all this wonkish ideology to determine what should be taught, and we still have no idea what it takes to make a great teacher, how to assess a great teacher. So I imagine that a lot of the problems are the same, even though across the border some of the contracts are different.

RW: So what makes a good teacher?

DG: I’m not an expert. I chose to be very careful not to present myself as an expert, and I present myself as a parent first. There are a lot of really intelligent people who have studied what a great teacher is. My sense is, what is a great director? You know it when you see it, and great teachers come from all different kinds of places. I think scores are part of it, and there’s a big movement towards scores, and there’s a big controversy in Los Angeles about kids are either advancing or not, but I think you know it when you see it. So you need great principals who understand people, but they also need to be given the power to pick their teachers and to remove the teachers that aren’t working and to encourage and reward the teachers that are. Right now we have this sort of widget mentality – that all teachers are the same, and you give them the proper curriculum, and they’ll teach well – and it’s just not it. Filmmaking is a people business – it’s a terrible thing to compare, but it’s what I know. I don’t know what makes a great cameraman, I don’t know what makes a great editor, but I know it when I see it. All I know is that it comes from working hard and encouraging them and finding the best and keeping them happy. But I think the idea that you have a great teacher in one classroom and next door you have a terrible teacher, keeping that terrible teacher is demoralizing; it kills the spirit of everybody. And when you do a great job in fifth grade and your class is on fire, and they graduate into the sixth grade and they’re handed off to a teacher who isn’t competent, that’s tragic.

RW There’s the line by [Harlem Children’s Zone CEO] Geoffrey Canada that there is no Superman, that no one’s going to wander in and save everybody, but the narrative need of a film is that you have to have central characters, so you talk about Michelle Rhee [chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools] and Canada a lot.

DG: I don’t mind having a central character, but I never expected it to be Geoffrey Canada. I interviewed him to learn something, but then he just spoke and spoke and spoke. It was the best interview that I did in my whole career – not that I did it, but he spoke for an hour, and there was literally 15 things that he said that I wish I could have put in the movie. He was just so wonderful and perfect and spoke to the spirit of the movie. And I wasn’t suggesting the absence of Superman. I think there’re Supermen everywhere. I think there’re super teachers and super superintendents.

RW: So what do you hope that teachers and parents and policymakers are going to take away from what you’ve chronicled?

DG: I had a scene that I wrote for the movie called “Reform de Jour,” and it went through the litany of everything we’ve tried over the years, from classroom size to open classrooms to vouchers – all the fads. And some of the fads were things that liberals had and some of the fads were things conservatives had. And education isn’t deprived of really smart people, and it isn’t like we didn’t have really smart people to give us advice. Part of me thinks that maybe it’s the smart people that miss the point, which goes back to the earlier thing that it’s a people business, and there isn’t some big idea. Maybe it’s about finding good people and trusting them. What I was inextricably drawn to in the movie was these pragmatists that were not pushed by ideology. Michelle Rhee was Teach for America, David Levin[founder of KIPP Academy] was Teach for America. These are people who just said, “You know what, I want to help the world, and I want to teach kids.” They were in classrooms teaching. They were teachers. They started as teachers, and they went, “Oh my gosh, not only is this an incredible profession, but it’s a civil rights issue, and we have to do this.” There’s no substitute for just getting the job done.

(Coda: I talked to some educators about Guggenheim’s film, and they were less than complementary)

The new documentary Waiting for ‘Super­man’ has triggered national media chatter about kick-starting a revolution in education. In it, An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim presents U.S. public schools as struggling through a crisis created by intractable teachers’ unions. His solution? Bust the unions and expand charter school access. But can his arguments stand up in Texas, a state where unions are effectively powerless and charter schools fail just like regular public schools?

Distributors Paramount Pictures have given the film, which opens in Austin on Oct. 15, the full-court press. A large number of invite-only early screenings have led to Oscar talk and to the ultimate seal of media approval – an appearance by Guggenheim on the final season of Oprah. Guggenheim has called his film a rallying cry, and its closing credits include a repeated plea to viewers to take a pledge to become involved in education. However, after viewing the film, Louis Malfaro, the secretary-treasurer of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, called it “a fairly inaccurate and overly simplified view” of schools that “ignores little factors like urban poverty and chooses to focus on a very emotional tale about five kids and their families who are trying to get access to quality education.”

The movie concentrates on two case studies of educational reform: first, the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York, led by entrepreneur Geoffrey Canada and now being used by the Obama White House as the model for its new Promise Neighborhoods Initiative, and second, the radical reforms undertaken by Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools. But while Guggenheim talks about Canada’s “whatever it takes” mantra, he doesn’t mention the network of social services and support systems that are the backbone of the Harlem project and of the federal program it inspired. Similarly, he portrays Rhee as a pragmatic and effective reformer. Yet her time in office has been racked with controversy and accusations of an autocratic, self-promoting management style, and her divisive tenure was a key factor in the defeat of her political patron, Mayor Adrien Fenty, who lost re-election to Council Member Vincent Gray. With her position now politically untenable, Rhee announced her resignation on Oct. 13.

Nevertheless, charter school advocates are now taking political and fundraising advantage of the discussion surrounding the film. Pro-charter pressure group Center for Education Reform has e-mailed reporters with links to its report “Fact-Checking Charter School Achievement,” which it calls an “FYI-Resource as you write about Waiting for ‘Super­man.” Paramount has organized advance screenings for charter schools, including the Yes Prep charter network in Houston. Yes director of communications Jill Willis said that the schools had held a screening to which they had invited “an intimate group” that included staff, the Yes board, “and some key supporters and donors.”

That same courtesy has not been extended so freely to public school teachers and teachers’ unions. Even though it is the state affiliate of the National Education Association, Americas’ biggest teachers’ union, the Texas State Teachers Association has received no invitation to host a screening, nor has the association leadership been invited to one, according to TSTA public affairs specialist Clay Robison. Education Austin co-President Rae Nwosu saw an advance screening organized through the Austin Independent School District and was unimpressed. She said, “They put three or four schools in the spotlight, and people are supposed to look at that and say, ‘Look at that; that’s what all the schools are.'” She was concerned that it is already being used to present teachers’ unions as opposing reform, when in fact Education Austin was pivotal in developing the district’s groundbreaking Reach strategic compensation initiative. The union has also just been awarded $185,000 by Texas AFT to explore opening in-district charters – the kind of innovation Guggenheim says unions oppose. “We’re working with the district and the community,” said Nwosu. “It’s not teachers or the union taking over. We’re collaborating.”

For Malfaro, what is most frustrating about the film is its omissions. For example, Gug­genheim cites Finland as one nation leaving the U.S. in the dust in math and science – but, Malfaro noted, “All the teachers in Finland are in a union.” Similarly, he criticized the film’s presentation of charters as the solution to all ills. For example, there are more than 8,000 children covered by the Harlem Child­ren’s Zone, but only 1,000 of those attend one of Geoffrey Canada’s four Promise Academies. The rest are registered in the zone’s regular public schools. Even Canada has told The New York Times that charter schools “are not a panacea,” and while some are models to be replicated, “there are lousy ones that should be closed.” Nwosu also criticized Guggenheim for ignoring charter schools’ ability to handpick who they teach. “We can’t kick kids out of AISD,” she said, “where a charter school can.”

TSTA spokesman Robison echoed Nwosu and Mal­faro’s disappointment about the film’s false dichotomy of educators vs. education reformers. “Teachers have been trying to improve education for a long time,” he said. “We’re not Johnny-come-latelies to this at all.”

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