Interview: Davis Guggenheim
Filmmaker Discusses Challenge of Fixing America’s Public Schools
Friday, October 8, 2010
Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim came to the KPBS studios to speak to me about "Waiting for Superman" (opening October 8 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas). Watch the video of my interview.
"Waiting for Superman" tackles the complex topic of America's public schools. Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim previously looked at novice teachers in his first documentary "The First Year." Now he returns to the subject of education. This time he looks at the students and the educators trying to think outside the box.
The film definitely opens a much needed dialogue on our troubled school system. It also highlights some amazing success stories. Guggenheim's film offers inspiration at times but breaks our hearts with the fates some of the students in the film face. So just as we start to feel the situation is hopeless, Guggenheim serves up a story of someone who is making a difference.
Along the way he takes on and strongly criticizes the teachers' union (check out the AFT rebuttal) but lets politicians and governmental policies off the hook too lightly. Part of the problem is that trying to evaluate our current education system is an enormous task and one too big for one film to do in a satisfying manner.
Guggenheim might have been better served by making a multi-part series with each episode focusing on one aspect of the problem or one student or one success story. Then maybe teachers wouldn't feel slighted and policies like No Child Left behind could be analyzed. Plus it would allow for a more undivided focus to be placed on each of the elements covered in the film. By cutting back and forth between students and charter schools you sometimes feel like Guggenheim is cutting away just when you're interested is piqued. I really wanted to know more, for instance, about how Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of Harlem Children's Zone, has been finding so much success with his program.
But Guggenheim accepts the fact that his film can't address all aspects of the issue. Here's what he had to say about the challenges of tackling such a complex problem. You can read my interview or watch the video. At the end is another video about what you can do to make a difference.
DAVIS GUGGENHEIM (filmmaker): I'm Davis Guggenheim, I'm the director of "Waiting for Superman." The very first film, documentary that I made, was called "The First Year." It was 11 years ago and I followed these five novice teachers. I was actually with them on their first day of school and followed them for their first year. I was in these different neighborhoods, Watts and Compton and East LA and I just got the sort of full immersion of what the life of a teacher was like in these different schools and I also saw how heavy the stakes were. These teachers were really trying to really help these kids but the system was so dysfunctional, the system around the classroom was so dysfunctional and so with this film I thought I would tackle that part of it.
EMILY (student): I don't know what college I want to go to but I know I want to be a teacher.
DAISY (student): I want to be a nurse, a doctor.
GUGGENHEIM: How come?
DAISY: Because I would like to help somebody in need.
GUGGENHEIM: I actually made two movies side by side and I kept them apart until the last three weeks of editing. One film is about the kids. The movie before was about teachers. This is about the kids. And that's really the heart of the movie. And I found these five kids all across the country different family style but they all just want a great school.
GUGGENHEIM (in film clip): For these kids the only way to get into a great school depends on whether their number is picked in a lottery. So if Francisco Doesn't get in is there another chance?
FRANCISCO'S MOM: No.
GUGGENHEIM: And I also made a film about the system we adults have created and I thought wouldn't it be interesting to cut between those two realities: the reality of these families wanting a good school for their kids and this system, which seems to be this giant monster that is self-perpetuating and really doesn't look out for these kids.
MICHELLE RHEE (chancellor of DC's public schools): You wake every morning and you know that 46,000 kids are counting on you. And that most of them are getting a crappy education right now.
GUGGENHEIM: You think most of the kids in DC are getting a crappy
RHEE: I don't think they are I know they are.
GUGGENHEIM: The good news is everybody believes in education, Republican or Democrat, we want great schools. So my thought was if you really break it down. If you really show where we are and how we got here in a really simple way same way similar to what we did with "An Inconvenient Truth" -- here's the planet and it's getting warmer -- and you actually respect the intelligence of the audience and you tell them this is how we got to where we are and then they understand it. And when they understand it, it gives them a way to re-invest and to get involved. The other thing is and I learned this from Al Gore. You really have to attack some of the psychological barriers to why people disengage. With this there are some really big psychological barriers and they are kind of unspoken. The idea that maybe the kids over there can't learn they're too poor, the problems of these socially disadvantaged schools or there's problems with language, all these things all these loaded things that come with school. And what we show is that there are these great schools. It's actually pretty recent in the last ten years, there are schools that have gone in and I use the analogy broken the sound barrier, and breaking the sound barrier was great in that you break the sound barrier but more importantly it shattered a system of belief. These new high performing charters the top five have proven and there are some here in San Diego there's a KIP school standing for knowledge is power in San Diego has really proven that you can really go into even the toughest neighborhoods and educate every kid they are sending 90% of their kids to college and doing it at the same price as the district school next door is doing it. I'm not saying that charters are the silver bullet but within these stories, within these successes are the ingredients to success you can put into every school.
BETH ACCOMANDO (interviewer): A number of documentaries recently have brought up this idea, this question, this notion of blurring the line between fact and fiction. And on a certain level no documentary can be completely objective> So I'm just curious if you had to discuss what you brought to the film and what kind of bias or perspective you might have, what would you say?
GUGGENHEIM: I think for a film like this I really wanted to tell it from a parent's point of view with a really strong point of view and I say it up front this is me talking and others can disagree but as long as you are upfront about the angle you are taking it really is very clear that this is one man's point of view I narrate the film and I ask some tough questions as long as you are not hiding your bias I think it's okay. And people can accept or reject that strong opinion or not but when you hide that point of view it can get more dangerous.
GUGGENHEIM (in film clip): Daisy's path to medical school begins with eighth grade algebra, which she'll need to take when she moves up to Stevenson middle school. By the time she leaves Stevenson only thirteen percent of her classmates will be proficient in math.
GUGGENHEIM: You don't know who you are going to meet. You go into the barrio and you knock on a door at Daisy house and you kind of get a little tight when you go into a neighborhood like that a little bit, I'm a fish out of water. You knock on the door and Daisy's father drives a truck, he's a high school drop out. Daisy's mother cleans hospital rooms. What you realize is that they are just like me and my wife. They are working really hard and they are completely devoted to the life of their kid.
ACCOMANDO: Now you mentioned that you felt like these parents were very much like you but on a certain level they're not because they don't have the same choices. You were able to take your child and put them in a private school and they're not...
GUGGENHEIM: I say it in the movie, I'm lucky. I have a choice. It was a big breakthrough for me the idea that when I decided to do the movie when I was seeing the kids in my neighborhood, you know I drive by three public schools, is it enough that my kids are okay. I think there are a lot of people that say schools are broken I am going to take care of my own kids. And they take care of their own and then they turn their back on the system. And it's kind of like sticking your head in the sand and think the schools are going to fix themselves. Or I'm going to take care of my own and pretend it doesn't exist. And maybe some hero will swoop down and fix our schools magically but that's not going to happen.
GEOFFREY CANADA (president and CEO, Harlem Children's Zone): One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me Superman did not exist. I was like what do you mean he's not real. And she thought I was crying because it's like Santa Clause is not real and I was crying because there was no one coming with enough power to save us.
GUGGENHEIM: He is the most charismatic, he's like Tom Cruise, he has an electric personality. But he also speaks clearly about this issue whereas everyone else is confounded by it where it feels too complicated he goes right to the core. And he's not afraid to say some of the uncomfortable things that we really need to talk about to fix our schools.
ACCOMANDO: Is one of those uncomfortable things teachers' unions?
DAVIS GUGGENHEIM: Really uncomfortable. It's personally uncomfortable for me because I'm a Democrat, I'm a lefty, around the kitchen table my father made social justice documentaries and around the kitchen table we talked about the great moment in America when workers got organized and they had the right to defend themselves and I think it's really important to understand that teachers are the solution they are a work of art I talk about that in the movie but their union in a lot of ways has fought against things that are keeping our schools from getting better. So it's really important to say that unions are essential they need to be there to protect teachers but they have to be and their membership should demand that they should fight for teachers and get them paid more money and make sure they are protected but they can't be an obstacle to reform, they can't be fighting these charter caps, they cannot be inflexible to this idea of rethinking tenure and rethinking this idea of how we really talk, about assessing teachers or rewarding really good teachers.
ACCOMANDO: Now do you think you gave teachers and unions enough of a chance to respond to that within the context of the film?
DAVIS GUGGENHEIM: Well I talk about, first of all I interviewed Randi Weingarten for the movie and when we edited it we said look let's really let Randi make her own case and we talk about the roots of why teachers needed unions, I have a whole section in the movie about how in the early days teachers were mostly women taken advantage of and they had no recourse but unionizing was an essential thing and I've shown Randi the movie and we've had conversations and we disagree about certain things but I said, "Hey Randi even though we disagree, write a chapter in our book." So our book, which is in our 6th printing, and it's called "Waiting for Superman," and she did that I said even though we disagree stay a part of the conversation and she did. And that's what 's exciting about the movie. I'm not gonna get it perfect and people are going to disagree with it but I know that the movie if you are open to going is a great way to start the conversation to say, "Okay I get it the stakes are huge and they effect all of us and it's time for us to act. You can say Davis missed it and we need to do more over here and I wished he had talked about this that's great, that's exciting I never thought the movie would please everybody. But at least it's a conversation starter at least it's a way to get people who haven't been engaged to reengage on this subject.
ACCOMANDO: The one thing I thought you could have addressed a little more is the way you measure success because that seemed to be one of the difficult things how do you assess is a teacher good, is a school good. But are tests and the tests that we have really the best way, is that something you wanted to explore more?
GUGGENHEIM: DAVIS GUGGENHEIM: Yeah. It's a real big issue. Testing only shows you one piece, it's a tool but it doesn't show you the whole picture give you the whole picture it's like taking someone's temperature you know if someone has a fever but you don't know why. I'm not one of these guys who thinks testing is the only thing. But testing is a piece but there has to be more human ways to evaluate what job teachers are doing and we have to do a better job of that.
ACCOMANDO: All right, well thank you very much.
GUGGENHEIM: It's a pleasure to be on your show.
NOTE: If you want to know what you can do to make a difference, let Guggenheim tell you what he hopes the film can do at waitingforsuperman.com.