Davis Guggenheim clearly believes in taking on important societal problems in his documentaries. In “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006), he and Al Gore brought global warming to the attention of the mass audience, and won an Academy Award in the process. Now, in “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” he tackles the question of how to fix public education in the US, and as he explained in a recent Dallas interview, he’s optimistic about the possibilities and hopeful his film will help bring them to fruition.
Education is an issue Guggenheim first addressed a decade ago with “The First Year,” in which he documented the efforts of committed young teachers in Los Angeles during the 1999-2000 school year. “The teachers I followed were passionate and idealistic,” he recalled. “But the system was going to crush them.” But now, he added, “I think it’s an exciting time for education. Ten years ago, it felt like the code was unbreakable. Now they’ve found the ingredients for successful schools. The question is, is the country going to wake up to it? And that’s why I made the movie. It’s really important to say that it’s possible.”
The solution, Guggenheim’s film argues, lies in the methods pioneered by schools like Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Success Academy. Canada, the energetic academic who gives the picture its title with his story about how crushed he was as a kid when he learned that the comic-book superhero, who always flew in to make things right, didn’t actually exist (and realized that ordinary people had to do the work themselves), represents for Guggenheim the sort of committed individual whose emphasis on a rigorous curriculum and great teaching can act as a model for the reform of the American public educational system as a whole.
“The examples I give of the Kipp schools—you have one here in Dallas—and Geoffrey Canada’s schools [show that] there are successful schools all over America that have broken the code,” Guggenheim said. “Now it feels like it’s possible. The new ‘Race to the Top’ the Obama Administration is doing is really excellent—it’s really pushing states to change and reform. And the fact that [teachers’] contracts are changing at all is amazing. They’re rethinking tenure and trying to give teachers merit pay. All these things are starting to happen, and all these reformers who have been hidden are now coming to light, and people are being inspired. What we’ve found is that more money doesn’t make better schools. Pouring more money into a broken system means that the money goes to the wrong place. The first thing you’ve got to do is reform the system, and then more money will start to work.”
But for the essential reform to occur, Guggenheim emphasized, citizens have to get involved. “I think too many of us just drive by our schools,” he said, calling to mind a scene in the film in which he drives past his own neighborhood public school on the way to his children’s private one. “We say, it’s tough, too complicated. We’ll just take care of our own. Schools change when moms and dads step up and demand they be better—or students demand that their schools be better. The federal government doesn’t provide that much money, so they don’t have that much influence. That’s what interesting about the ‘Race to the Top’—instead of saying we’re going to give you lots of money, [it’s] we’re going to give you incentives.”
Guggenheim readily admitted that it’s possible to read his film as a argument in favor of an expansion of the charter school movement, but he says that’s too simple. “It’s very easy to read into the movie being pro-this or anti-that,” he said. “If there’s one agenda, I’ll put it out on the table—I want everyone in America to care as much about other people’s children as they care about their own. If parents in America fight for every kid the way they fight for their own, we’ll fix our schools right away.”
The film does, however, single out teachers’ unions, and the Democratic Party that unwaveringly supports them, as an obstacle to needed changes. “I’m a leftie, and lefties believe in unions,” Guggenheim observed. “So that was a hard choice for me, to say that we’re not going to fix our schools unless we put the truth out on the table about how the unions are not always on the side of reform, in fact they have to reform. That was a tough choice for me, that was uncomfortable for me. And one of the big funders of the Democratic Party over the last forty years are the teachers’ unions. That’s kept the Democratic Party from doing what it should be doing. The Democratic Party stands for helping the disadvantaged. But because the teachers’ unions give them so much money, they haven’t been doing it.
“But if you’re not going to speak the truth, you shouldn’t make documentaries. I believe unions are essential, and teachers should have a union. But I don’t think they should get in the way of educating kids. Unions should protect teachers from getting abused by dumb management, the way coal miners are. But teachers’ unions should not be writing policy, and they should not be getting in the way of reform. And there are some exciting reforms out there that the unions have been fighting tooth and nail.”
“Waiting for ‘Superman,’” however, isn’t just an impersonal analysis of the contemporary educational scene. It humanizes the problems by focusing on five children trying to get into charter schools—which, because of the small number of available spaces and the large number of applicants, requires them to enter a lottery with the odds stacked against them.
How were they selected?
“I knew that I wanted to highlight the lottery,” Guggenheim explained. “I knew that was an amazing metaphor for what happened to every kid, that there’s this sort of arbitrary thing that determines whether you’re going to have a good education or not, a chance for the dream. So I found schools that had lotteries and families that were about to go into the lottery. And then I decided to describe what would happen to them if they win or lose.
“The only thing I needed was for them to be able to talk about their life. I get the question a lot—‘Well, you picked the nice ones—the kids that are motivated, the parents who care.’ I think there’s something cynical about that question, because I’ve been to these neighborhoods. You realize every mother wants the best for their kids. That doesn’t mean every mother has the capacity to help their kids, or isn’t too involved in their own problems to help their kids. There are terrible parents. That happens everywhere. But on the whole parents want to see their kids succeed. What’s underneath that [question] is this idea that there are certain kids that you can’t teach because the environmental problems are too bad, or their parents don’t care, or they’re poor, or they’re ignorant. And after making this movie and spending two years in these neighborhoods, I don’t think that’s true. These are good kids. They’ve got the same potential as my kids, the same hopes and dreams as my kids. The school lets them down. It’s un-American. Here in America everyone has a chance to succeed, right?”
Guggenheim noted that it was the broken system that changes children, who in the third grade dream of being astronauts and doctors and policemen, into dropouts. “By tenth grade, they’re smart and they look at the options,” he said. “They’re not going anywhere. They can see what’s happening to their friends, they can see that there are no jobs, they can see that teachers don’t care. And that cycle builds on itself. So you get cynical and you feel that the schools don’t work, so why should I care? The work that you’ve got to do to attack that mentality, in my opinion, is to create great schools. If you’ve got a kid who’s born into the worst situation and you give him a good school, you can turn that around real quick. Ninety percent of Geoffrey Canada’s kids are going to college—going to college, in Harlem, the toughest neighborhood in the country! So you can reverse that mentality.
After watching the system create disillusionment and hopelessness in both children and parents, Guggenheim admitted, “It breaks your heart.
“But my hope is that the film does bigger things, that it really changes the conversation on education and has a part in fixing our schools.”