Interview by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim visits San Francisco for a screening of 'Waiting for Superman'.
Film director Davis Guggenheim, best known for An Inconvenient Truth, recently visited San Francisco to promote his new documentary, Waiting for Superman, which opens widely in theaters in October. The Educator’s Sherry Posnick-Goodwin sat down with Guggenheim at the Clift Hotel to discuss his views on teachers and the challenges facing our schools. She was allotted just 15 minutes for the interview.
CALIFORNIA EDUCATOR: I’m a mom, and both my kids went through public schools. I know what it’s like to want the very best for your children. My kids had a pretty good experience in public schools. Did you feel that positive experiences in public schools were missing in Waiting for Superman?
DAVIS GUGGENHEIM: I’m not worried about the kids who are getting a great education. I’m worried about the kids who aren’t getting a good education. And there are really too many broken schools in the state and in the country. My idea was to tackle problems that are pulling schools down.
I’ve been an education reporter for a long time. I go to a lot of inner-city schools and see a lot of good things happening. I didn’t see any of those things happening in the movie except for one teacher, and I’m wondering why.
Look, I didn’t make a choice to not show good things. But the challenge for me is that a lot of schools don’t want you to shoot [film] in them, no matter who you are. There are overwhelming stakes happening in failing schools, and that’s what I focused on. Let me be clear. There are great district schools all over the country. I’m happy for them, and maybe my next movie will show how great these schools are. My mission was to follow five kids in neighborhoods where their schools were not working. For too many kids in America, their only choice is a failing school. You’re implying that I’m overlooking something out of some sort conspiracy, but that’s not the case. We are failing too many kids, and that’s what this movie is about.
You talked about the three “bad public schools” you pass by on the way to taking your children to private schools, but we never get to see what’s inside. Did you try to get inside?
In the movie, you say, “We tried throwing money at schools, and it didn’t work.” But California schools cut more than $17 billion over the past two years. As a result, there have been more than 30,000 teacher layoffs, classrooms are overcrowded, and entire art, music and vocational education programs have been eliminated. California has the eighth-largest economy in the world, but ranks 46th in the nation in per-pupil spending. Couldn’t California schools benefit from more funding?
We need to spend more money, especially in California. But if you spend more money, you need to fix what’s broken, or the money will go to the wrong place. There are these forces, and until you fix them, you’ll never fix our schools. There are bloated bureaucracies and very restrictive teacher contracts. I believe teachers are the key [to student success], and I also think teachers deserve a great union. I believe in unions; I’m a member of a great union. It’s a really hard thing to say, but when fighting for the rights of teachers, you have to make sure their contracts themselves aren’t restricting reform.
This film didn’t paint teachers unions in a favorable light. Do you think teachers unions can play a role in school reform?
Yes. Randi Weingarten, [president] of the American Federation of Teachers, did a great job of championing new laws in Colorado that rethink teacher tenure and rethink merit pay. It’s a fascinating thing: Teachers unions have to defend teachers and get more money for great teachers, but they can’t be putting up roadblocks to reform.
Charter schools have been getting a lot more traction lately for parents who are not happy with their neighborhood schools. You say in the film that only one in five charter schools does a better job than traditional schools, but in the movie charter schools seem to be portrayed as the answer. Why is this?
Well, the movie is about whether these kids will get into great performing schools, and their parents didn’t care whether they are charter or not. I talk about how only one in five charters is doing a great job. The great thing about charters is that it’s all about innovation. But failure can also be a great part of innovation, because you are taking a chance. Charters that are failing need to be shut down. But the ones that are doing great, in my opinion, are breaking the sound barrier. They’re showing what works. The trick is to bring those ingredients into district schools.
What do you hope the audience will take away from Waiting for Superman?
That the problem is severe and it’s worse than I imagined. It affects all of us. Even if your kids go to a different school it affects all of us in society and the competitiveness of our country. I also want people to take away the feeling that it’s possible to go into the toughest neighborhood and educate every kid.