Movie Mom

Movie Mom


Interview: Davis Guggenheim of ‘Waiting for Superman

posted by Nell Minow

Waiting for Superman” is the stunning new documentary from Davis Guggenheim about the failures of our public school system and our failure as a society to support outstanding teachers. You can help by pledging to see the movie — if you buy tickets online you will get a free download of “Shine” from John Legend and the Roots album “Wake Up,” and the film-makers will donate five books to kids in need. Guggenheim is the son of pioneering documentarian Charles Guggenheim and the husband of Oscar-nominated actress Elisabeth Shue. I spoke to him about the public schools, what he recommends, and his own favorite teacher.

Did you have a favorite teacher?

My 10th grade history teacher, Harvey LeJure. There’s an animated film where I talk about how he changed my life. I was a terrible student, a C- student, and there were a couple of teachers who pulled me out of my funk and taught me that I had something to say. I would not be a film-maker without them.

A Conversation with Davis Guggenheim from TakePart on Vimeo.

Why is it that most of us have just one or two great teachers in our lives?

All it takes is a couple. That magic won’t happen with every teacher. But the movie is about how we have to have really great teachers in every classroom.

Do we put too many administrative burdens on teachers that interfere with their ability to teach?

What we need is a pipeline of great teachers. We need to recruit the very best, train them really well, develop the good ones, reward them really well, and the few that are ineffective, we have to find them another job. We don’t do any of those steps very well. We tend to treat teachers like widgets, just plug them in like they are all the same. Countries like Finland who are kicking our butts, number one in every category, they have a great program for great teachers. And that’s the exciting thing. It’s not some magic; it’s about having a commitment to making great teachers in this country.

What can we do to make teaching a more prestigious job?

We do have a prestige deficit. In Finland, teachers are held in the highest regard. We need to start treating teachers like a profession, holding them to the highest standard, rewarding the really good ones, we can make a difference. Teachers will feel better about themselves and we will feel better about them. Unfortunately now we have a factory mentality; anyone who wants to get a credential can. We have to hold them to a higher standard and then they will get more respect, more money, and more prestige.

Your film features Geoffrey Canada, whose extraordinary success is in part based on his ability to get the support of the parents. How important is that?

A big piece of the puzzle is parent involvement, and teachers will tell you they need parents to be good partners. But this new generation of reformers says, “We can no longer use parents as an excuse.” Yes, it’s a problem and we should give schools and neighborhoods more support. What you can see in these schools is that even in the toughest neighborhoods we can go in and send 90 percent of those kids to college. The exciting thing is that it is possible.

Do we ask too much of teachers by giving them students with such widely different levels of achievement and learning styles?

The problem of our system is that it is designed to educate a few. Even in the white suburban neighborhoods where you buy a million dollar house to get into the good school district, those schools are built for the top 10-15 percent. We now are in an economy where everyone needs the education and skills to be a good worker. The big truth is that our skills are built for a 1950’s model where you’re only going to educate a few.

How do you create a system with enough flexibility to be performance based in evaluating teachers but not too much to allow for abuse and favoritism?

We tend to swing from one extreme to the other. We’re in the extreme now where we don’t evaluate our teachers very well at all. The other extreme is just looking at scores and blind to the nuance and art of great teaching. But there is a big, thoughtful discussion on how to do that. Maybe 50 percent on test scores and another chunk of how the other teachers see you and another from a principal visit. But the other alternative is no evaluation at all and keeping everyone in the job. We have to have a thoughtful way of assessing our teachers with scores a piece of it but other observations another piece.

Your film features DC school head Michelle Rhee, who announced her resignation this week.

I’m worried about the kids in D.C. Just because the mayor and chancellor change doesn’t mean the kids change. I hope whoever replaces her continues to make the tough choices that put kids first.

Why are documentaries having such a flowering? There are several this year on education alone and many others that are attracting a lot of attention.

The other genres of movie-making seems to be stuck in a rut, but documentaries are exploding. They’re growing, they’re blossoming, many different types. People are turning to documentaries because they are not getting answers elsewhere. They’re frustrated with the mainstream press. They’re frustrated that these stories are not being told. These movies speak to them. They are inspired by the stories of the families in the movie, and by buying a ticket to become part of a movement that is changing our schools. They can disagree with some of what we say, but it is a catalyst for real change.



  • Pam

    I’m curious to see this movie when (if) it makes it out to us in the hinterlands.
    But I beg to differ with the statement that our schools cater to the top 10-15%. I work with kids at the very top of that range every day, and our school system most certainly isn’t designed to meet their needs.

  • iorek

    Guggenheim’s comment about the prestige of teachers in Finland is fascinating in view of the study that was just released saying that Finland is no. 1 in Math and Science and the US is 25th.
    It’s interesting, too, that Guggenheim was such a poor student. Do you think this movie is partially his way of getting revenge?

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/moviemom/ Nell Minow

    Yes, iorek, Guggenheim believes that the achievement of the kids in Finland is directly correlated to the support and prestige and training given to teachers there. And I think his movie is a salute to the best teachers he had, not revenge for those who didn’t reach him.

  • Charles

    I find it very telling that DG fails to answer your question about whether teachers are saddled with too many administrative burdens that interfere with their ability to teach.
    That’s a very good question, very relevant to the reality of public education in the 21st century. He doesn’t answer it because it doesn’t lend itself to a snappy talking point.
    I dare anyone with a heart to sit through Waiting for Superman without shedding tears. And I dare anyone with a questioning mind to try to make sense of the contradictions that are presented:
    A primary message of the film is “We need more charters.” Yet, it is stated in the film that only one in five charters yields better results than the average public school.
    Teacher unions are presented as the primary reason for every education problem, yet Finland, whose success is celebrated in the film and in your interview has unionized teachers.
    W4S squanders an opportunity to generate a conversation that will lead to better education because it reduces everything to “movie level” We must have villains in order to have heroes.
    What W4S fails to to is admit that difficult problems are not easily solved. It’s as if they want education to be like organized crime; somebody’s in your way, you whack them. Life isn’t really like that.
    I work for a “teachers union”. We could do better than we have and we need to do more than we’re doing. But “we need to fire teachers” is not a strategy for success. Everyone has a stake in education and there needs to be accountability for all and the support needed to make it possible for every student to succeed.

  • Charles

    I wish I had noticed the typos before I hit “send.”

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/moviemom/ Nell Minow

    Charles, there’s a lot of leeway for captcha-controlled comments when it comes to typos, even from educators. But I can correct the minor errors. The main thing is that I very much appreciate your excellent comment. I hope this movie is a wake-up call and that it inspires a more thoughtful conversation about what we can to do support our teachers and students.

  • WALTER WEBB

    Dear Guggenheim,
    Here are a list of WALL STREET STOCK QUOTES whom serve the arts from a NORTH CAROLINA CENTRAL UNIVERSITY ALUMNI in DURHAM NORTH CAROLINA
    1.BID(SOTHEBY’S) 2. GBAB(GUGGENHEIM BOND FUND) 3. XCBFX(CAPSTONE CHURCH FUND) 4. M(ARTS) 5.BBRYF.PK(ART FASHION 6.CPB(ANDY WARHOL ART)
    7.AMR(AIRLINES FOR THE ARTS)8. WFMI(ORGANIC/HEALTH FOOD FOR THE ARTS) 8. KBH (REAL ESTATE FOR THE ARTS) 9. CB(INSURANCE FOR THE ARTS)
    10. LULU(BALLET APPAREL) 11. SHW(ART STAGE PAINT) 12. WMG(MUSIC FOR ARTS/EMI RECORDING) 13. CRR(CERAMICS ARTS) 14. CBG(CBRE CULTURAL ARTS BUILDINGS) 15. LTM(FITNESS FACILITIES FOR THE ARTS) 16.DJUSRP(RECREATION AND THE ARTS) 17. CREE(LIGHTING FOR THE ARTS) 18. LLEG.PK(GREYHOUND/PUBLIC AND PRIVATE SCHOOL GROUP TRANSPORTATION FOR THE ARTS 19.HESAF.PK(ART FASHION/SPONSOR)20.PLA(ART EXPRESSION VIA ADULT THEMES) 21. DIS(CULTURAL ART THEME PARKS 22.SIRI(SATELLITE CLASSICAL MUSIC STATION 23. VLKAY.PK(LUXURY AUTOMOBILES)24.IMAX(CULTURAL THEATER) 25. JNJ(HEALTH CARE SPONSOR FOR THE ARTS 26.NED(ART EDUCATION) 27.OEH(ORIENT TRANSPORTATION 28. DUK(DUKE ARTS SPONSOR)
    29. HBIO(HARVARD FOR THE ARTS) 30.MGM(MOTION PICTURE FOR THE ARTS)
    31. VIA(MOTION PICTURE FOR THE ARTS)32.NILE(DIAMONDS FOR THE ARTS)ABER(THE NEW DALLAS TEXAS VERSION OF DIAMONDS FOR ARTS VIA HARRY WINSTON)
    33. DWA(MOTION PICTURE FOR THE ARTS)
    MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY NEW YEAR FROM THE EAGLES OF NORTH CAROLINA CENTRAL UNIVERSITY ALUMNI

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Teresa

    I didn’t see this movie at the theatre but I waited for the movie to come to my Blockbuster store to rent. It came in March, but was checked out. I find it odd that the store carried only one movie to rent. So I checked each week and it was still checked out. I requested the employees at Blockbuster to call me when it comes in and they said that would be against store policy, but that I can call them. I’ve been calling them (and going into the store) for 2 months now. Today is May 26th. I called today to see if they sell the movie since I’m having a hard time renting it. The store clerk looked it up and told me they do not sell it. So I called my local Target store. They do not sell it either. The Target clerk told me that I can buy it at Best Buy (for $23.00), but my point in renting is to save money (I am currently unemployed and renting movies is my only guilt-free entertainment while being unemployed). I will try Walmart and K-Mart stores (or any you may suggest) but it seems strange. I wonder what Davis Guggenheim would think about this. I wish I had a way to tell him.

    • Nell Minow

      I am so sorry to hear that, Teresa. I think your public library should be able to find it for you via inter-library loan. It’s also on Netflix. Good luck and keep me posted.

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