“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.
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.