Waiting for Superman: An Interview with Davis Guggenheim
by Joan M. West and Dennis West           

Best known for his Academy Award-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth (2006), featuring Al Gore and his Powerpoint—but nonetheless powerful—lecture on climate change, documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim also made the Barak Obama bio-doc shown at the Democratic National Convention in 2008, and in the same year It Might Get Loud, a documentary on the electric guitar, featuring rock musicians Jack White, Jimmy Page, and the Edge. With his recently released Waiting for Superman (2010), Guggenheim returns to the subject of education, the focus of his short documentary Teach (2001), which he expanded for television as The First Year (2001), a film that follows five Los Angeles teachers throughout their first year in the classroom.  

Adopting a similar strategy in Waiting for Superman, Guggenheim attempts to examine the state of American education through the perspective of five young students and their families: fifth graders Anthony in Washington, D.C. and Daisy in East Los Angeles; first grader Francisco in the Bronx; kindergartener Bianca in Harlem; and eighth grader Emily in the Silicon Valley. Four of the five East and West Coast children live in urban neighborhoods with poorly performing public schools, while Emily lives in an affluent community with a highly-ranked high school, though, like her urban counterparts, she doesn’t want to attend that school, despite its well-funded arts and sports programs, because it tracks students according to their performance. Emily struggles in math and fears that being placed in a lower academic track will limit her learning opportunities.

In all five cases, the children and their parents feel that charter school are their last, best refuge from public school systems—Bianca attends kindergarten at the Catholic school across the street from her apartment, but is forced to watch her classmates “graduate” from her window after her mother has been unable to keep up with tuition costs. The film’s narrative arc is supplied by the lottery system of acceptance into the few charter schools available to these students. Guggenheim stretches out the anticipation and suspense as the children and their parents sit in crowded gymnasiums waiting to hear their names or application numbers announced (or not). While the film presents itself as a thoroughgoing examination of what’s gone wrong in schools that fail, the film’s press notes reveal its true purpose as an extended ad or plea for charter schools: The final sentence in the biographical sketches devoted to each child provides us with his or her chance of acceptance into the charter school—Anthony and Emily look like shoe-ins at fifty percent and twenty-four percent, respectively, in comparison with Daisy’s fourteen percent and Francisco and Bianca’s meager five percent chance of getting in.

The film has stirred much controversy, in part, because it takes at face value fears such as those articulated by Emily, without questioning or substantiating the reality behind those fears. As the press notes put it, “instead of working hard in her regular math class, she would be placed into a remedial course with worse teachers and lower expectations.” This and similar claims are never supported in the film. (In many high-performing schools, in fact, the same teachers who teach advanced math sections also often teach remedial sections, enabling students eventually to succeed in regular classes by providing the solid foundation they are missing.) In asking viewers to accept perceptions of both children and adults as factual, the film inadvertently exposes one of its most serious flaws—the viewer begins to suspect that factual support is not offered because it does not exist or because it will undermine the film’s carefully constructed emotional impact through reality-based counterarguments.

Perhaps the greatest source of the film’s controversy, having prompted dozens of print and online editorials, arises from its implicit and explicit critique of teachers’ unions as organizations devoted solely to the protection of its lowest functioning members. “Tenure” is evoked again and again as the bulwark against which school administrators simply hold no weapons. The film again remains silent when it comes to defining just what tenure is, exactly, and fails to investigate the reality behind repeated claims that blame the tenure system for poorly performing schools. The film prefers to present an entertaining animated sequence, for instance, devoted to the “dance of the lemons”—whereby administrators rotate their worst teachers from school to school—rather than explain that tenure is a system that guarantees only due process before firing, that administrators with the desire to fire can do so, but must gather and provide concrete evidence of nonperformance. If the film is to be believed in its implicit claim that tenure produces bad teachers, then the true nonperformers are those administrators who fail to initiate or follow through on legal proceedings—a very real situation the film chooses to ignore. Among the adults interviewed, both parents and professionals, “tenure” is the final word, implying that there simply is no recourse.

Nor does the film examine the role of tenure as an important protection—in small, politicized communities, for instance, where teaching jobs may go to those with the greatest influence; in large inner-city schools, where teachers must be protected and empowered when fighting for allocation of money for necessary supplies in their classrooms; and in wealthy suburban communities, where transcript-conscious parents can pressure teachers to reconsider the “B plus” in English when an “A” would make the road to an Ivy-League college all that much smoother for their kids. “You can’t have a great school without great teachers,” is the film’s mantra—and a valid one it is. But the film structures its argument to imply that tenure prevents our schools from hiring great teachers, when the opposite often is the case.

While it is very true that in urban areas, with low teacher pay and poor working conditions, administrators are forced to hire mediocre or poor teachers simply to provide an adult presence in overcrowded classrooms and that the tenure clock ticks forward with some of these teachers granted tenure after two- or three-year probationary periods, the film never gets to the core of the problem: city and state budgets that do not prioritize schools or the teachers working in them; onerous administrative workload and, in some cases malfeasance, that allows probationary periods to pass with little or no time or rigor devoted to teacher evaluation or mentoring. In the evangelical world Waiting for Superman creates, Michele Rhee, chancellor of Washington, D.C. schools, with only limited background as an educator, comes off as a savior of the system when she attempts to divide teachers by offering merit pay to the best (rather than allocating money to help improve the worst); Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, comes off as a villain; and the taxpayer-funded charter schools that allow for hiring nontenure-track teachers come off as the reality-based incarnation of “Superman.”

In a film rife with statistics, primarily test scores meant to prove our schools are failing—again with no attention given to whether or not these measurements are the best or most valid means of assessing failure or success of individual students or their teachers, let alone of entire school systems—the missing statistics and facts, again, belie the film’s claim that you can’t have a great school without great teachers. We don’t hear, for instance, that the high-performing Green Dot charter schools are staffed by fully unionized teachers, as The New York Times has pointed out, nor do we hear that CREDO, a national study of charter schools, has found that while seventeen percent of those schools performed more effectively than public schools (based on a comparison of students’ math scores), thirty-seven percent performed at lower levels, and forty-six percent showed no significant difference in performance, according to Diane Ravitch in The New York Review of Books. The film also never shows us the public schools that work well—why does the high school in Emily’s community perform so well? Why do highly-rated suburban school districts—with their generous teacher salaries, smaller class size, and high ratios of per capita expenditure on students perform so well? What lessons might we take from these examples, including the value of careful hiring and evaluation of probationary teachers and continued professional development throughout the twenty- or thirty-year span of a teacher’s career?

We do hear from Geoffrey Canada who has created the Harlem Children’s Zone—a series of schools that have kept students in the classroom and engaged in learning in a challenging New York City setting, from David Levin and Mike Feinberg, former teachers who have created their own network of independent KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools, and from Stanford University’s Eric Hanushek whose research shows that smaller class size and teacher quality are significant factors in shaping student performance—all of whom discuss the qualities that make schools work. But like Rhee, who closed twenty-three failing schools in Washington, D.C.—often leaving students and families stranded and scrambling to find schools to attend—Waiting for Superman advocates scrapping the problem schools rather than funneling the money, time, and painstaking effort necessary to fix them. And while Guggenheim is quite earnest in his desire to expose a crisis—and to solve it—the film first needs to establish that, indeed, a crisis does exist.

Like a handful of other documentaries released on the subject of education in the last several years, Waiting for Superman refuses to acknowledge its politically conservative underpinnings: what evidence it does offer of school failure is in the form of a whole battery of testing statistics initiated by the Bush Administration and based on bottom-line business models; the only solution it presents (without firmly establishing a crisis) is based on a privatized model of operation that nevertheless uses taxpayer money for support; the evangelical zeal it musters is aimed at trampling collective bargaining and those guarantees that would encourage the best and the brightest to take up teaching as a career. Guggenheim rightfully claims that the lottery system of admission to charter schools is gruesome and grueling, stating that one concern of the film is to expose and end the injustice of this system. To accomplish that goal in the world the film creates, there is only one self-evident solution—more charter schools, constructed on the ruins of the public system.

Waiting for Superman is entertaining and emotionally stirring in its aspiration to provide in tone and content what Michael Moore achieves in his films. Despite its interesting, if not always factually informative, interviews with the children and adults—the children are perceptive and sometimes say the darndest things—its well-shot observational footage, animated graphics, and entertaining animated sequences, Waiting for Superman fails to supply the thoroughgoing exploration necessary to address its nevertheless legitimate claim: “You can’t have a great school without great teachers.” The film, however, has obviously touched a nerve—both among supporters and detractors, and therefore must be acknowledged for sparking a necessary debate.    

Davis Guggenheim was interviewed in June 2010 during the Seattle International Film Festival, where Waiting for Superman was the hot-ticket subject of discussion for groups of educators and other interested parties.—Cynthia Lucia

*****

Cineaste: Waiting for Superman posits a crisis in elementary and secondary education in the U.S. Did your previous documentary, Teach, reveal this social crisis to you, and how did you resolve to approach this subject matter in Superman?

Davis Guggenheim: Part of it was the feeling ten years later that the system hadn’t gotten much better. And the feeling I had as I drove my kids past three public schools to a great school—it wasn’t just guilt, but rather the feeling of our having lost another ten years. It’s not enough that my kids have a great education. I really felt I had to try again and make a film that really helps crack this problem. There was also the new ammunition gained from having made An Inconvenient Truth and some of the lessons we learned from that.

Cineaste: Being encouraged by the impact of that film?

Guggenheim: Right. With Inconvenient Truth we had all these big dreams, like every filmmaker does, and those big dreams were surpassed. That may never happen again for me, but I had the feeling that if you pick the right tone and you give the audience a little credit, they can actually take some tough issues and understand them. You can lead them to rally around. People love to use a documentary as a way to rally around an issue and create change.

Cineaste: Your documentary presents an unusual blend of film clips, animated graphics, newsreel and news clips, interviews, actuality footage at public meetings, animated cartoons, etc. Would you comment on this striking stylistic approach to the material? Do you use unidentified reenactments? We’re thinking, for instance, of the moment when Anthony receives a phone call at home.

Guggenheim: I’ll do the second question first. I have never reenacted anything in any movie I’ve ever done. I don’t want to give away that scene—it would be like giving away that Glenn Close is going to pop up out of the bathtub. But in that situation, we knew that he was going to get a phone call. We asked the school to please tell us when it would happen. We did not know what he would find out. In Inconvenient Truth I shot some memory stuff. For instance, when Al Gore was talking about growing up on a tobacco farm, I shot some stylized shots of a tobacco farm, but I didn’t put any people in them. There are a lot of gray areas in what a reenactment is, but I feel very strongly that you don’t pay people to be in a documentary so you don’t ask them to do things. But we do do things like animation and stuff.

Cineaste: Now this is a very striking stylistic approach. So what about it? Is it just to keep people interested, or so you don’t just have talking heads? How did you think about this?

Guggenheim: Well, I find there’s a challenge and an opportunity as well with documentaries now. Some documentaries are breaking out and they are becoming more mainstream. People go because they realize that they will have an experience. The Cove is a wonderful example of a film that is about something very serious—slaughtering dolphins. But they structure that movie like a caper movie—how are these guys going to put the cameras under water? That’s really entertaining. I think that guys like Errol Morris and Michael Moore (sometimes I don’t like some of their techniques and sometimes I love their techniques), that they are showing you that a good documentary can be informative and entertaining. That is what I aspire to do.

Cineaste: How did you select the specific five children to be followed in your film? We come from a rural state, Idaho, so it was quite striking to us that you did not include any children from a rural background. Isn’t a child growing up in rural poverty just as likely to be lost to society as an urban child in poverty?

Guggenheim: Actually, we started shooting in a school in Arkansas, a KIPP [Knowledge is Power Program] school I believe it was, on a peanut farm. However, some stories just didn’t develop. It was not a bias by any stretch. We sort of had it as an ambition: we wanted examples from different coasts, different ages; we wanted different backgrounds. We really thought it would be great to have the rural element, but we didn’t include it; it was no good. A lot of the choices were determined by access. Who would let you shoot. So a lot of stories started and then died because people just weren’t available—“I’m too busy,” or “We don’t want to be part of a documentary.” That is an underserved part of our story; and certainly there are failing schools in rural areas as well as in urban areas.

Let me say this: what’s changed in this issue is that for a long time it has been perceived that the failing schools were just in one little area. You know, in the poor areas, areas with people of color. What people are starting to realize is that the chronic problem of failing schools is everywhere. It’s in urban areas. It’s in rural areas. It’s in middle-class areas—I showed a kid in northern California, in Redwood City, for example.

Cineaste: That’s where the software giant Oracle is located, isn’t it?

Guggenheim: Yeah. So the forces that I describe in the movie that are keeping schools back are everywhere.

Cineaste: What about ethnic categories—did you want to be sure to have a European-American child, say, or an Asian-American one? Or was that not so important to you?

Guggenheim: We were going to have a broad spectrum. I wish I could have also covered rural, for instance, but we couldn’t do everything.

Cineaste: Your film suggests that charter schools have found effective solutions to this crisis. Do you believe, then, that traditional public schools should be scrapped, or that those schools should adopt the methodologies of the charter schools?

Guggenheim: No, I think that, as I said in the movie, only some charter schools succeed. There are plenty of them that are failing for all the same reasons as mainstream schools. The solutions lie everywhere. If we’re going to fix our schools, we’ve got to fix our mainstream schools as well as allow for different choices. But the film might feel charter-centric because I use the lottery as a metaphor at the end of it.

Cineaste: Well, you do give the lottery sequence quite a bit of screen time.

Guggenheim: What I really want to say is that we need to build up that choice: choose one school, you get one future; choose another school and you have another future.

Cineaste: Superman does not explore certain seemingly predominant or widespread social attitudes that perhaps negatively impact and limit many contemporary U.S. secondary and elementary students in the era of globalization, such as chauvinism, monolingualism, militarism, and a sense of entitlement. Were these sorts of social attitudes too broad an area to look at in your film?

Guggenheim: I think all those things are real, but I took a very pragmatic approach. I was making a movie about the kids. The kids don’t really care if their school is called a charter school or a regular school. They don’t care if one ideology is taught over another. They care that they have a great teacher, and a great principal, and that they get a chance at the American dream. All the ideology that all of us have, that you and I would debate and probably agree on a lot of, is important; but we have to get to the nuts and bolts of giving a kid a great school first. Often the ideology that you’ll find debated very fervently among adults becomes the thing that swings schools back and forth like a pendulum in the right and wrong directions, to the neglect of the simple fact that we need great teachers and great principals running a great school.

Cineaste: In one segment of your film young people at a sporting event are excitedly shouting, “We’re number one, we’re number one!” This slogan is one I identify with some young Americans’ feeling of a certain sense of entitlement. I did not detect that specifically in any of the five youngsters you highlight in Superman, but I wonder if you ran into this attitude with any of the other students that you considered?

Guggenheim: I can see a sense of entitlement in children that are given a great education and assume that everyone has it and that they deserve it. I don’t see entitlement in the kids in my movie because they are just looking for a good school. People who don’t have everything they need don’t feel entitled. People who have had everything feel entitled. I think it’s a disgusting trait. I see a sense of entitlement in my own children but my wife and I fight like hell to keep our kids from feeling this way.

Cineaste: Are you making any progress with your own children?

Guggenheim: [Laughs] Call me in fifteen years. You know, my mom’s from St. Louis and my dad’s from Cincinnati, so they taught me good Midwestern values. The question is: can I do that in Los Angeles?

Cineaste: The concerns voiced in Superman regarding deficiencies in U.S. education, such as those expressed by philanthropist Bill Gates, seem to overly focus on and privilege the areas of math, science, and engineering. Aren’t deficiencies in the social sciences and humanities just as important—for instance, the facts that so many U.S. public schools encourage monolingualism in the era of globalization and that many of them do not even bother to teach world history but rather focus almost exclusively on the history of the U.S. Empire?

Guggenheim: I completely agree with that. This movie could be easily misinterpreted. I use the math and reading scores as a very simple barometer for how kids in America are doing. It’s like taking someone’s temperature—it tells you whether they’ve got a fever or not, but it doesn’t tell you whether the whole body is healthy. I was a student who needed arts and needed to learn how to write and how to read and to learn about other cultures. I think our schools are very lacking in those areas. And this fad of going towards testing and standards and stuff—if you’re not careful, it becomes very regimented. If we’re not careful, we won’t teach the whole child. So I couldn’t agree more.

Cineaste: Superman places much of the blame for the educational crisis, it seems to us, squarely on the shoulders of the teachers’ unions, such as the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which is charged with blocking effective means to reward high achieving teachers and with encouraging the inappropriate persistence in the profession of ineffective teachers. But Superman does not clarify how many states even permit teachers’ unions to collectively bargain. Do so-called “right to work” states ban this activity? If so, are teachers in the so-called right to work states better teachers because they have no effective union representation?

Guggenheim: I can’t answer that. I read a little bit about it but I wouldn’t be qualified to talk about it.

However, it’s really important to hold that distinction between effective and ineffective teachers. Jonathan Alter says it in the movie: teachers are the solution. Great teachers are one of the reasons I’m here, that I became a productive person. You can’t go into a great school and not find great teachers. But there is no doubt that our system has been built to take care of the adults more than the kids. I decided to make this film as an advocate and a voice for the kids. Because my first film was very gentle and apolitical, I said I’m going to take my kids through this movie. All they want is a great school. So I’m going to call out the barriers that are in their way. Even if these things are uncomfortable and people don’t want to hear them. I’m going to be hard on all the adults and I’m going to start with myself—I drive my kids past three public schools and take them to a private school. But I’m also going to talk about the political parties and the lip service that politicians have given to this issue for too many years, and the donations that political parties give to certain campaigns, and if the teachers’ unions are part of it, I’m going to say that too.

I’m a member of a great union, the Directors’ Guild of America. I believe in unions. I believe there should always be a teachers’ union. There is no doubt that the teachers’ unions are doing an amazing job protecting teachers but not at saying what’s best for the kids. And if the film has to say that, and people don’t want to talk about these things because they’re uncomfortable or they’re politically untenable…well, if they don’t or can’t talk about it, then I have to. There is no doubt that these contracts have to change. Absolutely no doubt. These contracts have to change to allow more flexibility: to reward good teachers, to get rid of the small number of teachers who are not working, to have longer school days, to have better teaching practices. And then when you do that you also have to help teachers with this really difficult job.

Cineaste: When you say our system takes more care of adults than kids, I recall the Cuban child who some years ago during the Clinton Administration washed ashore off Florida, Elián González. The U.S. legal system didn’t seem to know very well how to deal with him. As I recall he filed—an adult relative did on his behalf—for U.S. citizenship at age five or six, for instance; and the courts had no idea what a child’s rights are. That’s astonishing to me as a lay person.

Guggenheim: Well, it’s the same thing, you know, in this issue. All the construct about adults and how that works. You’ll read all these debates, these fired-up debates. In this state, in Washington State, it’s all about charter schools. Charters are great; charters are terrible! And if truth be told, the debates are really not about how we can get a great teacher in front of the kids.

Cineaste: We understand that many state constitutions guarantee the children of citizens the right to a free education whose quality is mandated by law to be equal throughout the state. Yet in many of these states such guarantees seem to have little effect. Would you comment?

Guggenheim: Yeah, if I was a lawyer, I’d probably be fighting a legal battle because I think that the variety of education in front of our kids is a disgrace. There are some great schools, but in too many cases the education we provide is morally unacceptable. And economically unsustainable. We are not producing enough college grads to help America grow in the future. If I was a lawyer I would be fighting on that level; but I’m a filmmaker, so I tell a story to create enough outrage so people will change their schools.

Cineaste: Waiting for Superman identifies a need for eliminating incompetent or nonproductive teachers. The film also stresses the need for great teachers. Given the teaching profession’s generally low esteem in this country and the low salaries in many states, how can we get great teachers?

Guggenheim: It’s something we have to really focus on; we can’t just fight these political battles. We also have to find a way to recruit our best people to become teachers, help develop them, and then help keep them in the profession.

CineasteDo you have any practical advice, as a parent, on how to do that recruiting?

Guggenheim: Oh, I’m not an expert on recruiting great teachers. But I know that as a filmmaker my business is good people. I can’t make a good film without good people—a good editor, a good cinematographer. I need good people, talented, motivated, and educated. As a filmmaker, I have to pick my people and develop them. If I don’t have a good supply of people I can’t make good films. And I can’t make good films if I can’t choose my people, and that system in America is broken. We don’t have a good supply of people. We don’t have a good system of keeping good people, and we have people who aren’t good at a job but they stay—that’s why we are so dysfunctional. That’s an uncomfortable truth but it’s true.

Cineaste: We understand that you consider yourself an activist filmmaker. If so, how will you use this film to solve the crisis in public education?

Guggenheim: I’m an activist filmmaker in the sense that I want it to inspire action. I don’t want the film just to play to audiences that agree with it; I want it to help change the system. To me the film is a campaign to fix our schools. So, yes, I’m an activist.

Cineaste: Waiting for Superman examines the failures of conventional public schools and the successes of charter schools but has little to say about the success or failure of private schools. Would you comment?

Guggenheim: That’s the first time I’ve been asked that. I think that there are plenty of overrated private schools. And I think there are a lot of very successful mainstream schools. So it runs the gamut.

Cineaste: There’s a woman in the film, Bianca’s mother, writing a check for $500—that has to be for a private school?

Guggenheim: It’s a parochial school. That’s a whole different story in the sense that parochial schools, Catholic schools, have always been a really good and positive force in inner-city settings. I don’t know how it is in rural areas; but that may be the only alternative for poor, often black, families. So Bianca is going to a parochial school. The problem is that those schools are drying up; they’re going to shut down. I put that in the movie originally, but then took it out. There are 1,200 Catholic schools that will close in ten years.

Cineaste: I had no idea of this.

Guggenheim: It’s fascinating. So, “choice” is a very loaded word. If your local school isn’t good, and you want to go somewhere else but you can’t spend $30,000 on a traditional private school, then go to the parochial school, which is much less.

Cineaste: So presumably Bianca’s parents are not Catholic, but consider that the best school.

Guggenheim: Yes, and there is a long tradition of some of the best-educated African-Americans having had their grade-school education from a Catholic school. Really interesting.

Cineaste: Our final question—will your next documentary project examine the upcoming crisis in state-supported higher education, with many states, such as Idaho, funding every year less and less public higher education?

Guggenheim: Ah, I don’t know if my next film is going to be about that, but I like the challenge and I feel it. I think what makes America great is its promise that everyone gets a great education and the belief that a great education is a ticket to a piece of the American dream, whether you live in a rural area or an urban area. And when education works, it really works. You see the CEOs of great companies, you see great writers, great innovators, great artists, who came from nothing and they had a great education. We have got to keep delivering that, including in higher ed. More and more students are coming out of a four-year college a hundred thousand dollars in debt. It should not be like that. In California, my state, the funding is drying up. The budget for state schools in California was eight percent ten years ago and now it’s two percent. We have got to fix this situation.

Cineaste: Right. And then look at the budget figures for prisons, for instance.

Guggenheim: Actually, there’s a law in California which says, as Schwarzenegger (who I don’t love) put it, that we can’t spend more on prisons than on colleges. I mean, thatshouldbe a law?!

Cineaste: That’s a wonderful moment in your film when you look at how much a prisoner costs—and you’ve got some animation or something—and then you show that if we had just sent that person to private school at such and such a cost, how much society would have saved!

Guggenheim: I hope you don’t consider that segment a reenactment? [Laughs]

Dennis West Dennis West is a Contributing Editor at Cineaste and Professor Emeritus at the University of Idaho.

Joan M. West is a Professor Emerita (University of Idaho) still passionate about education.

Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.