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Waiting For Superman director Davis Guggenheim on the public education problem

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

HH: A lot to do today. Future Ohio governor John Kasich will be joining me, Senator John Thune, Jon Chait of the New Republic, Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post, a lot to do. But I’m beginning this show today, this segment and next, by talking about an issue that will be here long after the elections, which is the collapse of inner city American education, and what to do about it. There is an amazing new movie which I’ve been talking about a lot on the program in theaters now, Waiting For Superman. And I’m pleased to welcome the director of the film, Davis Guggenheim, to the program. Davis, welcome, great to have you on.

DG: Thanks, Hugh, it’s great to be on your show.

HH: Now are you surprised by the reception given Waiting For Superman?

DG: Well yeah, I mean, it’s…public schools and schools in general are very loaded. People have strong feelings about it. And the film takes a pretty strong position. So yeah, but you know, most people really embrace it. They don’t agree with everything, but they really see the central message that we have to do better.

HH: What I’m surprised by, I moderated a town hall meeting Sunday with Rudy Giuliani and Meg Whitman, and a question came from the audience to Whitman about public schools, and she answered it by referencing your film, saying that she wanted everyone to see this movie and to act in response. It’s hard to penetrate the political debate with a documentary, Davis. That’s what I’m talking about. Is that unusual?

DG: Well, it’s very exciting. You know, it’s very exciting how many people have picked it up. We’ve had town halls like yours where you have a local school board member, or a superintendent, and it’s just gratifying, because what you really want is the conversation to go further, past the platitudes, past the promises, because the stakes are really high, it affects all of us, and we now know it works. So it’s all about regular people demanding better schools.

HH: We do know it works. I’m going to come back to that in a second. Today is also the day that Michelle Rhee, featuring prominently in Waiting For Superman, resigns from her chairmanship, her chancellorship, in Washington, D.C. Your reaction to that news, Davis?

DG: Well, it’s a shame. You know, she was really doing…I filmed a lot in D.C. when she was chancellor there, and she was doing a great job. And you know, city politics is a strange thing. I don’t understand it in my own city in Los Angeles. It just swings back and forth, and usually pushed by forces that have nothing to do with anything. But she really was doing great by the kids, and just because she moves, and the mayor changes, it doesn’t mean the kids in D.C. change. And you know, I hope that reform continues.

HH: Now you mentioned Los Angeles. I’ve been covering Los Angeles education for twenty years, through about a half dozen chancellors.

DG: Yes.

HH: All of them promised reform. All of them pledged to end the dance of the lemons, which you so beautifully illustrate in the movie Waiting For Superman, and nothing happens.

DG: Right.

HH: Is there any reason to believe anything’s going to change, Davis Guggenheim?

DG: Well, you know, Los Angeles is, and I live there, and you know, there are 750,000 kids there. And there’s some wonderful schools, some really wonderful schools. And every teacher, excuse me, in every school, there’s a wonderful teacher. And so I don’t want to just make this blanket statement, but I think that the city of Los Angeles has to change. And I think the school board has to change, the position of the unions have to change, the parents have to change. And that’s what the movie is about. People go see the movie, and they really realize what’s at stake. And it’s not just a problem with kids in poor neighborhoods. It’s now, what you see is that, and I document it in the movie, it’s suburban schools that people thought were good, where they’re just not serving every kid. And the movie is about pushing past the sort of getting people to move off their entrenched positions and actually doing what’s right for kids.

HH: Now the Redwood City scenes are very, very instructive, and I’m glad you included that. Otherwise, people would shrug and say not my problem, or pity those poor urban kids, and it’s not the case. It’s not what you’re doing.

DG: Exactly.

HH: But let’s stay focused for a moment on the unions.

DG: Sure.

HH: Because you’ve gotten some pushback.

DG: Yes.

HH: How much pushback from the teachers unions?

DG: Well, it’s interesting. You know, I come, I’m a Democrat. I’m a lefty. You know, I’m a member of a great union, the Directors Guild of America. So I actually believe that unions have a good and important place in society, and they should be there to protect their teachers. But I think when I made this movie, you see, I made a movie ten years ago about first year teachers. And in this one, I said if I’m going to make another movie on public education, I’m going to really have to get us all to face some of these hard things, some of these taboos. And if we don’t face them, we’ll never fix our schools. So I go after a lot of the adults in the movie, and I start, actually, the first adult that I go after is myself. I say you know, I’m part of the problem. But I do, I talked about the unions, and you know, I think that it’s pretty understood in a lot of schools that there are two big things that are keeping reform from happening on a school level. One are the district rules that come down from a centralized office. It’s certainly true in Los Angeles where you have this giant, centralized office on Beaudry, and they’re trying to set rules and regulations for 750,000 kids, you know, at many, many schools. And those rules really don’t help the schools. And the union contract is the other thing. These contracts are extremely restrictive, and they make it hard for teachers, for good teachers to do a good job. And they make it hard for principals, and the good principals, to run their school right. So that’s the purpose of the film, is to say okay, you know, I know it’s uncomfortable to face this idea of the unions being part of the problem, and the centralized bureaucracy as being part of the problem, but we’re not going to fix our schools unless we do that.

HH: No, it’s a Nixon in China moment, and you’ve got my friend, Jonathan Alter, in there saying you’ve got to be able to hold two propositions in your head. One is techers are wonderful, and the second is teacher unions are bad.

DG: Right.

HH: And it’s well joined. But let’s take it the next step. There’s a governor’s election underway in California right now, Davis.

DG: Right.

HH: I’m a conservative, you’re a liberal.

DG: Right.

HH: But Jerry Brown is supported by the teachers unions.

DG: Yeah.

HH: By the California Teachers Association. They’re pouring tens of millions of dollars into his campaign.

DG: Yeah, yeah.

HH: Do you think, if he wins, he’ll have any ability to take on reform?

DG: Well, I mean, first of all, you know, I don’t know who I’m voting for, and I don’t know what’s right. I mean, I think certainly, it’s no doubt that the amount of money that the teachers union puts into politics makes the system, it perverts the system. And I talk about it in the film. I talked, some of the other adults I go after in the film is the Democratic Party, and how much money it’s been taking over the years to do less than it should have over the years. So I think that’s a problem. In California, I don’t know. I mean, you know, the truth is that I really believe that the Obama administration, Arne Duncan, his secretary of education, are doing things that most Democrats wouldn’t have done in terms of raising charter caps, in terms of pushing merit pay, in terms of forcing states to talk with tenure. I think they’re doing an incredible job that really is pushing against the unions in a very diplomatic but also forceful way. So I hope that if, whoever is elected continues to do that.

HH: Okay, but let’s push past, as you said at the beginning of this, the platitude. There’s a choice in front of Californians right now.

DG: Right.

HH: Meg Whitman wants to increase charter schools. She is opposed by the teachers unions. Jerry has been around forever and is in their pocket. Davis Guggenheim, if you make a movie that calls for change, don’t you have to come out and say vote for Meg Whitman?

DG: Well, you know, it’s so funny, I’ve been traveling for the last five weeks everywhere but California, so I’ll confess to your listeners that when I get home tonight, actually, I’m going to start reading about all of it. but I would look very carefully at how much money Jerry Brown gets. I would lean in his direction just in terms of my politics, but I’m also open. And I would want him to, when he makes his decisions as governor, and when she makes her decision as governor, to put the kids first, and not put you know, put the people who give them money first. And that’s across not just a union thing, but everything.

HH: Well, I applaud your decision to go back and study the issue. But knowing what we know…

DG: Right.

HH: …and people are listening right now, Davis, what do you guess? Who do you think is better for the kids in these schools that need reforming right now? And if you can’t make that choice right now, doesn’t that just tell us that it’s a good movie, and that the people who are up on the barricades right now are going to step down?

DG: Well, I would say don’t take my, I’m not dodging it as much as I need to become better informed. I’ve been, I will confess to your viewers that I’ve been in a bubble trying to promote my movie for five weeks. I have, I get home tonight after a five week trip, and I’m going to start reading everything. I’m going to have an open mind about who I…

HH: All right.

DG: I really, it’s not about, it’s not going to be about Democrat or Republican, but I will tell you my vote will be who will do more for the kids of California.

HH: How are you going to figure out who that will be?

DG: Well, it’s interesting. I mean, I think there’s this riddle about money in education. And frankly, California is dismal in terms of how much it spends per student. And I think Californians have shown a real reluctance to pay for other people’s children. You know, they don’t want their taxes to go to schools that are across county, or you know, across their district lines. And I think that’s a shame. And I think we ought…I think in a big way, we have to commit to making sure that all the kids in California are our kids.

HH: When we come back from break…

DG: But so there’s a riddle about how much money you spend, but how much you do to fix the system that uses that money.

HH: When we come back from break, Davis Guggenheim and I are going to talk about what he identified in the course of Waiting For Superman that works, what you are looking for if you have a genuine reform agenda, if people are really talking the talk that will work. It’s not just money. In fact, arguably, it hasn’t even got anything to do with money.

– – – –

HH: I told you on Monday that the Fetching Mrs. Hewitt went and saw it and came out crying. I saw the screener and have been talking about it for the next four weeks. Davis, do the quick summary. What works?

DG: Well, it’s interesting. There is this feeling of like, that I think a lot of people, a lot of your viewers have, that you know, it’s been forty years, and it’s just too complicated. It’s too complex. We’ve tried, we’ve poured money into the system, and it just doesn’t work. And I can identify with that feeling, because you know, I talk about it in the movie. I pulled my kids out of the system, put them in private school. But there really is a revolution going on that’s popping up in cities all across the country. And it comes from teachers. The interesting thing is a lot of them are coming from this great organization called Teach for America. And now, in fact, Teach For America started in the 90s. I was here, I’m here in Colorado today, and Colorado just passed a bill, the state of Colorado, which no one could have imagined being passed, which totally rethinks tenure. You have to be an effective teacher for several years in order to get tenure. And if you stop being effective, you lose tenure. It also talks about rewarding the best teachers, giving…which will actually help to actually make teachers seem more professional and make them feel more professional, give them more prestige. And it talks about seniority. This first in and first out thing, which I think in California, we’re really suffering. I’m hearing stories in my neighborhood school about the best teachers having to go because of seniority. So it’s a groundbreaking law, and it’s sort of destroyed, it’s shattered some of these firewalls that people thought were up, that you could never change education. This is happening all around the country. It’s happening slower in California, unfortunately. But so what you’re seeing now are these insurgents, these high performing charter schools, some of these magnet schools, which are putting their emphasis on great teachers. They’re having longer school days and more school days, because you know, our kids just need more time learning algebra. They have this sort of philosophy which is high expectations and accountability, which is they hold students and teachers and principals to really high levels. And accountability meaning they say at the end of the year how are we doing? Who’s doing a great job? And if we’re not doing a great job, let’s work on it. And if we’re still not doing a great job, let’s remove the people who aren’t doing it. It’s what you would do in any great organization. And those people who are doing that are having fabulous results. And you see that in the movie. It’s actually a really exciting and hopeful time. The question is do we have the political will to make that happen? Do we have the leaders? That’s why I want to read more about Meg, and I want to read more about Jerry Brown. Who is going to say that they’re going to go in and break some eggs to get this thing done?

HH: There are books like Work Hard. Be Nice. by Jay Mathews, who features prominently in Waiting For Superman.

DG: Yes.

HH: There’s, great schools in Arizona, great charter schools across the United States. We know what works.

DG: Right.

HH: And I wonder if you’ve come to the conclusion at the end of this that there’s political gain in this agenda, Davis Guggenheim? Or if it’s just a season of attention, and Michelle Rhee’s gone, and it will slip back, and Jeffrey Canada is interesting, but he’ll slip back, just like it’s happened again and again. Why will this time be different?

DG: Because I mean, I have been in the revolution. I’ve met these people. I was with a group last night in Denver. I was with a group in Baltimore the other day. It’s inevitable. Now it may happen slower than everyone wants. I’m hoping it happens really fast. But once these families, Hugh, get the…I mean, I’ve seen it in Harlem, like these families. There has been great progress in Harlem, not just in Jeffrey Canada’s school. But once these families get the taste that it’s possible, they are going to demand more and more of it. And once you get teachers who will see that it’s possible, once you get principal leaders, it’s sort of inevitable. And the wave is pushing. The question is how far and how fast will this thing push? And I’m convinced it’s happening.

HH: You know, the interesting thing is I’ve been telling people to go to this, and I get so many emails that say that’s the guy who directed Inconvenient Truth. Why would be believe a lefty, West side filmmaker?

DG: (laughing)

HH: You’re on a national talk show that’s center-right by a lot. But why should they believe you, that you really do think this can happen?

DG: Well, it’s interesting. You know, I didn’t make, you would think that Inconvenient Truth was a very sort of lefty film. My approach to that film is to try to make that film reasonable to average people. I’m very, very frustrated by the polarity of the debate, or the sort of noise, the anger, especially right now. In Inconvenient Truth, I really, when I made that movie, I really tried to tone that movie towards, really, this is true, I picture a guy who voted for Bush who drove a pickup to the theater to watch the movie, and at first saying I don’t like that guy, Al Gore. But then as they watch the movie, warm up to the idea that the facts in the movie were pretty reasonable. And that’s what I did here. You know, I had to put down my sort of lefty credentials. I had to sort of take off this sort of shirt that you know, sort of metaphoric shirt like I’m a pro-union guy and I’m a Democrat guy. And I said let’s look at this with clear eyes. I think that’s the responsibility of a documentarian, is to put out there the truth as you see it. And you know, this is a very opinionated movie. It’s not trying to be balanced by any stretch. This is the way I see it. And you can watch the movie and draw the conclusion for yourself. I think a lot of people…the people I think who have criticized the movie are people who really haven’t seen it, or probably don’t want you to see it. But I think…

HH: Well, it’s the teachers unions.

DG: What’s that?

HH: I mean, the teachers unions have been blasting this movie. Every account I read, they’re mad at you for a one-sided portrayal, for not getting the whole picture out there. It must be getting a little bit old, but it certainly is increasing your credibility on the center-right.

DG: Well, I actually don’t even think about my credibility in the center-right. I kind of feel like the credibility that’s important to me is the guy sitting, or the woman sitting in the theater watching it. And you know, people are smart. When they watch a movie, you know, pretty soon, they go this doesn’t smell right. This is pushing me in a direction I don’t want to go. What’s, going back to the revolution, I think what’s exciting about, and what makes it feel so inevitable is that most of these guys who are doing incredible work are not politically or ideologically driven.

HH: Right. Absolutely.

DG: I call them pragmatists. They don’t care who’s in office. They just want change to happen. And in some of these cases, the fact that the Republican legislation, that you know, if their state capitol, I’m not going to tell you the state, but if it goes, if the Republicans take over, it’s good for them. So it’s not a lefty agenda, it’s not a righty agenda. It’s really about a bunch of pragmatists who have decided to put kids first, because they realize that these kids are our kids.

HH: Last question…

DG: Sure.

HH: …in terms of what your work is going to be, there’s this famous series of films, the Seven Up films, and I’ve interviewed their director, and of course, he’s a wonderful series of films. Do you think you’re going to be coming back? This is your second trip into public education. Do you think you’re going to be coming back to see what happened to these kids, and to these schools in a period of years, Davis Guggenheim?

DG: Well, that’s Michael Apted who made that incredible series.

HH: Right.

DG: I might. I mean, I’m so…you know, these five kids in my movie, I mean, they’re the heart of it. And you really feel like my God, what happens to Anthony and Daisy, these beautiful kids. And Daisy wants to be a doctor. And Anthony wants to make his grandmother proud. You know, you just want these kids to win. And so I think I will make another movie. I don’t know exactly what it is yet, but it is, to me, this is the most important issue of our time. If we don’t fix this, we’re screwed.

HH: We agree, and congratulations on bringing it in a way to many, many people so that they can see it. Please, America. Go see Waiting For Superman. You’ll find out what I’m talking about. Davis Guggenheim, thanks for joining me. Continued good success in getting the movie out there and people to see it.

End of interview.

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