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Davis Guggenheim: An Inconvenient Truth About Our Schools

The documentary director’s new “Waiting for Superman” on unions vs. non-unions, witch hunts and Obama’s push for charter schools

Davis Guggenheim and Lesley Chilcott are best known for their Oscar-winning documentary with Al Gore, “An Inconvenient Truth.” And last year, they brought us the memorable “It Might Get Loud,” a rock ‘n’ roll summit between Jimmy Page, the Edge and Jack White.

This season they’re back into the more serious issues, like those confronting our children in the classroom. “Waiting for Superman” takes a steely look at our nation’s public schools — and finds them wanting.

The teachers’ unions take a big hit in the movie. But who else is culpable?
DG: In the middle of production I had this crisis of conscience because when you’re making a movie about global warming it’s very easy to get mad at the oil companies. But when you go into this and you start finding out that some of the people who are causing the problems are people and things you believe very deeply in, you say, “Well, the Democratic Party hasn’t been so good on this.

And the unions — I was taught as a kid the unions are wonderful. So I believe in unions, but then you find out they’re not going to fix our schools.

There’s a lot of talk about evaluating teachers. How do you grade a teacher? There’s a new program in L.A. called Value Added –
LC: Value Added is a unique new strategy where you measure the kid against the kid. So if the kid had a poor teacher the previous year, you’re just measuring his progress from the beginning to the end of the year.

The important thing is, if we’re going to start evaluating teachers rigorously, as I think we should, then we also need better support for teachers in training.

With standardized tests, there’s the danger of teachers teaching just to the test –
DG: We’re not doing evaluations at all. But we need to do them – and we have to do them in a thoughtful way that’s not punitive, that’s not witch hunts for teachers.

Is tenure a point that the unions will consider bending on?
LC: It’s starting to happen. There are also some flexible programs where you can choose to give up part of the security of tenure in exchange for merit pay.

DG: There’s a new law in Colorado … to get tenure, you have to be an effective teacher for two years in a row. And if you’re not effective, you lose that tenure.

Is there a way around the unions? Can you just hire non-union faculty?
LC: The unions are key to solving the problem. The majority of teachers are in unions, and there are unions across the country that are very, very strong. And the unions have taken some very forward-thinking steps in the last six months.

DG: If you take a parallel to the movie business, when I moved to L.A. in the ‘90s, there were union films and non-union films, and I worked on both. The presence of the non-union film movement was actually very healthy. It makes the market really work out what is fair and what is not fair and be thoughtful about it.

LC: When you don’t have that, you have sort of a monolithic system — one union contract that’s unassailable, and if the union walks away, the school shuts down. A lot of teachers we talked to said, “My union doesn’t protect me. It’s in the state capitol fighting for all this policy stuff and giving money to politicians, it’s not protecting me.” That’s the result of this monolithic contract.

How exactly does a charter school operate?
LC: A charter is a public school that is funded publicly but works outside of the system and can accept outside funding. So it’s still a public school, but it’s not held to a lot of the same rules. It could be union or non-union in terms of teachers. So publicly funded but, generally, privately run.

The Obama administration seems keen on charter schools. Is this a good way to go nationally?
GD: There are only a few that are outperforming other schools, so I think you’ve gotta think of charters as an experiment in innovation. We went to a charter in New Orleans which was a business school — young boys in gold ties and suits learning business. Some charters are even religious, and they all have different kinds of philosophies.

You find out that over-performing charters are giving us the ingredients of what works. And the ingredients are pretty simple and they’re all pretty consistent: longer school days, higher expectations, pathways to college, a culture of success.

But they’re not this sort of silver bullet — it’s more like an incubator for good ideas.