In the run-up to its release, Waiting for “Superman”—which opens today at the Landmark E Street and Bethesda Row cinemas—has sparked an ongoing conversation about the state of public education in the United States. Its cast and crew have been profiled on Oprah and All Things Considered, the Newseum hosted a gala screening two weeks ago, and NBC News has devoted a considerable chunk of its airtime this week to the film and other education reformers in a package called “Education Nation.”
Waiting for “Superman” devotes considerable time to Michelle Rhee, whose future in the D.C. public school system is still to be determined after Vincent Gray’s defeat of Mayor Adrian Fenty in last month’s Democratic primary. Davis Guggenheim, the director of Waiting for “Superman”, paints the hard-charging Rhee as one of the documentary’s heroes in her attempts to fire underperforming teachers and go to war with the Washington Teachers Union over tenure and merit pay. If Guggenheim has a central thesis, it is that public schools need “great teachers” and reform-minded administrators like Rhee. We spoke by phone on Sept. 15, less than 24 hours after Fenty conceded to Gray and all but assured a change in leadership at D.C. Public Schools.
Washington City Paper: Your film showers a lot of praise on Michelle Rhee, but given Adrian Fenty’s defeat last night, it’s very likely that Rhee won’t be around much longer. Is it possible to reconcile the reforms that Rhee made with an incoming administration that promises to be more conciliatory toward teachers’ unions?
Davis Guggenheim: I know better than to discuss city politics, but I spent a lot of time in D.C. schools and I saw firsthand the effects she had on these schools. It’s transformative. I’m actually driving by her office right now.
CP: Was Rhee “Superman?” She says she doesn’t want to run another school district, so are you worried she might become another entry in the long list of hopeful educational reformers who were stopped short?
DG: I love how you’re lacing your questions with your opinions.
CP: I’m not. Is Rhee “Superman” or not?
DG: The title of the movie is going to be interpreted and is in the eye of the beholder. People will see the movie and figure out who is a “Superman” or “Superwoman.”
CP. I think everyone is going to consider the lottery sequence to be the emotional high point of your movie. When the prospective students are sitting in an audience waiting for their names to be called, what was going through those families’ heads?
DG: I didn’t know about the lottery. When I found out about it, to get their kid in a great school they need to enter a lottery, play bingo with their kids, I find that notion heartbreaking. And I find that un-American. The kids have big dreams like my kids do. You fall in love with these kids and you feel like they’re your kids. Your heart goes out to the winners and your heart goes out the losers. My heart shuttered just now when I said “loser” because there should be no losers.
Spoiler Alert: At this point in the interview, I asked Guggenheim for an on-the-record update on Anthony, the 5th-grade student who at the end of Waiting for “Superman” is accepted off the waitlist into the SEED School in Benning Ridge. Guggenheim demurred, insisting that answering this question would spoil the end of the movie. By the way, Snape killed Dumbledore.
CP: You keep saying during the film that the key to great education is great teachers, but let’s get specific. Assuming not all teachers are going to break off and start their own ventures like KIPP and that unions aren’t going away any time soon, what makes a great teacher?
DG: We’ve made it really complicated. We have to recruit from our best and brightest and we have to develop them and the ones that aren’t working we need to find them another line of work. Not every charter is doing a great job. Only one in five is doing spectacularly. We need to build more schools with great teachers, higher standards, longer hours, greater accountability. The problem is that we keep looking for the silver bullet. It’s not about whatever clever policy [is passed]. It’s about finding great people to build great schools.
CP: Back to Michelle Rhee. She was tremendously unpopular with teachers and parents alike, but now that Fenty is on his way out, what would you tell the incoming mayor?
DG: I would say just because the mayor changed doesn’t means the kids have changed. Those kids still need great schools and great teachers and they still need those reforms. I remember my mother talking about them being broken. That was in 1968. These schools have been broken for 40 years.