Geoffrey Canada; Davis Guggenheim

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Harlem Children Zone CEO and Oscar-winning filmmaker talk about the acclaimed documentary Waiting for Superman.

A pioneer in parenting and children's issues, Harlem Children's Zone CEO Geoffrey Canada is passionate about education reform. Davis Guggenheim is an award-winning director-producer of TV shows, features and documentaries, whose credits include the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth. The two met in '08, when Canada was fund-raising for the Children's Defense Fund, which he chairs. Two years later, Canada is one of the educators featured in Guggenheim's acclaimed documentary, Waiting for Superman, which sheds light on the U.S. public education crisis.


Tavis: Geoffrey Canada is the president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which has been hailed as a model for teaching students since its inception. He is at the center of a wonderful new project from Oscar-winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim called “Waiting for Superman.”
The film is a look at the state of public education in this country. Here now, a scene from “Waiting for Superman.”
Tavis: You guys have both been on the program. It’s an honor to have you both back. Geoffrey, good to see you again. Davis, good to see you again.
Geoffrey Canada: Tavis, always wonderful to be here.
Davis Guggenheim: Nice to be here.
Tavis: Glad to have you. Davis, let me start with you, to this clip that we just saw of our friend, Geoffrey. Of all the things that you could have named, could have called, titled this documentary, why “Waiting for Superman?”
Guggenheim: Well, I was going to say that I have some news to break to you. Your mom was wrong. (Laughter) Superman is real. She was looking in the wrong place. He might have been in the little boy she was talking to.
Tavis: Yeah.
Guggenheim: I’m not going to give away who the Supermen are in this movie, but it might be someone I’m looking at right now. He really – what Geoffrey has done in his neighborhood with those kids is not just helping those kids, but he’s broken through a system of beliefs.
We were just talking before the show that some kids in these neighborhoods believe that this is what you get, and that maybe I’m not smart, or maybe I’m not meant to have a great education, and Geoffrey has shattered that.
Tavis: I was saying, speaking – since you went there, let me follow you, Mr. Director. (Laughter) I was saying to Geoffrey and Davis before we came on camera here that I have a foundation that works with young people, as you know, on leadership development issues, and so every summer we have hundreds of kids from all across the country, every state, that comes to – they come to L.A., we take over the campus of UCLA and we just drill down, bear down with them on what it means to be a leader and how that process of being a leader starts now.
I’m not talking about college kids; I’m talking about 13 to 18. That’s the work we do every summer. It ain’t Harlem Children’s Zone, but it’s our way of trying to make an impact on these kids’ lives when it comes to this notion of leadership and what it means to love people and serve people starting at a very early age.
So I say all that because this summer the studio was kind enough, before this thing ever came out, to premiere this film privately for the kids, these 13 to 18-year-old kids at our foundation gathering, and I, Geoffrey, sat in the back of that room watching with the kids. I had not seen it either, so I was anxious to see it before you guys came on the show.
I sat in that auditorium with hundreds of kids 13 to 18, and I was blown away by the way they received this film. I wasn’t sure they were going to get it in the way they did, but this thing hit these kids – these kids, not adults – hit these young folk hard, and your producering partner –
Guggenheim: Lesley Chilcott.
Tavis: – Lesley was there, and these kids were bearing down on her afterwards with these serious questions about this. So I raise that, Geoffrey, to ask how much kids understand, to the point that Davis made a moment ago, that they really are being shortchanged. Do they get how shortchanged they are by this system?
Canada: Well, it’s such a great question, Tavis, because one of the things I’ve noticed is that our young people are looking around, trying to figure out, like, why is it like this and what chances do I really have and am I really smart?
Now, here’s something that a lot of us don’t think about, but you’ve got millions of young people who really are sitting now thinking, “I’m just not that smart because I’m not getting it, I’m not learning,” and they think it’s something wrong with them.
So they look at this film and they suddenly realize, “It’s not me. It’s not me. I’m okay.” When kids don’t believe they’re smart, they don’t work hard. They don’t try hard, because what’s the use of trying? “I’m not going to get it.” When you don’t say to young people that it’s my job to make you get it, that’s why I get paid, so I’m good so you’re going to get it.
When it is you didn’t learn it so you got the F, so you got left back, so you couldn’t pass the test because something – after years of that, what do you think happens to these kids? They start believing, well, something’s wrong with me and all my friends and everybody else I know, except for this tiny group of kids who seem to be doing okay, and we resent those kids because we don’t know why they’re doing okay and something’s wrong with us.
This is the first time most of those kids have looked at a system and said, “Maybe it’s the system and it’s not us,” and I’m sure it’s a revelation, because you know what’s going to happen after that? Then you get angry. Then you suddenly go, “Well, how did you guys let this happen to me? You knew all the time that it wasn’t me and all the time I thought it was me.” That’s what I think we’re facing here with young people.
Tavis: These kids in this auditorium, Geoffrey and Davis, they got angry and they got hurt. I don’t want to give too much of the movie away. Let me just say this is the most powerful documentary I have seen in years, maybe ever. It’s a powerful, powerful piece, and we’ll talk about the politics in a moment. There are people who don’t agree with what you put forward; we’ll come to that in a second here.
But whether one agrees or disagrees, likes or loathes the film, it’s a powerful piece in terms of getting the conversation going about education in this country. But the kids got, to your point, Geoffrey, they got hurt. They got angry first, and then they got hurt. Again, not giving too much away, the movie follows a number of kids and the journey that they’re on, that their parents are on, trying to see if they’re going to get into a school that does work.
They’re all stuck in these schools that aren’t working, and it follows a handful of kids, and what the process is of the journey they’re on, whether they get in or don’t get in. All these kids watching it at our foundation gathering are rooting – in the audience they’re rooting for these kids like they know them, so you did a great job making the connection with these kids.
But all these kids in this room are rooting for these kids on the film, hoping they get in, and when the movie progresses and you see that these kids, every one of them is caught up in a lottery system, your education is based upon whether or not they pull your number and you get into a school that actually works, Davis, it crushed these kids. These kids were crying in this auditorium.
Guggenheim: It crushed us as filmmakers, because we want all of them to get in. But they can’t, and we’re playing bingo with these kids’ futures. I think to me it’s people will criticize the movie for this or for that, but everyone, I think, will see the universality of that, that the kids and their families who are motivated, they want to learn, they want a great future, they should not have to play bingo to win a chance at a great education.
Tavis: Yet the flipside of that argument, Geoffrey, is that the critics of your film – I’m sure you’ve been seeing this stuff already – they say that the film is pro-charter and anti-union. So you’re attacking the teachers unions and you’re pro-charter, and they point to all the examples of the schools that you highlight in the film, many of them charter schools. So let’s talk about the criticism that it’s pro-charter and anti-union.
Canada: The movie states clearly that most charter schools aren’t working, but this is what you see in these charter schools – they are working, and they’re working with these very same kids, and the parents know they’re working, and the kids are going to be successful if they get into those schools.
So here’s the challenge for public education in America: Why, if we know something works, is it the exception and not the rule? These are public schools, these charter schools. So if they are doing something creative and different that’s working for poor children, and particularly poor children of color, why isn’t everybody embracing that? Why is everybody – why is the union saying, “Well, why are you highlighting charter schools? There’s public school money supporting – these are public schools.”
You know what they are? They’re public schools without unions. Now, let’s say what it is. If they were public schools with unions you would have no one saying, “Well, you’re highlighting charter schools.” Everybody would say, “Well, you highlighted some great schools.”
So part of this is the fact that people are upset because these particular schools don’t have unions and they’ve been allowed to innovate, and that’s one of the challenges we have in America. We have to innovate. Look, if something’s not working, Tavis, and these places – look, I grew up in the South Bronx. I started school in 1957. The schools were lousy in 1957, they’re still lousy today.
How is it we could have a system where schools could remain lousy for 50 years and yet you do exactly the same thing this year that they did 50 years ago when it didn’t work then, and no one feels any pressure to change?
Tavis: But every presidential election since you were a kid, Geoffrey, every president – you guys point it out in the film – every president has said that he wants to be the education president. So you tell me why it’s still lousy all the – is it a lack of will or a lack of skill?
Canada: Well, it is clearly a lack of will to really confront this issue, right? We have just not invested in innovation. We’ve really made sure that we’ve stifled innovation, and this is where the issue comes in with the teachers unions. People say, “Well, it’s anti-union.” It is not anti-union, it is pro-innovation. You’ve got to allow schools to innovate.
If it’s not working, let’s change some things. So what do they do? They do longer school days, they do longer school years, they hire the best teachers and get rid of the teachers who aren’t working well. This is not like revolution. This is not making somebody a bad guy. This is saying this is how you fix this system, so why aren’t we doing it for these poor kids. And when you ask that question –
Guggenheim: And you’re also talking to two lefties, okay? I’m assuming you’re a lefty; I’m a lefty. I’m a member of a great union, the Directors Guild of America. My family, that’s what we talk about at the dinner table. The moment when the workers organized in America was a wonderful thing, and I believe the teachers union should be around for a very long time.
They should make sure their workers get paid a lot of money and they should protect them from abuse, but they should not get in the way of reform. They should not be fighting in politics trying to keep charters down and keeping the school day shorter and protecting bad teachers, and that’s what we’re talking about.
It’s not pro this or anti this, and when you talk to these parents they don’t care if the school is called charter, they don’t care if the school’s called magnet, they don’t care if it’s a district school. They just want a great school.
Tavis: But back to Geoffrey’s point, Davis, it does – I know what Geoffrey meant, but let me just extend this – it does, though, create good guys and bad guys in the minds of parents. Case in point, Washington, D.C. Everybody’s talking about it for the last few days. Even if you don’t know what’s going on in D.C., this conversation’s all over the news.
Adrian Fenty, who was – still is, but was elected mayor of Washington, D.C. four years ago, we all know how bad the schools have been for years on end now in the nation’s capital, a shame, a disgrace on the nation that the schools could be so bad in the nation’s capital.
So Fenty gets elected mayor, Adrian Fenty appoints Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of the D.C. school system. She starts firing bad teachers, unqualified teachers, unproductive teachers, that’s her spin, that’s her statement, of course.
She starts firing these teachers left and right. She becomes enemy number one. Her life is threatened. She’s traveling with security in the nation’s capital. She’s the head of the school district and people are threatening her life because of changes she’s making in D.C.
Fenty loses the other day, Michelle Rhee, everybody thinks is on her way out. So whatever progress has been made in D.C., what happens now, and what does it say more broadly, Geoffrey, about education?
Canada: This is a great question.
Tavis: And how to reform it.
Canada: That’s a great question, Tavis, because the very people that you thought would have embraced the reform, right, were very upset. Let me tell you a little bit of what – and I can’t say exactly D.C. because I’m in Harlem, but let me tell you a little bit of what I’ve seen.
Our families have gotten so used to everything being taken from them, they have fought to try and integrate the schools, they haven’t seen that happen in lots of places, and here comes someone saying, “I’m going to fire teachers and I’m going to close the school,” and people aren’t aware that this isn’t a D.C. issue, it’s a national problem.
They think that it’s something about D.C. They don’t know the same issue they’re facing in D.C. the whole country is facing, so I guarantee you this – if those same parents would have seen this movie and if they understood this was a national problem, Michelle Rhee would not be the enemy. They would realize what she’s doing everybody should be doing across America, because they’re failing all of the kids that look like this in this country.
This is the other thing that’s happened, that in this discussion this is what people don’t realize. They allow the teachers to vote on a new contract, and they voted yes. The teachers actually wanted to do this. The teachers themselves. It wasn’t Michelle. They had them raise their hand and say, “Yes, I want this.”
So the very reforms we’re talking about, teachers embraced them when given a chance. It was an opportunity for teachers to really get something exciting and innovative that great teachers would rally around, and you know what? The teachers, because they’re teachers, they did the right thing for the children, which is what I think (unintelligible) called for.
Tavis: But Geoffrey, the politics on this – let me move now from – and you can’t disconnect these two things, but let me try for the sake of conversation here, to set aside the reform conversation for just a second with the politics, the cutthroat politics of education.
We talked earlier about the politics of what it takes to get a kid in a school. I have two of my best friends in L.A., Wren and Ann (sp) have kids who go to the best schools in this town. But through my friendship with them I’ve learned about the politics of what you have to do in this town to get your kids in these schools that are feeders to Ivy League – the politics are just mind-boggling for getting kids in on the front end.
But on the other side of the equation is the politics of the issue itself, so that Fenty thought he was doing the right thing; he brings in Michelle Rhee; all hell breaks loose as the film lays out. Since the film has been done, as I said earlier, Fenty loses. Nobody thinks Michelle Rhee’s going to stick around.
Let’s call a spade a spade – Fenty called President Obama, who’s been pushing this Race to the Top program, giving out money, Arne Duncan, education secretary, Fenty calls Obama, and if the papers are correct, Obama didn’t return the phone call. He doesn’t go campaign for the guy in Washington, Fenty loses. Don’t tell me there ain’t politics on this that cut every which way.
Canada: Well, see now – and I don’t know about the issue with Fenty and the president –
Tavis: I’m just saying what’s reported in the news, exactly.
Canada: So that could happen, but look, this is big politics. Let’s not pretend that there are not a whole bunch of folk who are organized, teachers unions, with money, who don’t want to see this happen. They don’t want to see Race to the Top happen and they don’t want to see this movie be successful. It’s not the individual teachers, but it is big politics for real.
Guggenheim: They don’t want to see Fenty have a second term.
Canada: This is how when I said the system has remained this way for 50 years, this is why. This is why. Now, what do you think – if the message America gets is you try and save those poor Black kids and you’re going to lose your job, if people accept that and every mayor and every governor runs on that, Black kids will never get an education in this country. Someone’s got to stand up and say, “I’m going to do the right thing.”
Tavis: That’s my point, though, Geoffrey. I’m just taking this a step further. If the Obama administration is pushing this issue, and when one of their guys stands up on the right side of this issue as you all see it and Michelle Rhee stands up on the right side and the White House doesn’t come through to campaign for them to help them get reelected, what are we talking about here?
Guggenheim: Let me say one thing. I made a documentary 10 years ago about public school teachers, and when they went to class every day they did a beautiful job. But outside the walls of their classroom you could feel the system crushing on them.
There was a centralized bureaucracy, there was a union question and there was the politicians coming in, riding in, giving lip service, and riding away. I said, “Let’s make a movie that has nothing to do with the politics. Let the politics be over there. I’m making this movie for mothers and fathers that want a great school for their kid, and if the movie works and people gather around the movie, screw the politicians.”
This is not for them. This isn’t for Obama, this isn’t for Bush. This is for families, and if families see this movie like the kids in your program see the movie, they start to demand that the system changes. That’s what happened on “Inconvenient Truth.” Before “Inconvenient Truth” there was a controversy – maybe it’s real, maybe it’s not.
People saw the movie, they go, “Guys, this is what we want.” They don’t want the politicians screaming at each other. They don’t want – they just want great schools. They don’t care who the president is, they don’t care – and the politics is what makes them so frustrated.
They want people rolling up their sleeves like Geoffrey does and making great schools. It’s not as hard as the politicians make it.
Tavis: But some of this, though, Geoffrey – you came out of the classroom. Before you were running a school, you were a teacher. Some of this to me – I think words have meaning. I think language is important. I want to be frank about this. This term “Race to the Top,” which is this administration’s approach to this, this term Race to the Top disturbs me.
One, education, pardon my English, ain’t a race. It’s not a race, it’s a guarantee. Every kid in this country ought to have access to an equal, high quality education. The very notion of a race to the top means by definition that somebody’s going to win and somebody’s going to lose, if it’s a race.
I don’t understand how we’re going about solving the problem starting with the language and the process itself.
Canada: Just so I’m transparent on this issue, the president has put in Race to the Top everything that I wanted to have happen to try and shake this system up, and they put enough money in here to actually move states. Now, I’ve been doing education reform for 28 years in New York. I’ve never seen any federal program have the kind of impact where states raise their hands and say, “Oh, let me sign up and do these four or five things” the way Race to the Top did.
I think it was a smart strategy, I think it’s actually having an impact, and I think we’re going to continue to see these states and cities grapple with how you bring innovation in. While people may be upset with the language and so many other issues, using enough money in education against states who have no interest at all in doing the right thing for these kids to say, “I’ll do it” I think was actually a pretty brilliant move.
So I’ve really supported the president and Arne in the Race to the Top and I know a lot of people in Congress hate this because the teachers union want to see it out because it calls for charter schools, closing lousy schools, using data, all the stuff that I think is important, I think you have to do to win Race to the Top.
Guggenheim: It upsets the status quo that when you hear people arguing about this, what are they really saying? “We want the status quo to stay the same.” Everyone – all the adults are happy. That’s what Michelle Rhee says, is that this whole system is built for harmony amongst adults.
So when they complain about this and they talk about the politics, it’s so the status quo stays the same. The adults are doing okay. It’s the kids who are being screwed, and we’re in such a situation – you always talk about the house being on fire – the house is on fire. If we don’t make radical changes and push the status quo we will never fix our schools.
Tavis: I’m not arguing with that premise. I wanted to press on this to get exactly what I wanted, which is Geoffrey to offer his transparency about where he stands on this issue, which I appreciate.
What’s fascinating for me about this, looking at the back story on how this project got made, is that as powerful as this thing is and all the conversation it’s kicked up in this country already because of the success of the film, you initially said no to doing this, and when you went to Geoffrey, Geoffrey said no. (Laughter) So here we are now with this great documentary where both of y’all said no. It almost didn’t happen.
Canada: We’re happy to say today we were wrong.
Guggenheim: We were wrong. We were both wrong.
Tavis: So very quickly, why did you say no, Davis?
Guggenheim: Well, he was too busy. He was like, “Oh, no.” (Laughter) I said, “I’d really like to interview you.” “No, well, I’m – I’ve got a lot of (unintelligible).”
Tavis: But you said no too, though.
Guggenheim: “American Express is doing a thing on me, I’m busy.” (Laughter)
Tavis: But why did you say no initially?
Guggenheim: I’d done a movie 10 years ago about these public school teachers which was close to my heart, and I also felt like it’s a storytelling quagmire. It’s so complicated. How do you cut through it? It’s funny, I said no in August; in September I was getting my kids ready for school.
That’s a scene, you’ll see it when you see the movie, it’s a scene where what every parent does. We pack the lunch, we get their backpacks ready, get their shoes, but what you’re really doing is saying, “I’m getting ready to drop my kids off and take this leap of faith.”
We all, when we take our kids to school, take this leap of faith – who’s going to teach our kids? I had this feeling like my kids are going to be okay, but as I drove them to school I would watch the schools that I pass. I drive by three public schools, and I go, “What about the kids in my neighborhood? I’m not in the slums, but the kids in my neighborhood are not getting what my kids are getting.
“What if I make a film that makes people care and fight for other people’s children the way we fight for our own?” That was the premise of it, and I go, “I don’t know how to do it, but I have to do it.” That was the thing.
Tavis: I’ve got a minute to go here Geoffrey. I want to give you the last word because Davis raises something now that still unsettles me, and that is whether or not this problem is so big, so complex, so far gone – there are people – we’re in the middle of a campaign right now, some folks say California is just ungovernable.
The state is too big, the problems are too massive, the state ought to be chopped up. It’s too ungovernable. Is this problem so big that it is unfixable, the fight unwinnable?
Canada: Tavis, this is the deal that I learned and why I’m so happy I did this movie. We do more around the environment – if you think of all the things we do different now because we believe in – how much recycling is going on. We haven’t done anything on education. We haven’t tried one thing. We care more about the environment than we do about those poor kids who aren’t getting an education and it’s because we don’t know.
So it’s not like we’ve tried and we’ve failed; we haven’t tried. There’s been no innovation. We haven’t allowed it to happen. That’s what this movie calls for. Let’s go out, let’s innovate, let’s recycle, let’s come up with some new ideas.
Look, Wal-Mart had everybody buying things in the store because they saw this movie. It changed our behavior. Tomorrow, when kids go to school, they’re going to do exactly the same thing they were doing 50 years ago. That we have to stop. We’ve got to make sure this is a crisis and America responds, and all of us have to say, “No more of this. We’re going to make sure these kids learn.”
Guggenheim: He’s also, Tavis, Geoffrey and some of the other high-performing charters have proven that it’s possible. There’s a lot of people in the world who say, “Those kids can’t learn.” Or, “Oh, those parents over there, they don’t care.” Or, “They cost too much money,” or “It doest affect me.” These guys, what Geoffrey has done in his neighborhood has proven, has broke – I call it breaking the sound barrier. He’s proven that you can teach these kids and bring them to college.
Tavis: Davis Guggenheim is a wonderful filmmaker, an Academy Award winner, in fact. His new project is this: “Waiting for Superman.” Geoffrey Canada, educator extraordinaire; none greater in the country better than Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone.
I’m honored to have you both on the program. If you don’t see but one documentary this year, make it “Waiting for Superman.” Good to have you guys on the program.
Guggenheim: Thank you, Tavis.
Canada: Thanks, Tavis. Great to be here.
Tavis: My pleasure.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm