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DAVID GREENE, host:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Im David Greene.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And Im Robert Siegel.

What would it take to turn our failing schools around, to give every kid in America a great education? Well, thats the question behind the new documentary "Waiting for Superman." It's directed by Davis Guggenheim, who won an Oscar for his film with Al Gore about global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth."

My co-host, Melissa Block, talked with Guggenheim about his new project.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The movie focuses on five kids. All but one are black or Hispanic, from the inner city, trying to get into charter schools. Their fate hinges on pure luck - a lottery.

(Soundbite of machinery)

BLOCK: Their future spinning out of a bingo wheel, or a number plucked from a box.

Unidentified Man #1: And the first student selected: 20.

(Soundbite of cheering)

BLOCK: And at the beginning of the film, we see the director, Davis Guggenheim, driving his children to private school in L.A., driving right by three public schools - as he says: betraying the ideals I thought I lived by.

Mr. DAVIS GUGGENHEIM (Director, "Waiting for Superman"): It's so interesting, when you're a parent, you have these big ideals. Before I had kids, you imagine this sort of egalitarian society. You project this perfect world on the path you're going to set for your kids. And then when it's time to choose a school, it's very different. It becomes very practical: Here are the options, Im going to get them the very best no matter what I have to do. And that instinct must be very - sort of animalistic. You're going to protect your kid, no matter what.

That instinct has helped people's own kids, but it hasnt helped the system. So people like me pull their kids out of the system, and they drive by. Thats the analogy for me and my friends, which is that we have to stop driving by. You can't abandon your local school.

BLOCK: I want to ask you about one of the kids in the movie. This is the one who really grabbed my heart. This is Daisy.

Mr. GUGGENHEIM: Right.

BLOCK: She's a fifth grader who lives in East L.A.

DAISY: I want to be a nurse. I want to be doctor.

Unidentified Man #2: How come?

DAISY: Because I would like to help somebody in need.

BLOCK: Tell me a bit about Daisy. She's got - pretty tough background, but she's got dreams.

Mr. GUGGENHEIM: She's got dreams. Sometimes you say - a kid, I want to be an astronaut. Oh, yeah, right, kid. You're never going to be an astronaut. You actually think Daisy could be a doctor. She's already written her - a college to say: Remember me 'cause I'm going to be applying.

And her father drives a truck, and her mother cleans hospital rooms. But they all believe that with hard work, she can be a doctor. I asked her dad, do you think she can be a doctor? It's like - he goes, yeah, I believe.

And so what we did with this movie, we actually break down what the chances are of her reaching her dream. We show the school that she's going to go to next year, if she doesnt win the lottery. By the time she graduates eighth grade, less than 13 percent of her classmates will be proficient in math. Now, proficient is like a low bar.

The next high school that she's going to go to, a very, very small percentage of her classmates will even have the credits to go to a four-year college. It's technically possible, but when you put that in front of her, you realize that it's really, really hard, and it's stacked against her.

Now, the alternative - the parents found this great school a couple miles away, called Camp L.A. Prep.

BLOCK: A charter school.

Mr. GUGGENHEIM: A charter school. This little school is going to put more than 90 percent of its graduates to college. It's binary. She's goes to this school, she's got a great shot. She goes to this school, she doesnt have a great shot. Thats the, you know...

BLOCK: Thats the choice right there.

Mr. GUGGENHEIM: Thats the choice right there.

BLOCK: You have scenes of Daisy with her parents, and they're going to the lottery, where she'll learn whether or not she gets into the school. And is it her dad who says, cross your fingers?

Mr. GUGGENHEIM: Yes.

BLOCK: And she's crossing her fingers so tight you think she'll never let them go.

Mr. GUGGENHEIM: She's crossing her fingers. He says: Cross your fingers, Daisy; I have a good feeling about this. And you see her cross her fingers in the car. And then the whole time in the lottery, she's sitting there waiting for that guy to pull the names out of the box. You see her crossing her fingers. You know, for two hours, this little girl is crossing her fingers, praying that she gets into this school.

BLOCK: Youve heard the criticism coming from folk within education - and teachers and unions - that the film really focuses too much on charter schools...

Mr. GUGGENHEIM: Right.

BLOCK: ...which are a really, tiny subset of what happens in public education. If you really wanted to tell the story of public education, why not look at where the vast majority of kids are - which is in public schools, some of which are doing great things?

Mr. GUGGENHEIM: Right. Well, we are...

BLOCK: Is that just not as dramatic a story, do you think?

Mr. GUGGENHEIM: No, no, no, that was not my intention. It's important for people to understand that charters are not the silver bullet. Charters are an experiment, in a lot of ways. And it's a very new experiment. But out of this experiment has come these high-performing charters. And now there are a bunch of them: the KIPP schools, Aspire, Yes, Geoffrey Canada's schools, where they're proving that it's not as hard as we've made it.

BLOCK: Well, the folks whove studied that question for many, many years -longer than you have - would say, well, it's really hard to take that and bring it to scale, when you're talking about a system thats dealing not with hundreds of children, but with millions of children.

Mr. GUGGENHEIM: Well, that what they said about the KIPP schools. You know, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin started the KIPP schools in Houston. They had one in Houston, one in the Bronx. The experts grumbled, and this is what they do. They say - you know - oh, they're just two great people and, you know, they just defy the odds because they're just so charismatic.

Now, they have more than 90 KIPP schools. And KIPP L.A. Prep, the one where Daisy would go to, doesnt have these charismatic leaders. They have a structure that makes these schools work: longer school days, more school days, accountability, great teachers, a constant hammering that these kids look as a goal to go to college. And when you walk into these schools, it's the difference between night and day.

Let's be clear: Charters will never be big enough to educate every kid. But we can learn from them. They're like incubators; we can take those ideas, and pull them into mainstream schools. But we're never going to do that unless we look at some of the big, uncomfortable truths about our schools.

BLOCK: What would it take for you to feel comfortable, do you think, sending your kids to those public schools in L.A. that you're driving by every day? Any chance of that happening?

Mr. GUGGENHEIM: Im working on it. And it's actually our dream. We have a 4-year-old, so we have one more year before she's ready. It's our dream that we can hold her hand and walk down the two blocks to the school, and walk in and send her to the school. Because to me, thats part of being a great citizen. And thats part of having a great neighborhood - is when your school works for everybody.

BLOCK: You know that people listening to that would say, you're part of the problem.

Mr. GUGGENHEIM: Right.

BLOCK: I mean, unless we have parents like you committed to the public schools, working in the public schools, and kids like yours there, they may not get better.

Mr. GUGGENHEIM: I have been part of the problem. A lot of us in L.A. - and certainly in Washington, D.C., where I grew up - people do what they have to for their kids when the schools are broken. And you can't blame parents for that. But thats not enough. I think you have to continue - even if youve done whats best for your kids, you have to continue to help your local schools.

So thats what my wife and I are doing now - is, we have an active relationship with the school and the principal. And we are helping out. We're being good neighbors to that school.

BLOCK: In the time that you spent in classrooms, did you end up thinking: I now know what makes a great teacher?

Mr. GUGGENHEIM: You can always bring it back to the simple thing - is that a great education starts with a great teacher. It's true with my kids, like when we were all on pins and needles, finding out which teachers my kids got. And my daughter got the one - she want, we were all high-fiving each other. And I think parents know that intrinsically.

This is the person standing in front of the kids every day, and thats what the -sort of core message. I say it in the movie: We can't have great schools without great teachers. What a great teacher is, is a really complicated thing. But you know it when you see it.

BLOCK: Davis Guggenheim - his movie is called "Waiting for Superman." Thanks for coming in.

Mr. GUGGENHEIM: Thanks, Melissa. It's great to be here.

BLOCK: And now to someone who works on that complicated formula of what makes a great teacher. Steven Farr is with Teach for America. Thats the organization that places top college graduates in urban and rural schools around the country.

Farr's title is chief knowledge officer. And his mission is to find patterns among the best teachers to decode what makes a great teacher great. Steven Farr, welcome to the program.

Mr. STEVEN FARR (Chief Knowledge Officer, Teach for America): Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: And youve gone from classroom to classroom, watching teachers, figuring out what it is they do, looking at case studies. One thing you found that they share is that they set ambitious goals for their kids. What would you say is an example of what one of those high goals would be?

Mr. FARR: Sure. I was in a classroom in Atlanta once. And the teacher had rallied her students around the idea - they were first-graders - they were going to read, write and do math like third-graders by the end of the year. And these kids were excited about it.

Or another teacher I visited just this spring - a teacher named Maurice Thomas, who is teaching high school. And you walk into his room and there on the wall, it says: All of us will be accepted to a four-year university; the lucky ones to Wisconsin. Maurice is a rabid Badger fan.

BLOCK: Yeah, I figured.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FARR: But he set an ambitious goal, just like any strong leader does in any challenging context. And the fact that he set that goal helped make it happen. And as I was there, Maurice pulled out this folded sheet of paper, where he had the names of his 55 students. And at that time, in the spring, 52 of his 55 students had been accepted to four-year universities. And this is in a context where most of them were not on a path to go to college before he came into their lives.

BLOCK: Do you think - as much time as youve spent watching teachers, looking at what they do - is there a common thread of just, excitement and energy? Or could you have a very low-key but high-performing teacher, someone who you wouldnt walk in and instinctively say, wow, thats a great teacher?

Mr. FARR: You know, it is fascinating. I think, just my own learning curve here. I think I came into this work almost 10 years ago with that assumption in mind - that great teaching has something to do with the fire and brimstone and charisma, and all of the drama.

But when we define great teaching not as what the teacher does but as how much students are learning, and the impact a teacher is having in children's lives, there is not one style or personality that predicts an effective teacher. And I absolutely could take you to teachers' classrooms where there's not much drama.

There are soft-spoken leaders in the classroom who nonetheless are setting ambitious goals, and having just as dramatic impact as those teachers who are, you know, running around the room in costumes.

BLOCK: What do you think the intersection is between being a good teacher and a good disciplinarian? Are those very similar skills, do you think? I was looking at one of your case studies, and you talk about a teacher in New York who early on, had to break up 11 fights in a single day.

Mr. FARR: The way that I've come to think about discipline is that it's inextricably connected to the learning in the classroom. That is, the most effective teachers think about discipline beyond rules and consequences -although that's very important.

What they're aiming for is a room where all the students are so invested in wanting to learn, they're monitoring themselves. And I had this wonderful experience in Houston one time, where there was a fifth-grade girl. She was doing some work in this classroom with an amazing teacher. And I crouched down by the girl and I asked her: Could you just tell me a little bit about what you're learning?

And she said: You know, could you ask me later? I'm kind of busy. And I just think these teachers, they are convincing their kids that they can and want to learn.

BLOCK: She just didn't have time for you.

Mr. FARR: No, it was fantastic. I loved it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: What about the burnout factor? I mean, the things that seem to be most effective that you talk about are taking a lot of extra time, working with kids after school, taking phone calls at night, maybe. It could be a really unsustainable life - often for not very much pay. How do you retain the highly motivated teachers that you might have?

Mr. FARR: Yeah, honestly, it's something I worry about a lot. I think that we do see a growing number of these highly effective teachers figuring out ways to make it sustainable. But we simply cannot solve the problem of educational inequity by expecting 3 million teachers to be working like the most heroic of our teachers are working right now.

You know, the way that I've come to think about it is that these teachers are showing us what is necessary to change children's life paths. And now that they are showing us that, we need to change the systems around them so that they can do what it takes, but it's easier and more sustainable.

BLOCK: Steven Farr, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. FARR: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Steven Farr - he has the great title of chief knowledge officer with Teach for America. He's author of the book "Teaching as Leadership."

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