Is Davis Guggenheim backing off from the largely one-dimensional picture presented in his potent critique of the nation's public schools?
In an interview with the new PBS show "Need to Know," Guggenheim takes a far more nuanced, and multifaceted, view that seems at odds with the one-dimensional argument of his documentary, "Waiting For Superman," which lays the blame for huge dropout rates on bad teachers and offers charter schools as virtually the only alternative.
It is impossible to watch the movie without becoming enraged at the plight of mostly poor, minority children who fall, or are pushed, through the cracks of dysfunctional or ineffective schools. Two of the five children profiled are from California: Emily, an eighth-grader from Redwood City, and Daisy, a fifth-grader from Los Angeles, both of whom struggle to get into a charter school.
But the movie fails to show that there are regular public schools that are doing exceptional work – like my own children's highly diverse schools in Berkeley, Calif.
The major thrust of the movie is that charter schools present the only educational model in America that works – despite pointing to research indicating that only 20 percent of charter schools result in outcomes superior to those of regular public schools.
The movie is also exceptionally one-sided in laying virtually the entire blame for the failure of poor and minority children on teachers unions.
But in the "Need to Know" interview, Guggenheim said that all he was trying to do was "start a conversation" on the tough issues facing our public education system and that he doesn't place all the blame on unions.
In fact, he said that he "spreads the blame."
He picks one unlikely target – himself and people like him who chose to send their children to private instead of public schools.
If I am going to fight for kids, I have to be tough on all the adults. I am going to bring up a bunch of taboos. The unions are one of them. I talk about unions, but I also talk about myself. I say how I betrayed the ideals I thought I lived by.
He also points the finger at his own political party, although it is not clear for what. "This is a Democratic Party that should be fighting for the little guy," he said.
In his documentary, he presents Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.5 million strong American Federation of Teachers, as a staunch defender of the status quo.
But in the PBS interview, Weingarten is presented in a very different light.
"Randi's been great," Guggenheim said, citing contracts either signed or being negotiated in New Haven, Baltimore and Colorado. "She has actually pushed her unions much further than unions have gone in the past. So I think she is a real agent for change."
"I don't believe that," he explained. "This is about how you make every school great and how do you find more great schools."
In fact, he says there are "great district schools."
He just didn't show any in his movie.