Grading 'Waiting for Superman'
In the Waiting for Superman companion book, Guggenheim writes about his struggle, as a lifelong liberal, over how to present teachers unions in the film. "Their role in education is not a black-and-white one," he admits. "I've gotten to know union leaders who I think understand that the reforms we need will mean some serious adjustments on the part of their members, and that we need to rethink the rigid systems we've gotten locked into since the New Deal era. At the same time, these progressive union leaders can't get too far ahead of their members. And they understandably don't want to give aid and comfort to some politicians who are in fact anti-worker and are at least as interested in undermining the power of labor as they are in improving our schools."
The movie, though, does not attempt any such balancing act. It presents Rhee as a heroine whose hands are tied by the union. Yet in April, after Rhee's administration finally collaborated with education experts and the union to create a new, detailed teacher evaluation system tied to the district's curriculum, the Washington Teachers Union and AFT agreed to a contract that includes many of Rhee's priorities, including her merit-pay plan and an unprecedented weakening of tenure protections.
The film doesn't acknowledge that Bill Gates, who began his philanthropic career deeply skeptical of teachers unions, has lately embraced them as essential players in the fight for school improvement. His foundation finances a program in Boston called Turnaround Teacher Teams, which works with the district and its teachers union to move cohorts of experienced, highly rated instructors into high-needs schools, while giving them extra training and support.
In July Gates spoke at the American Federation of Teachers convention in Seattle, saying, "If reforms aren't shaped by teachers' knowledge and experience, they're not going to succeed." A few protesters booed, but he received several standing ovations. Members of the Gates Foundation staff later met with AFT executives, and the two teams discussed ways to collaborate, despite lingering differences on issues like teacher pensions.
When I spoke with Weingarten in late August at her office on Capitol Hill, she was livid about Waiting for Superman, referring to its charter school triumphalism as an example of "magic dust." "There's always pressure to find the one thing that's going to be the shortcut," she said. But she was ecstatic about improved relations with Gates and angry that, in her view, the mainstream media have ignored the news of their rapprochement. "The media want conflict," she said. "They don't let us tell our story."
Younger teachers are often the driving force behind union-backed reforms. In Denver in 2008, a group of them launched Denver Teachers for Change, which grew into a 350-member coalition dedicated to supporting performance pay and other student achievement–focused reforms while preserving organized labor's voice at the negotiating table. In Colorado earlier this year, the AFT state affiliate signed on to the state's Race to the Top application, which promised to make student achievement data count for up to 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation score, potentially totally reforming the process by which tenure is granted.
In Memphis the teachers union has worked alongside the New Teacher Project to move some of the best teachers into the highest-poverty schools. The Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers agreed to a performance-pay system for all new hires and to adding a year to the tenure-granting process. In the small city of Evansville, Indiana, the local affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA) worked with the superintendent to craft a turnaround model for three low-performing schools that includes a longer school year and a professional development academy for teachers working with high-poverty kids.
Weingarten admits that because systemic school reform is often about boring topics such as the scalability and sustainability of success in a field "littered with pilot programs," it can be difficult to add complexity to the media war over teaching. "We've never figured out how to tell that story in a compelling way," she says.
The unions are also hurt by public frustration with teacher tenure, a level of job security inconceivable to most American workers, who are barely hanging on during a recession with a nearly 10 percent unemployment rate.
"Only 7 percent of American workers are in unions," Weingarten says, adding matter-of-factly, "America looks at us as islands of privilege."
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It's true that nobody loves a good fight more than a journalist; after all, a story with a bad guy is much more interesting than one in which it is unclear exactly whom to blame for what went wrong.
Perhaps the writer most associated with the teachers-unions-as-villains narrative is Brill, the Court TV founder cum promoter of micropayments for online news. In August 2009 The New Yorker published Brill's report on New York City's "rubber rooms," an exposé focused on the one-twentieth of 1 percent of the district's 80,000 public school teachers (about forty people) who had been removed from the classroom because of gross negligence, such as failing to teach at all or verbally harassing students. Nevertheless, because these teachers had been granted tenure by the district, their contracts—negotiated between the Education Department and their union, the United Federation of Teachers—entitled them to a full salary until a due process hearing determined whether they would be fired or reassigned. While they awaited hearings, sometimes for as long as three years, the UFT portrayed some rubber room teachers as innocent victims of "seniority purges," ignoring evidence of incompetence including, in one case, alcohol abuse. (Many teachers, it turns out, are opposed to such efforts. According to a 2003 Public Agenda poll, 47 percent of them believe "the union sometimes fights to protect teachers who really should be out of the classroom.")
In part because of the outcry generated by the New Yorker piece among the city's elite—many of whom do not send their children to public schools and are ignorant of the system's inner workings—the Education Department and the UFT have phased out rubber rooms.
Brill's crusade continued in a May New York Times Magazine feature called "The Teachers' Unions' Last Stand," which praised the Obama administration's attempt to tie teacher evaluations to children's standardized test scores, a policy the UFT opposed until recently. In one section of the article, Brill visits the building on 118th Street in Harlem that houses both PS 149 and the Harlem Success Academy, a charter school known for its tough discipline, rigid test prep and high scores. He praises the charter school's longer day, uniforms and involved teachers, and criticizes the public school for showing students a film during the school day and providing its employees with a more generous pension plan.
Neither article contains a single scene set in a competently managed public school classroom, nor a single interview with a respected, effective public or charter school teacher who appreciates his or her union representation. (There are many such people. A 2007 poll of teachers conducted by the think tank Education Sector found that only 11 percent believed a union was "something you could do without." A March 2010 Gates Foundation/Scholastic poll of 40,000 teachers found that on issues such as evaluation, pay and benefits, most are roughly in line with their unions.) Brill portrays the UFT as almost the sole force preventing Mayor Michael Bloomberg and schools chancellor Joel Klein from transforming the city's public schools, ignoring issues like segregation and poverty, as well as evidence that the higher graduation rates and test scores the Education Department advertises are the result of lower standards, narrowed curriculums and massaged data.
Brill is working on a book about education reform, to be published by Simon and Schuster. His first book, Teamsters, was released in 1978 and told the story of internal corruption and reform within that union.
Despite their one-sidedness, the influential Brill pieces, followed by the much-hyped release of Waiting for Superman, present a public relations crisis for the two national teachers unions, the AFT and the larger NEA, which has 3.2 million members.