Grading 'Waiting for Superman'
In Washington in August, I had coffee with a lanky 25-year-old Teach for America veteran named Dustin Thomas, who had ascended from teaching high school social studies to a district office job recruiting preschoolers for early intervention programs. Thomas, who founded the group Educators for Fenty, is exactly the sort of young, politically active education reformer teachers unions will need to engage to stay relevant. He grew up in Dallas, attended the University of Oklahoma and decided to pursue a career in education after a friend was killed in gun violence.
"The person who pulled the trigger could have used someone like my friend in his life," said Thomas, who sometimes sounds exactly like a committed union leader. "The amount of work that teachers put into bringing results for our kids is not represented in the picture of us," he complained. "The paycheck is not the motivation."
Yet Thomas became visibly uncomfortable when I brought up the Washington Teachers Union or teacher unionism in general. He avoided even saying the word "union," finally telling me, after a long pause, "I had some incredible veteran teachers around me. But we saw teachers in the school who were so far removed from making sure kids were learning, it was shocking. People are glad there's a process now."
Thomas was referring to Rhee's July dismissal of 241 teachers, which the union contested. The AFT spent more than $1 million in support of Fenty's opponent, City Council chair Vincent Gray, who ran on a platform of "one city," promising to push forward on school reform while working harder to collaborate with those angry about Rhee's teacher firings and school closings, and her perceived dismissive attitude toward the local black communities who were losing jobs and institutions. (A typical Rhee comment: "Collaboration and consensus building are quite frankly overrated in my mind.")
It's unclear now what will happen to Thomas's job working for Rhee, or whether the election results will lead him to reconsider his skeptical stance toward unions, which remain powerful across the country. Thomas's attitude is the kind that frustrates Alex Caputo-Pearl, an eighteen-year veteran of the Los Angeles public schools and member of Progressive Educators for Action (PEAC), which works for reform from within the United Teachers of Los Angeles.
In 1990 Caputo-Pearl graduated from Brown and became part of the first class of TFA recruits. Since then, his opinions on school reform have diverged significantly from those of TFA and many of its alums. He believes that teaching is a kind of community organizing and has worked with parents, for example, to bring more computers into high-poverty Crenshaw High School and to advocate for a more culturally relevant curriculum for students of color. (As a reward for his efforts, the district branded him a troublemaker in 2006 and transferred him to a school across town. Students and parents protested, and he was reinstated. Without tenure, he might have been fired.)
Caputo-Pearl sees unionization as key to this work. "What we're promoting is the idea that teachers unions need to become social justice unions," he says. "There certainly are parts of the union leadership and bureaucracy across the country that would argue the public schools are basically doing what they need to do right now and there's not a need for basic reform within the system, other than more funding. PEAC has never believed that is the case, especially in communities of color, and has been in the lead of trying to promote reform models, whether it be around small learning communities or around schools partnering with trusted outside organizations to have more autonomy."
For Caputo-Pearl, the Los Angeles Times teacher rankings are a distraction from what he calls "real school reform." "Data! There's a good term out there," he says with a laugh. "There are all sorts of problems with standardized tests, but that doesn't mean you don't look at them as one small tool to inform instruction. You do. The problem with value-added, on top of its severe lack of reliability and validity, is that if you use it in a high-stakes way where teachers are constantly thinking about it in relationship to their evaluations, you will smother a lot of the beautiful instincts that drive the inside of a school, with teachers talking to each other, collaborating and teaming up to support students."
That message is part of Weingarten's strategy for how to hit back against Waiting for Superman. She has been telling the press that teaching is more an art than a science, and quoting Einstein: "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." She's also planning a new proposal for fighting the high school dropout crisis and says she's going to "stay positive and focus on how you invest in kids."
Dennis van Roekel, Weingarten's counterpart at the NEA, is also worried about the documentary. His media strategy for the year is to launch a "commission on quality teaching" made up of "teachers of the year," he says. The idea is to amplify teachers' voices in debates about the future of the profession.
Ultimately, though, a new generation of educators, more and more of whom, like Dustin Thomas, have come up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed through alternative certification programs like TFA, will judge teachers unions on whether they share the commitment that motivates many of the best teachers to enter the profession: a drive toward eradicating the achievement gap. Unions will need to make the case through actions and words, not least because of a hostile media climate that stacks the deck against them.
"If teachers unions don't make a turn toward the social justice union model, along with fighting for more funding, it's going to mean not just a fundamental weakening of the union but frankly a real possibility of unions passing into history," says Caputo-Pearl. "It's a necessity to fight with and for a broad sector of society that includes teachers, but also the families and the kids we serve. Otherwise, unions, and more significantly, truly public, accessible and equitable education, will go out of existence."