Grading 'Waiting for Superman'
Here's what you see in Waiting for Superman, the new documentary that celebrates the charter school movement while blaming teachers unions for much of what ails American education: working- and middle-class parents desperate to get their charming, healthy, well-behaved children into successful public charter schools.
Here's what you don't see: the four out of five charters that are no better, on average, than traditional neighborhood public schools (and are sometimes much worse); charter school teachers, like those at the Green Dot schools in Los Angeles, who are unionized and like it that way; and noncharter neighborhood public schools, like PS 83 in East Harlem and the George Hall Elementary School in Mobile, Alabama, that are nationally recognized for successfully educating poor children.
You don't see teen moms, households without an adult English speaker or headed by a drug addict, or any of the millions of children who never have a chance to enter a charter school lottery (or get help with their homework or a nice breakfast) because adults simply aren't engaged in their education. These children, of course, are often the ones who are most difficult to educate, and the ones neighborhood public schools can't turn away.
You also don't learn that in the Finnish education system, much cited in the film as the best in the world, teachers are—gasp!—unionized and granted tenure, and families benefit from a cradle-to-grave social welfare system that includes universal daycare, preschool and healthcare, all of which are proven to help children achieve better results at school.
In other words, Waiting for Superman is a moving but vastly oversimplified brief on American educational inequality. Nevertheless, it has been greeted by rapturous reviews.
"Can One Little Movie Save America's Schools?" asked the cover of New York magazine. On September 20 The Oprah Winfrey Show featured the film's director, Davis Guggenheim, of An Inconvenient Truth. Tom Friedman of the New York Times devoted a column to praising the film. Time published an education issue coinciding with the documentary's release and is planning a conference built in part around the school reform strategies the film endorses. NBC, too, will host an education reform conference in late September; Waiting for Superman will be screened and debated there, and many of the reformers involved in its production will be there. Katie Couric of CBS Evening News has promised a series of segments based on the movie.
Meanwhile, mega-philanthropist Bill Gates, who appears in Waiting for Superman, hit the road in early September to promote the film; while he was at it, he told an audience at the Toronto International Film Festival that school districts should cut pension payments for retired teachers. Other players in the free-market school reform movement, most of whom had seen the documentary at early screenings for opinion leaders and policy-makers, anticipated its September 24 release with cautious optimism.
The media excitement around the film "is beginning to open up an overdue public conversation," says Amy Wilkins, vice president at the Washington advocacy group Education Trust. "Do I think the coverage is always elegant and superior and perfect? No. Of course there is going to be some bumbling and stumbling. But the fact that the film is provoking this conversation is really important for teachers and kids."
Indeed, a tense public sparring match over the achievement gap, unions and the future of the teaching profession is already under way. In August the Los Angeles Times defied the protests of unions and many education policy experts by publishing a searchable online database of elementary school teachers' effectiveness rankings. The newspaper's calculations were made using a new statistical method called value-added measurement, which is based on children's standardized test scores and which social scientists across the political spectrum agree is volatile and often flawed.
In Washington, Mayor Adrian Fenty lost his re-election bid in part because of black voters' skepticism toward his aggressive school reform efforts, led by lightning-rod schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who pursued an agenda of closing troubled neighborhood schools, instituting a privately funded merit-pay program for teachers and firing teachers and principals deemed ineffective. And at the federal level, President Obama's signature education program, the Race to the Top grant competition, pressures states to implement many of the most controversial teacher reforms, including merit pay based on value-added measurement.
Yet under the radar of this polarized debate, union affiliates across the country are coming to the table to talk about effective teaching in a more meaningful way than they ever have before. These stories of cooperation, from Pittsburgh to Memphis, are rarely being told, in part because national union leaders are worried about vocally stepping out beyond their members, and in part because of the media's tendency to finger-point at organized labor.
As in the work of influential magazine writer Steven Brill, this intra-union ferment is ignored in Waiting for Superman. The film presents teachers unions as the villains in the struggle to close the achievement gap, despite their long history of advocating for more school funding, smaller class sizes and better school resources and facilities. Guggenheim represents the unions through Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.5 million–member American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Ominous music plays during some of her interviews, which are presented alongside footage of Harlem Children's Zone founder Geoffrey Canada and former Milwaukee superintendent and school-voucher proponent Howard Fuller complaining that union contracts protect bad teachers.
But in real life, Weingarten is the union leader most credited by even free-market education reformers with being committed to retooling the teaching profession to better emphasize professional excellence and student achievement.
"The education landscape has changed pretty profoundly, and the unions have to adapt," says Tim Daly, president of the New Teacher Project, a Teach for America (TFA) offshoot often seen as a counterweight to the power of unions and teachers colleges. "It's no longer just school districts they're dealing with but charter schools, accountability measures that flow from Washington and new governance structures such as mayoral control and state takeovers.
"Teachers unions have really struggled over the last two decades to recruit good, visionary new leadership prepared to help the unions navigate this," Daly continues. "There are exceptions. The most glaring, notable exception is Randi. She has a long career ahead of her."