Why Wait for Superman?

This is not about “Waiting for Superman,” Davis Guggenheim’s heavily hyped new documentary, which examines the success of Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone and the KIPP charter schools, and asserts that reform efforts to improve public education are being actively resisted by America’s teachers unions.

No, this is about film critics for the New York Times, the Daily News, and the NY Post using their editorial platforms to inject calumny into an already-difficult national dialogue, where they are impeding the very reforms they seek.

NY Post Film Critic Kyle Smith

Film reviewer Kyle Smith, a product of the East Longmeadow, MA school system and Yale University, writes for the right-leaning NY Post. Smith’s review of “Waiting for Superman” must have pleased his bosses. It is unashamedly anti-union.

“The Terminator of that nefarious organization is Randi Weingarten, the head of one of the two biggest national teachers unions, the nation’s top-spending interest group.”

The Post’s film critic, whose bios don’t reveal any teaching experience, is so hostile to teachers unions that he accuses them of concealing his version of the truth — that American public education is failing because of incompetent teachers unreasonably protected by their unions.

Randi Weingarten

He needs to visit a few of the many thousands of excellent public schools throughout the United States, where teachers teach effectively, children learn, and parents support the collaborative effort. Even better, Smith should take a turn as a public school teacher.

Instead he takes the easy rhetorical way out: He challenges filmmakers to discover the disorder he imagines in America’s public school classrooms.

“Win glory for yourselves. Make a difference. Go to the poorest neighborhoods. Bribe kids to sneak cameras into school and capture bad teachers in the act.”

With provocateurs such as Smith championing charter schools, public school advocates face a huge public relations challenge. And Smith is not alone.

Stephen Holden

Even Stephen Holden of the more moderate NY Times uncritically accepts Guggenheim’s looser arguments. Citing Illinois statistics that show that while “one in 57 doctors loses his medical license and one in 97 lawyers loses his law license, only one in 2,500 teachers loses his credentials,” Holden says this is “because of union rules.”

But the film offers no evidence of this. In fact, an independent report from Illinois suggests that the state’s physicians usually lose their licenses not for poor performance but because they fail to pay taxes or repay student loans, abuse controlled substances, or falsify information.

And lawyers in Illinois forfeit their licenses not for being mediocre attorneys, but because they too often steal, defraud, or misappropriate clients’ funds, or otherwise illegally acquire large sums of money.

To its credit, the Daily News is more straightforward than the Times and the Post in how it uses “Waiting for Superman” to support its anti-union arguments. The News ran its film review right on its editorial page. But, like other charter cheerleaders, the News ignores the role of pupil self-selection in charter school success stories and focuses exclusively on “the pernicious role that teachers unions have played in perpetuating failure.”

The common thread in all of these essays — even more than in the documentary they review — is to argue that hiring better teachers is the first and most important step needed to improve public education. This assumes that enough talented new teachers are waiting out there to fill our nation’s classrooms, or if not, that we can quickly train their somewhat less-gifted colleagues to a satisfactory level of competence.

It also assumes that America will value and reward these teachers highly enough to keep them or their replacements in the schools; and that once there, that they will not be distracted by the many challenges — from which most charter schools are de facto exempt — that are presented by students with special learning needs, limited English proficiency, or behavioral issues.

Geoffrey Canada

But the greater problem with arguing that better teachers will solve our “public education problem” is that it skirts questions about content and ignores the broader lesson of Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone: Schools can’t succeed unless their pupils awaken each day in homes free of devastating poverty, crime, and family conflict, and filled — like the schools themselves — with high expectations. Here are HCZ’s own words, from its web site:

“For children to do well, their families have to do well. And for families to do well, their community must do well. That is why HCZ works to strengthen families as well as empowering them to have a positive impact on their children’s development.”

Today’s union leaders seem to be accepting their responsibility to support competent teaching. But as long as charter school propagandists undermine confidence in public schools (no, charter schools are not public), an understandably defensive rank and file will demand that their union leaders preserve tenure and maintain strong labor protections. Forced to support their members or get voted out, union leaders will slow reform efforts.

Smith, Holden, and the News editors must accept an inconvenient truth: The national dialogue must change. It must shift away from attacking public school teachers and their unions, and be redirected towards defining a meaningful way of measuring teacher performance — and how to improve it.

Reliance on today’s standardized tests just doesn’t cut it. Those exams — driven by NCLB and RttT — are so controversial that they muddy the water and energize opposition to meaningful improvements in teacher evaluation. They are counterproductive.

It’s relatively easy to pick an enemy and attack him. And journalists — including film critics — are notorious for their ad hominem approach to their profession. But the problem no longer is with the teachers unions, dear film reviewers, it is with ourselves.

Let’s stop erecting obstacles to reform. We need to acknowledge our many excellent public schools, cease from undermining public support for them by spotlighting “drop-out factories,” and stop alienating the professionals who hold the key to improving American education.

One response to “Why Wait for Superman?

  1. As in most controversies such as this, the truth is somewhere in the middle: It’s not “anti-union” to suggest that bad teachers be removed from the classroom, and it’s not “anti-charter school” to suggest that one reason many charter schools succeed is that it is made up of children whose parents are sufficiently involved to take the initiative to get their child into the charter school in the first place.

    Perhaps a very illuminating example of how this issue can work out well for students (students, remember them?), is the NYTimes article this morning about Brockton (Mass.) High School, a large, failing school that was turned around by union teachers, all within the union contract. It proved that large schools do not have to be made smaller to succeed, that teachers’ rights and student achievement do not have to be mutually exclusive, and that setting an environment where achievement was assumed (e.g. at every class, teachers work into their talks with students the phrase “…when you get to college…”) can pay big dividends, and help get past the difficult homelives many of these students have.

    I think there is much to be learned from this experience.

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