Education Policy, HPRgument Blog — October 13, 2010 4:19 pm

Weighing Superman’s Argument

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Even if you’re not an education policy wonk, you’ve probably heard about Davis Guggenheim’s new documentary, Waiting for “Superman.” And, like many Americans, you may be planning to watch it. After all, Guggenheim’s last film, An Inconvenient Truth, changed the way many people think about global warming. What’s not to like about the fact that he is now exerting his influence on a different subject, and one that is in equally dire need of attention?

Well, nothing. Guggenheim ought to be praised for his efforts to inform Americans about a failing system of public education that is often discussed but rarely motivates people to action on a large scale. Even politicians seldom seem inclined to focus on education when it is time to campaign. (This is not to say that they never mention it, but rather that they view it as an issue that, although it has the potential to impact their legacy, is unlikely to prove decisive in an election.) And, increasingly, it seems that it is always time for politicians to campaign.

Waiting for “Superman” gets a lot right. There are many problems with American public education, and it would be unreasonable to expect Guggenheim to cover all of them in an hour and 42 minutes. In fact, he does a very nice job of introducing many of the most important debates in education policy while still making his film’s content accessible to the entire audience, regardless of their backgrounds in the subject matter. His animated graphics are frequently distracting and more than a little patronizing – it seems unlikely that most audience members need to watch a collection of crudely drawn schoolhouses regrouped into categories to understand the statistics that they are hearing – but his selection of information is judicious. I would venture to guess that even the most seasoned education policy wonks are leaving theaters a bit better informed than they were when they entered.

Of course, as the trailer suggests, Guggenheim devotes a lot of attention to charter schools, which receive public funding but are not subject to some of the rules and regulations that apply to other public schools. It would be more accurate to say that he examines great charter schools, like those in Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone and those run by Green Dot Public Schools and the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP). Although the narrator does mention (once) that not all charter schools are successful in achieving amazing results for their students, the film essentially ignores all but the best.

Gail Collins has recently taken Guggenheim to task for his overly rosy characterization of charter schools, citing a 2009 report released by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) that found that a mere 17% of charter schools produce results that are significantly better than those offered by traditional public schools. Moreover, 37% of charter schools perform significantly worse than their public counterparts.

However, I am inclined to give Guggenheim a little more of the benefit of the doubt with respect to his portrayal of charter schools. At their best, charter schools are laboratories of innovation for the public school system; their promise is not only in the experience that they offer to a small group of students, but also in the new ideas that they pilot and then pass along to other public schools. Extending the school day is an example of such an idea, and Waiting for “Superman” acknowledges and discusses it as such. Although I do wish that this discussion had been deeper (and had explained the laboratories of innovation approach to charter schools more clearly), I think that it mitigates (but does not erase) the problems inherent in Guggenheim’s selection of the cream of the charter school crop.

To me, Guggenheim’s decision not to consider examples of great traditional public schools alongside their charter school counterparts is far more worrisome. In its effort to simplify the problems within the American educational system, the film suggests that virtually every traditional public school is failing its students. Some commentators, such as Ross Douthat, have been willing to forgive most of Guggenheim’s “overzealousness” because it is so important to expose the larger educational crisis, and their arguments are not without merit. However, Waiting for “Superman” would not have suffered from the inclusion of a segment about some innovations and successes that have occurred within traditional public schools. Indeed, it would have been more balanced for it, and audiences might (and probably would) still conclude that charter schools have their place within American education.

However, this criticism pales in comparison to the film’s largest problem: its characterization of teachers’ unions.

Once more, I refer readers to Gail Collins’ piece on the documentary for an incisive argument against its portrayal of unions (especially the American Federation of Teachers and its president, Randi Weingarten). It is true that teachers’ unions have, at times, promoted policies that do not improve the education that students receive, and some moviegoers, including Forbes’ Melik Kaylan, completely agree with the film’s depiction of unions’ roles in the education policymaking process. Waiting for “Superman” discusses both the now-infamous “rubber rooms” of New York City (reassignment centers in which teachers that the district wished to fire often spent several years drawing high salaries every school day despite the fact that there were no students present to teach) and the early stages of the most recent contract negotiations between D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and the Washington Teachers’ Union (which were stalled by a variety of political factors, including, but not limited to, the union’s resistance to some of Rhee’s proposals that might have yielded better results). Charter schools, it implicitly and explicitly asserts, have an inherent advantage over public schools because their teachers are less likely to be unionized.

However, the film’s treatment of unions is myopic in two respects. First, its main examples of unions placing the interests of teachers before those of students are outdated. The United Federation of Teachers and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg came together in April to abolish the rubber room system, and the Washington Teachers’ Union signed a “revolutionary” new contract in June about which both it and Rhee were very excited. However, Guggenheim’s film, released in September, presents both stories as ongoing indications of the unions’ misguided commitment to their adult members instead of to the children whom their members teach. This disingenuous coverage of teachers’ unions is inexcusable, as most audience members will probably not have read extensively about these issues before their visit to the theater and will leave with a thoroughly misinformed perception of current union policies.

Furthermore, the film’s suggestion that charter schools owe a significant portion of their success to the fact that their teachers are not unionized is a severe oversimplification. Indeed, even Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot Public Schools lauded by Waiting For “Superman” as one of the leaders of the charter school movement, is vocally pro-union. In fact, all 17 of his charter schools are fully unionized, and the one in the Bronx (the rest are located in Los Angeles) opened as the result of direct collaboration between Green Dot and the AFT. Guggenheim’s failure to note Barr’s work with unions hardly seems accidental, and it substantially alters the overall message of the film. A documentarian of his caliber can and must do better to present multiple sides of an issue.

Ultimately, although its implicit argument about charter schools and teachers’ unions is far from perfect, Waiting for “Superman” is already setting the stage for a long-overdue debate about public education. In some ways, the credits are one of the most striking features of the film. Interspersed among the names of producers, writers, and others who contributed to the making of the documentary are a series of facts and phrases. The last set of sentences is an unmistakable call to action: “Great schools won’t come from winning the lottery. Great schools won’t come from ‘Superman.’ They will come from you.” Democratic Congressman Mike Honda of California has already responded to this call, publishing an article that uses the film as a springboard for his own opinions about the future of American public education, and he will hardly be the last public official (or private citizen, for that matter) to do so. Waiting for “Superman” has the potential to catalyze serious political action. And, as long as viewers are careful to research the debates it raises and weigh other valid arguments against the ones that it presents, it has the potential to lead to serious, long-awaited improvements to the American educational system.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

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