‘Waiting for Superman’s’ half-truths and heroes can move you to tears

(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)
Waiting for Superman, the Davis Guggenheim documentary about public education, is headed for the theaters with more hype and about as much substance as a B-grade Western.
As in the B-grade Western there are villains, heroines, simplistic truths, and a pull at your heartstrings.
The plot line of Superman follows five children and their families from New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Silicon Valley as they — like thousands every year — go through school choice lottery programs, hoping to get into the school they want. There’s joy and tears, more of the latter.
The movie does what it intends: It emotionally involves the viewers in the struggle of children and their families to find schools that work for them and to avoid some of the most troubled public schools, aptly named “dropout factories.”
The villains and heroes are easily identified. People who represent teacher unions, like Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, are villains. People who represent charter schools and those who want to kick ass and take names in school districts are heroes and heroines. Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of the D.C. schools, is a heroine. Geoffery Canada, the charismatic founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, is a hero and gives the film its title. Canada recalls that, as a boy, he cried when his mother told him that Superman did not exist, “because no one was coming with enough power to save us.”
The search for a Superman has been an enduring feature of the school reform movement, going back at least a quarter-century: If there would only be a strong, charismatic leader or reading or math program, our problems would be solved. Like many charismatics before him, Guggenheim thinks that he’s found the answer. “In recent years, we’ve cracked the code. The high-performing charter schools, like KIPP and others, have figured out the system that works for kids in even the toughest neighborhoods,”  he told Dom Giordano of the Philadelphia Daily News.
In other words: charter schools good, unions bad. Unfortunately, this is a convenient half-truth.
There are some very good charter schools, and there are charter school leaders who are very good at promoting their schools. But virtually every study of charter school performance comes back with the same message: The results are mixed. One of the largest, most careful studies. done at Stanford, found that only 17 percent of charter schools had statistically significant higher results in math, while 37 percent of the charter schools had worse results than corresponding public schools.
The more we learn about charter schools, the more clearly we understand that the difficulty of bringing promising practices to scale is as complex in those schools as it is in traditional public schools. As Ted Kolderie, who influenced the founding of charters, writes, “No one would ask whether eating at home is better than eating out: Clearly it depends on what you eat in the restaurant and what you eat at home . … A charter is simply permission to start a school: No student learns anything from a charter.”
And, yes, there are some very bad labor-management practices. Both national teacher unions have been slow to adopt a strong quality agenda, and to represent teaching as an occupation as well as teachers as employees. The irony of the film is that it casts Weingarten in the villain’s role, when she has pushed the quality agenda forward, often with substantial internal opposition.
Clearly, unions and management need to negotiate better ways of evaluating teachers and removing those who can’t or won’t teach. Clearly, unions and management need to find ways that seniority is used to place teachers; if new innovative schools are to flourish, they need to be able to pick teachers whose beliefs and practices match those of the school. Clearly, the system needs to provide much greater variety in the types of schooling available, the same specialization that attracts parents by the thousands to wait in line for admission or enter the lottery processes depicted in the film.
These changes need to happen now, and perhaps the best thing about Superman is the sense of urgency it brings to the public policy discussion. But Superman stands in a long line of would-be action heroes that have declared a crisis in public education, and despite its hubris it is far from the best in its analysis or prescription. It’s correct at the end, though. There is no Superman; there’s only you.
Charles Taylor Kerchner is Research Professor in the School Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a specialist in educational organizations, educational policy, and teacher unions. In 2008, he and his colleagues completed a four-year study of education reform of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The results of that research can be found in The Transformation of Great American School Districts and in Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, published by Harvard Education Press.
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