Alexander Russo on Waiting for "Superman"
Has "Superman" Started a War?
You might want to hold off gushing about Waiting for "Superman" at the next meeting you find yourself at—or at least give careful thought about how you bring it up.
Directed by Davis Guggenheim (best known for An Inconvenient Truth), this new documentary was meant to rally public concern about improving education (and possibly earn Guggenheim another Oscar). And, thanks to a massive media campaign, the movie has accomplished its goal. But it's also set off an angry round of objections from teachers about how they and the schools they work at are portrayed in the movie and elsewhere in the media—the "war on teachers," some are calling it. Educators in classrooms and district offices are objecting to the absence of traditional public-school success stories in the film, which instead lauds the Harlem Children's Zone (which includes charter middle schools) and the leadership of Washington, D.C.'s Michelle Rhee (who won fame firing teachers and closing schools). The movie also lays a lot of blame at the feet of teachers unions.
Those on the political right were quick to crow that the movie marked the demise of organized labor's control of schools nationwide. "Their days as political supermen are numbered," opined the Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, charters' moment in the sun seemed to be never-ending, despite recent research showing that only 17 percent of charters are substantially better than district schools.
The reaction against the movie has been notably steady. It was one thing to have traditional educators criticized at education conferences, but quite another to have it happening on Oprah.
At first, the push-back was mostly online, but then it was echoed in mainstream outlets like the New York Times opinion page. "People don't much like stern-faced do-gooders telling them how to think and what to do," wrote columnist Judith Warner. Cable news host Lawrence O'Donnell quipped: "Watch Jersey Shore. Watch it. And tell me what teacher could possibly have reached any one of them."
Recent developments didn't help Guggenheim's case for charter-driven reform. At least one major charter network in Los Angeles is on the brink of ruin. Rhee has left her spot in D.C. And a dedicated teacher seems to have committed suicide over her "less effective teacher" rating in the Los Angeles Times.
The rhetorical war seems to have softened recently. The Huffington Post's newly created education page is featuring testimonials about celebrities' favorite teachers—most of them from public schools. Several columnists have noted that there are a handful of promising innovations taking place (like the new contract in Baltimore and the unionized charter school in the South Bronx). When the New York City schools declared that they were going to release teachers' individualized value-added scores to the press, Secretary Duncan hinted at the need for caution (and at least one outlet declared it wouldn't use names in any reporting that it did).
Meantime, Duncan and the heads of the two national unions announced a conference on labor-management innovation for early 2011; the New York Times profiled AFT president Randi Weingarten in almost positive terms; and the Wall Street Journal felt the need to note that it hadn't declared a war on teachers.
No one with any practical sense really wants to go to war with teachers (or even teachers unions)—for the simple reason that teachers are generally doing the best job that they can under difficult circumstances, and that "going to war" nearly guarantees stiff resistance to further changes. There's no solution to be found in creating more charter schools, either, especially given that less than 20 percent are succeeding. The change has to happen in public schools.
"No one is proposing that every public school become a charter school," wrote singer and philanthropist John Legend, seeking to bridge the differences between fans of the movie and its critics. "But we'd be crazy not to try to replicate the conditions that make great charters work."
About that, pretty much everyone can agree.