Grading 'Waiting for Superman'
Dana Goldstein | September 23, 2010
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 ...view middle of the document...
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...