Feature stories

Plenty of kryptonite in ‘Superman’

Education reform flick filled with ‘convenient mistruths’

Waiting for 'Superman'The film's analysis of the problems facing American education and its potential solutions falls short. “Waiting for Superman,” the new documentary from director Davis Guggenheim, of “An Inconvenient Truth” fame, purports to reveal the real truth about what ails public education and how to fix it. In fact, the film is simplistic and naive, repeating a series of “convenient mistruths” — mostly about teachers and their unions — touted by the so-called education reformers in place of any real substance.

Like another recently released pro-charter documentary, “The Lottery,” Guggenheim’s “Superman” follows five children and their families as they search for better schools. Their individual stories are compelling — how can you not root for these kids? — but the film’s analysis of the problems facing American education and the potential solutions to them unfortunately is not.

Guggenheim tells us a lot about what is wrong with our schools. He tells us that there are more than 2,000 “dropout factories” across the country, in which 40 percent of students don’t graduate on time. He tells us that the amount of money invested in public education since 1971 has more than doubled from $4,300 to $9,000 per pupil, yet test scores have not improved. And he tells us that our students rank 25th in math and 29th in science out of 30 developed countries.

Teachers and their unions, more than almost anyone else, are already painfully aware of our educational system’s shortcomings. And we are in the forefront trying to fix them. That is why the UFT has fought for smaller class sizes and meaningful professional development. It is why we believe every new teacher should have a mentor. It is why we’ve decried meaningless test prep. It is why we fight to safeguard classroom funding from budget cuts. And it is why we have worked to implement a transparent teacher evaluation system that relies on more than just test scores and provides for peer intervention for struggling teachers.

But, in his effort to paint teacher unions as part of the problem and all district schools as failures, Guggenheim ignores all of these union-led reform efforts. Despite his protestations that “Superman” is not a “pro-charter” film, union-free charter schools are the only solution to which he points, which is odd since Guggenheim himself admits that only one in five charters produces “amazing” results.

Even here, however, the union is one step ahead of him: we partnered with charter operator Green Dot to open a unionized charter school in the South Bronx three years ago. And by all accounts, it is among the 20 percent of charters that are succeeding: in only two years, all of the students in the school’s inaugural class have passed both New York State’s math and science exams, and 97 percent will graduate within four years.

What’s more, the Green Dot teachers’ contract is an important innovation in education and the school is succeeding despite the protections for teachers it contains. It includes a professional teacher evaluation system, a limit on student load as well as class size, and an expansive system of professional mediation in addition to the grievance machinery. A due-process system has a just-cause standard for the discipline and dismissal of teachers from day one, not just after three years and tenure, and teacher majority committees decide budget, per session, comp time and scheduling, among other things.

Guggenheim knew this — he visited the school and shot extensive footage of it. But not wanting to obscure his argument with nuance, he left his footage of Green Dot on the cutting-room floor.

We know that charter schools can work under the right conditions — but they are only a small part of the solution. And, since they are too costly to reproduce on a mass scale, the question remains how to introduce the lessons learned in these laboratories of experimentation into the wider school system.

The test of our success isn’t what we do for the select few, but how we extend the benefits they receive to all children. How do we make all schools great schools?

On this question, Guggenheim leaves us with only a deafening silence. We are searching for an answer; he is still waiting.

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