By Stephen Himes
Waiting for “Superman”: What the Critics Got Wrong
The Critical Line: “Gripping, heartbreaking, and ultimately hopeful, “Waiting for ‘Superman’” is an impassioned indictment of the American school system from “An Inconvenient Truth” director Davis Guggenheim.”
Representative Quotation: “This is a time when urgent issues are often explored in polemic documentaries, as well as a fateful moment when the future of public education is being debated with unprecedented intensity. “Waiting for ‘Superman’” makes an invaluable addition to the debate.” Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal
The Movie Day at the Court Take: Davis Guggenheim directly argues for an autocratic approach to education reform, which, as shown by the defeat of one of the “supermen” he profiles, threatens to submarine the entire education reform movement.
Davis Guggenheim, director of An Inconvenient Truth, opens this documentary about public schools with an inconvenient truth of his own: He drives past three public schools everyday to take his kids to private school. You know the drill: Around 20%-30% of American students are proficient in math and science, reading scores are awful, more minority boys go to prison than college. Guggenheim intertwines his wonky stats with the personal stories of five children from some of the worst-performing schools in the nation. The personal stories are gripping, of course: A little girl wants to be a vet, another wants to be a “recorder, like you.” There’s no escaping the truth facing the children behind the statistics, but there’s nothing here that wasn’t done by Jonathan Kozol twenty years ago.
To get at the crux of Guggenheim’s argument, look to the scene with “Education Reformer” Bill Strickland at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Facility. Strickland describes how the schools funnel kids to the prison, and once there, they will likely return after they get out. Guggenheim then gives us a cartoon graphic with some easy, oh-my-gosh-anybody-can-understand-this math. At $33,000 for year, a four-year prison term costs the state $132,000. But K-12 at a private school at $8,300 per year is $107,900–$24,100 less than prison!
If the point is that education is a much better social investment than prison, then sure. But Guggenheim specifically uses private school tuition to make his point—implying that they must be the answer. Though Guggenheim never argues for vouchers, he and every single pro-vouchers advocate must understand this: Sure, vouchers will work for individual students who have the ability and desire to learn in a competitive private school environment, but as a vehicle for wholesale, fundamental change, you can’t simply move public school kids to private school because this negates the advantages of a private school. I teach at one: First, we don’t have the facilities to take on hundreds of new students, nor the room to expand to meet a dramatic increase in enrollment, and we sure as heck don’t have the money for capital investment, even with publically-funded tuition vouchers. Second, we select our own students based on stringent academic criteria, their parents are fully invested in their education, and because of this, we’re able to create a culture of learning. Importing hundreds of kids into that culture won’t change the kids—it will change the culture at schools that aren’t equipped to handle that much change. This is why the vouchers argument is simply a diversion and that real change must happen in public schools and start-up charters.
Despite Guggenheim’s red herring, I think he and I are in agreement on this point. But the question is how do you fundamentally change public schools? This sets up Guggenheim’s thesis: The problem with public schools are the teachers unions that funnel money to politicians to perpetuate a system that protects bad teachers.
Guggenheim’s solution is charter schools. Guggenheim traces the efforts of Geoffrey Canada, the force behind the Harlem Children’s Zone; Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, Teach for America alumni who created the KIPP schools; and Michelle Rhee, the now-former chancellor of the Washington D.C. Public Schools.
What do these three reformers have in common? They have attempted to change the culture of urban schools, though all in very different ways. Specifically, Guggenheim focuses on the fact that these reformers operate—or, in the case of Rhee—would like to—without unionized teachers. Much of “Superman” demonizes the NEA and AFT, using snappy graphics to describe how unions insist on evaluation systems that make teachers seem interchangeable. Again, this is nothing new—The New Teacher Project’s “The Widget Effect” tells you how this works.
On this point, Guggenheim and I agree. But this is where we part ways. Guggenheim’s odd title (and its confusing quotation marks around “Superman”) tells us exactly what his vision of public school reform is, and it’s ugly. Guggenheim opens the film with Geoffrey Canada talking about how in the fourth grade, his mother told him Superman wasn’t real. “I was crying,” he says, “because there wasn’t somebody with enough power coming to save us.” Cut to George Reeves as Superman punching out bad guy. Then smash cut to rusty urban school bus.
Guggenheim couldn’t be more clear: The teachers unions are the bad guys who just need their lights punched out by a superstrong leader with the ”power” to reform schools. In fact, Guggenheim advocates something close to a dictatorial rule over our public schools, as conveyed by his breathless coverage of Michelle Rhee’s dramatic changes in D.C.: closing over twenty schools, firing teachers and principals, and attempting to implement a merit pay system for teachers.
Let’s be clear: Rhee made the tough, necessary choices to close schools and turning over staff. These were good things. The problem with Rhee is not the what, but the how. He suggests that Rhee’s negotiations with the union were some brave, unprecedented reform efforts. This simply isn’t true: Denver Public Schools (where Senator Michael Bennet, the vulnerable Democrat who survived the 2010 Republican wave, and current Obama Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came from) teamed with its teachers union to develop a performance pay system six years ago. In contrast, Rhee nuked the school district, told everybody they were doing a “crappy” job, then said she wasn’t going to listen to people—and somehow didn’t understand when her workforce and constituency became alienated. Guggenheim misinterprets Rhee’s intensity about the children’s “crappy education” (her words) as a noble fierce urgency to reform, but it’s more of a deep flaw in her management style that directly lead to the defeat of her benefactor, Mayor Adrian Fenty, and her subsequent firing.
In fact, Guggenheim doesn’t just have sympathy for Rhee-like autocrats—he worships them. In this, Guggenheim completely misunderstands education reform. The voters of Washington D.C. didn’t reject education reform; the rejected Michelle Rhee. Or, in the words of Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund, Rhee ”did education reform to black people, not with them.” Rhee wouldn’t disagree; as Rhee herself told an Aspen Institute audience, “cooperation, collaboration, and consensus-building are way overrated.”
Even though Rhee had the nerve to call her departure “devastating” for the children of D.C., Mayor Fenty’s defeat really demonstrates the failure of Rhee-ism—and the disgusting nature of Guggenheim’s hero-worship. This isn’t just a difference of opinion over policy implementation; Guggenheim and Rhee act like they don’t trust democracy.
Yes, the teachers unions need serious reform, the public school bureaucracy needs dismantled, and urban school boards across the nation are dysfunctional. But the school reform movement needs people with the patience and people skills to work with stakeholders to rebuild the public schools. Guggenheim correctly argues that, primarily, this means attracting and keeping great teachers. But school reform built by “supermen” and “superwomen” will only last as long as those leaders, and will lead to the same dependent dysfunction that marks schools now.
Cooperation, collaboration, and consensus-building is why the NEA has all-but endorsed President Obama’s “Race to the Top” performance pay initiatives (they insist that performance pay cannot be determined solely by test scores and have declined to interfere in local unions negotiations with school districts over performance pay programs). In other words, the Obama Administration is working to partner with, not “defeat” the unions—the organizations that have the power to further professionalize the teaching workforce. This is the key to reform—not some childish wish for paternalistic tough guys to punch out the very people you need on the bus with you. Understanding Guggenheim’s weird quotation marks is the key to understanding the fatal flaw in his argument. English teachers should love that.
1 The First Year
1 Jonathan Kozol
2 Waiting for "Superman"
2 Waiting for "Superman"