Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Flawed Call to Action

The ironically titled documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” deftly portrays the nation’s longing for a high-quality, universally accessible public school system and some of the obstacles to achieving substantial reform. Along the way, the film celebrates some reformers and mounts a counterproductive campaign to cast teachers and teachers’ unions as significant obstacles to change.

Early in the film, Geoffrey Canada, founder of Harlem Children’s Zone, describes the devastation he felt as a child living in a dangerous neighborhood after his mother told him that Superman was not a real person. The news pushed Canada to the shattering realization that no hero was coming to rescue him from the widespread poverty and violence that characterized the area he grew up in. Canada’s tale of his awakening provides the underlying metaphor driving the film; if we as a nation want an educational system that prepares all our children for the world they will inherit, we cannot wait for a hero, we must perform that rescue ourselves, and together.

Overall, this is an easy notion to sell. Our system of public education has been failing for more than 40 years. Test scores in both reading and math have flatlined since the 1960s. Mid-20th century schools were mostly adequate to the challenge of preparing 20 percent of their students to move on to college, and another 20 percent to begin working as bookkeepers, stenographers and in other semi-skilled positions, while the remaining young people headed for the kind of work that would teach them the necessary skills on the job, or became homemakers in households with one parent at work earning a family wage.

But work life and the global economy have changed dramatically since then. If young people are to find a job in the modern economy, most need a college degree, but with high school dropout rates of 30 percent or more in most public school systems and only a tiny percentage of graduates going on to college, many leave school with no viable alternatives.

Through the dramatic personal stories of children and their adult caretakers desperate to find alternatives to the manifold inadequacies of their neighborhood elementary and high schools, “Waiting for Superman” outlines the collapse of public education and some of the consequent injustices. In the process, the filmmakers follow the work of a number of innovative and creative school reformers, including Canada.

Michelle Rhee, the young chancellor of the Washington, DC, public schools, has several strong scenes in the film, which portrays her as a frank, even confrontational, take-no-prisoners sort of leader. Rhee has been the head of the 45,000-student DC school system since 2007. She has repeatedly characterized entrenched teachers and their unions as one of the most significant obstacles to school improvement. She has fired or forced out more than 600 of DC’s 3,800 teachers since she arrived and has created a series of controversies as she proceeded with the terminations and closed neighborhood schools.

Many of Rhee’s admirers (and they are numerous, both locally and nationally) argue that she could not have moved so effectively against bad teachers and in eliminating underutilized and deteriorating buildings without offending some of the school system’s stakeholders. But the arguments in Rhee’s favor fade when considered along with her provocative assault on the city’s teachers. Virtually all observers agree that some percentage of teachers are extremely ineffective and cannot be coached or retrained to effectiveness, but this consensus cannot justify a reform strategy that appears to rely on sustained combat with teachers. The argument against partnership with teachers’ unions comes almost exclusively from young zealots like Rhee and historically anti-union groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. Unfortunately, the documentary pays little notice to the efforts of education reformers, including Steve Barr, the founder of the Green Dot charter school network based in Los Angeles, and the Gates Foundation, who work with teachers’ unions in pursuit of fundamental change.

Though “Waiting for Superman” portrays teachers’ unions as a, perhaps the, major obstacle to change, the Washington teacher union was not a major problem for Rhee while she fired, released or forced out some 600+ teachers and hired almost 1,000 new teachers. Rhee’s confrontational approach has even obscured other positive changes she has made, including a tenfold increase in the number of teaching coaches working for the system and the establishment of a master teacher program that uses demonstrably effective and experienced teachers to perform ongoing classroom evaluations.

“Waiting for Superman” makes the case that dramatic improvement in the schools will require significant changes in the way teachers are trained and educated. The documentary cites research that pinpoints substantial differences in the results obtained by teachers classified as highly effective or highly ineffective. Those teachers identified as top performers get through 150 percent of the standard curriculum during a school year, while the most ineffective teachers complete only 50 percent of the curriculum.

Ultimately, the film does a thorough job sounding the alarm about the sorry performance of public education in the United States and the dire implications for the country and for millions of children, But while it seems to be warning that we cannot “wait for superman,” its focus on Rhee seems problematic.

Just two days before the recent decent mayoral primary, in which the incumbent mayor, Adrian Fenty, who hired Rhee, was defeated, she appeared at a special invitation-only DC premier of “Waiting for Superman.” At the conclusion of a Q & A following the showing, Rhee made a final statement to the audience. There were still enemies of school reform out there, she said, and they would do whatever they could do undermine school reform and, presumably, force Rhee out. After overpowering the teachers’ union and terminating or otherwise eliminating more than 600 teachers in the last three years, Rhee’s continuing verbal assault is pure scorched earth.

If the claim is true that eliminating the six or seven percent of teachers who are the worst-performing in a district will lead to dramatic improvements in schools and significant increases in test scores, then some of the bloodiest steps toward school improvement have already taken place in Washington. Under the circumstances, it is time for peace with the remaining teachers. The worst are gone and the good efforts of the rest are key to any long-term improvements.

It is unfortunate for “Waiting for Superman” that Rhee turns out to have been such a flawed hero. The larger, more important point that the documentary highlights so well is that failure in school reform is no option; rarely have so many young people and their families required so much from the rest of us.


  1. This is a terrific analysis and should be spread widely. Tackling someone like Rhee without losing sight of the important reforms she has initiated is no easy task. Too bad the atmosphere is so poisoned by the simplistic notions promoted by the right wing that little complexity is allowed for.

  2. Hi, Jeff,
    Great piece. If you are not already aware of them, you might want to check out Rethinking Schools and their reaction to the film, including a project called We're Not Waiting for Superman.

    Best, Margaret