(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)

I recently attended a screening of Waiting for Superman, the new documentary about public education by Davis Guggenheim. This is a terribly important movie. Anyone with an interest in education reform should make arrangements to see it soon, bring friends, and pack tissues.

Not everyone wants you to see this movie. If you can, I encourage you to watch it, as I did, with a mixed audience of parents, teachers, community members and union leaders. We sat together. We all watched the same screen – but based on the discussion afterward it seems that we each saw a very different movie.

The film introduces five children who, on present course and speed, will soon attend an ordinary public school in their neighborhoods. None of these schools has a strong track record. Guggenheim calls some “dropout factories” because children so regularly fail to graduate from them.

As in his movie An Inconvenient Truth, Guggenheim forcefully presents the case that things are not OK as they are. This is a case that deserves his expository skills. America is failing to prepare children for their future, with tragic results.

Each of the five children featured in this movie is blessed with a crucial advantage: an adult who is determined to find a way for them to get to college. In each case, there is an extraordinary charter school nearby, but it does not have enough seats. Who gets in and who does not is decided – on camera – by lottery. The winners of these lotteries will attend a high-functioning, well-resourced school. They will almost certainly advance to college. The losers, by contrast, will have to take their chances with the school down the street.

The role of victim is played by the children. This movie makes denial difficult: When it comes to education, America’s students are far from the head of the class, and the stakes are enormous. Nations like China are quickly becoming America’s economic peers, and Superman does a marvelous job of establishing that our national self-image is dangerously out of date. College has become the gateway to the middle class. Most Americans are only distantly aware of the long odds that most American children face in getting there.

The role of the hero is played by a handful of America’s most impressive charter schools, and the people who run them. These charter schools are exceptional, by any measure. They are orderly, well-run, and well-resourced. They operate longer school days and school years than America’s ordinary schools. Guggenheim shows children working, learning, and smiling in these charter schools. These children understand their good luck – literally. After all, they won a lottery.

The role of the villain in the film is played by the teacher’s unions. Teachers in America are very rarely dismissed when they fail to educate the children in their care, even egregiously. Guggenheim colorfully describes “the dance of the lemons” and the “rubber room,” disparaging labels for practices that some principals and districts use when they are unable to satisfy the due process requirements associated with dismissing a teacher.

Union leaders, naturally, resent being cast as villains. These are tough schools in communities with many challenges. Does the responsibility to fix the schools really fall to the union? Isn’t it the union’s job to ensure that its members enjoy due process protection from being fired capriciously? Is it fair that the movie compares struggling ordinary schools to a handpicked sample of schools with extraordinary resources? And why did Guggenheim choose to feature only charter schools as the heroes? Is it fair to blame us, they ask? Examples of this resentment can be seen at www.notwaitingforsuperman.org. Some have gone so far as to promote the movie by advocating a boycott.

This petulance misses the larger point. For most parents and community members, Waiting for Superman will be an eye-opener. This is an opportunity to engage an audience that has not become jaded to the grim facts. It gives faces to statistics that, if known at all, are too easily ignored. It is appropriate to feel outrage about persistent achievement gaps, drop-out rates and uneven access to learning. This movie helps us remember why we should feel that outrage. Most important of all, it is an opportunity to discuss what it would take for all children to have the advantages of the lucky ones in this movie.

Jeff Camp chairs the Education Circle of Full Circle Fund, an engaged philanthropy organization cultivating the next generation of community leaders and driving lasting social change in the Bay Area and beyond. He is the primary author of the Education Impact Guide, a primer on education reform options available online.  Since leaving a career at Microsoft to work for education change, Camp has served on multiple education reform committees including the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence.


Filed under: Commentary, K-12 Reform

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  1. CarolineSF says:

    Thanks, John. And am I correct, that Guggenheim never backed that up or even mentioned it again? Does anyone know of any credible reformers who agree that the problem of failing neighborhoods can be blamed on failing schools? If the “failing school” in any given failing neighborhood simply closed up and went away (say the kids were all bused out to schools elsewhere), would the failing neighborhood begin succeeding? Discuss among yourselves.
    Why the current fad is to voice malice and hostility against teachers is a mystery. When it comes up, those engaging in it hasten to insist that they respect teachers and just hate teachers’ unions, but in actuality we can see teachers being disparaged all the time. Take a look at Caille Millner’s column about WFS on today’s Chronicle editorial page, for example. None of her teachers believed in her.

  2. Jeff Camp says:

    By the end of a long string of comments it is easy to forget the original main points, so I will reiterate them.
    1) Those who care about ed reform should see this important movie, and encourage others to see it.  The movie is especially valuable when viewed and discussed with people of diverse perspectives.
    2) The movie is a good vehicle to drive substantive conversation (like this comment thread) about what it would take to provide all children with a great education.  The movie features a hand-picked set of charter schools with extraordinary resources.
    3) The movie presents teacher unions in the role of villain.  Union leaders, understandably, resent this apportionment of blame, which seems to imply that the unions are responsible for problems that largely lie beyond their scope of control.
    4) Some have condemned the movie, even calling for a boycott.  This call for a boycott is petulant, and misses the point:  this movie is a valuable opportunity for dialogue.

  3. CarolineSF says:

    Ze’ev Wurman, the data about attrition in charter schools is (or “are” depending on your grammatical precision level) available. There just hasn’t been much scrutiny. In my opinion that’s because so much of the discussion is framed by those in the charter/privatization camp, and they know those statistics aren’t likely to look good.
    I made enough of a splash researching and blogging the attrition statistics for all the California KIPP schools a few years ago that it was clear no one else in the public discussion (such as the press, though lots of ink has been devoted to KIPP) had done it. After that, SRI International released its study of the Bay Area KIPP schools, which showed that 60% of the students who enroll leave those schools; that the students who leave are overwhelmingly the lower achievers; and that the students who depart are not replaced, leaving the classes with only the top 40% of achievers. Among the questions this leaves hanging are how public school achievement would look if the lowest-achieving 60% left the schools and were not replaced.
    By the way, it’s not that clear that KIPP WON’T allow incoming transfers, though the numbers show that they aren’t taking many. So based on that, that adorable girl who “loses” the KIPP lottery just has to wait till the less successful students start heading out the door and try again. The numbers show that there’s plenty of room for her by the start of 7th grade. When I “tried” to enroll my daughter in 7th grade at KIPP SF Bay Academy (for research purposes), they allowed me to start the process (they contacted me to schedule her testing), so they clearly will accept 7th graders.
     

  4. CarolineSF says:

    My question wasn’t so much whether Woodside High has traditional tracking as whether it’s widely accepted (in education reform circles?) that tracking is a bad idea.  That’s what is clearly portrayed in WFS.
    My impression from seeing the movie, given the fact that it was clear how simplistically Guggenheim sees the issues and how forcefully he wanted to get across a nuance-free message, was that Emily Jones’ family was dubious about the regular-ed classes in her particular case, and Guggenheim chose to portray the situation as a bigger-picture “tracking is bad overall” tale. (He uses a graphic of kids on an assembly line, with a junction where  select kids are whisked to a higher level and most are dropped to a lower belt.)
    I wonder if Guggenheim will feel the same way if his kids (whose ages I don’t know) have the opportunity to pursue honors classes in their private school, and if he feels that way about AP classes.
     
     

  5. Gary Ravani says:

    What’s forgotten here is that Guggenheim is a film maker. In Inconvenient Truth he took information developed by Al Gore over a number of years and crafted it into a dramatic film. Guggenheim is not an expert on the environment and neither does he know anything about education. He makes interesting info-tainment. In the case of Superman, it’s melodramatic info-tainment. Superman is all about show-biz.

    Carolyn notes, above, that the charter schools Guggenheim feature all have substantial donations from private sector foundations to do what they do. In HCZ it runs to tens of millions. What could the average neighborhood school do with a million or so tossed into their general fund dollars? Lower class sizes, hire more specialists, librarians, nurses, and counselors is what. All shown to be the real tickets to increased student learning. And the chance the average school will get those resources? Zilch. “Money alone,” after all, won’t solve the problems of the schools. This said over and over again by the same people who dump money by the bucket-full on the charters.

    It is probable that this is Guggenheim’s “jump the shark” moment. Taken from the TV show Happy Days, it was an incident where tough-guy character, “The Fonz,” jumps over a great-white on water-skis wearing his trademark leather jacket. In show-biz it marked the point where creativity peaked and then headed downhill. There may be no business like show business but it has no place in in serious discussions of the “savage inequalites” that plague schools in struggling communities.

  6. Paul Muench says:

    For all the passions the film has stirred I just thought it would appropriate to highlight a message from the movie’s website:
     
    Q: What’s the biggest challenge to children getting a quality education?
    A: Tribal warfare. Whenever you bring up problems in public education, people immediately track into their tribe. There’s the charter school tribe, for example. And then there’s the union tribe. Then there’s the “because I run a business, I can run schools” tribe. And the academic tribe. The problem is, we’re all so blinded by our own defensiveness that we can’t even see when people in other tribes have the same outlook. How do you find the common good we all believe in? We have to come together to fix this problem.
     
    Taken from here:  http://www.waitingforsuperman.com/action/people-page/what-parents-can-do

  7. Ze'ev Wurman says:

    I expect to see the movie today so I will defer most of my comments till thereafter. Still, I feel that a couple of comments already are in order.
     
    1. Regarding attrition rates in some charter schools I agree that we need more data. Having said that, even if we accept 70% attrition (which I highly doubt is indicative of charters) that gives 1 in 3 chance of going to college to those who win the charter lottery. This is a much higher chance than in a typical inner city school where it is probably less than 1 in 10.
     
    2. Regarding the unions just “make[ing] sure they receive due process,” it seems to me that Mr. Boyd conveniently forgets that the unions essentially defined that “due process” and they make it more and more onerous with every contract renewal. So we end up with a competition to decide which does it take longer — to execute a criminal for a capital offense in this state, or to fire a teacher for cause. Both processes are broken.
     

  8. Harold Boyd Jr says:

    I have not seen the movie. I probably don’t need to because I know the road to where this movie leads.  Why are the unions constantly under attack as protecting bad teachers?  Unions do not hire or fire teachers. All we can do in the case of a “bad teacher” is to make sure they receive due process and if they are found to be inadequate we hold their hands and out the door they go.  Our problem has always been administrators who want to take the short cut– who do not want due process because they have not done their job in evaluating the teachers they over see in their school.  Yet unions get blamed for protecting bad teachers.
    The union does not want bad teachers! But when that person is being dismissed without any facts to support the action we provide due process by representing that teacher to the best of our abilitly.  A person would not go to court with out an attorney in situations that could destroy their future and their ability to earn a living.  Let’s make administration accountable!

    And while we are on this accountable kick what about parents?  Parenting is no longer voluntary!  There was a time when couples were married, had children and felt a sense of responsibility to guide those children down the right path to being successful whether they went to college or not. Part of that effort was parents working with the teachers.  

    All aspects of education have been reformed at one time or another: curriculums,teacher education,administration, and even school boards.  I remember changes such as open class rooms,rennisance schools, year round schools, school after school, to name a few.  WE HAVE NEVER REFORMED PARENT INVOLVEMENT IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS!  Catholic Schools, Charter Schools, and Private Schools have the appearance of over all success because the PARENTS ARE REQUIRED TO BE IN THE SCHOOLS.  When parents don’t show up the children of those parents may not be in the school very long.  WE MUST DEVISE A WAY(S) THAT MAKE IT MANDATORY FOR PARENTS OF PUBLIC SCHOOL CHILDREN TO BE IN THE SCHOOLS– AND HAVE CONSEQUENCES IF THEY ARE NOT.  If this happened there would be a vast improvement in our public schools!  Is any body listening?

  9. CarolineSF says:

    I HAVE seen the movie. If it’s “petulant” to object to dishonest propaganda and attacks that disparage the entire teaching profession and that promote contempt and disrespect for public education and for all teachers, then every thoughtful and informed viewer of this film should be “petulant” and “resentful.”
    It’s Mr. Camp’s defensiveness (clearly the widespread objections to the film’s oversimplications and falsehoods have made some impact) that “misses the larger point.”
    I seem to be the attrition maven these days, so I’ll amplify on David B. Cohen’s comments, as I already have elsewhere in comments on this forum. Repeating myself:
    – The Los Angeles KIPP school portrayed in the film has more than 50% of its 6th graders depart the school by the BEGINNING of grade 8 (info is not publicly available on how many FINISH grade 8). That means that each KIPP student entering the school is more likely to leave before finishing grade 8 than to finish and go on to college. (Source: My own research using the California Department of Education’s Dataquest function.)
    – The SEED School portrayed in the film expels 70% of its students between enrollment and graduation. (Source: a New York Times magazine profile of the school.) Thus the young man shown as joyfully entering the school has a much greater chance of being kicked out than of graduating.
    – I don’t know how to research overall attrition rates for Promise Academy, Geoff Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone charter school; but Paul Tough’s book about the HCZ describes Canada’s expelling virtually the entire 8th grade a couple of years ago, according to reviews of Tough’s book. So that indicates that admitted students are at fairly high risk of being kicked out.
    At the SEED school and at the KIPP school, students who depart are not replaced. I don’t have that information about Promise Academy.
    The high attrition/expulsion rates are just one example of  a big piece of the story that Guggenheim’s film ignores (as does what Washington Post education reporter/blogger Valerie Strauss describes as the “fawning” press coverage).
    I also would like to see some exploration of the notion, promoted by Guggenheim in his portrayal of Woodside High School, that tracking is an obsolete practice that benefits only the high-testing students on the high tracks, and condemns others (including students who are learning but simply don’t test well) to failure.  John, what’s your take?
    Also, here’s one head-spinning claim made by Guggenheim in the film that I think calls for some explanation. Narrating, Guggenheim makes a ringing statement that I have to paraphrase, since I wasn’t taking notes: It used to be believed that poverty was the factor that led to “failing schools,” but now it’s understood that it’s bad schools that cause poverty.
    The usual format for this kind of documentary is: Narrator makes statement, then presents scenes or interview that illustrate and support the statement. But in this case, there is no backup or further reference to Guggenheim’s startling statement. He immediately cuts to an interview with a prison official about the high cost of prison. Is he trying to get the viewer to believe that the points made by the prison official support his startling statement? If so, that’s even more dishonest than the rest of the movie, because they simply don’t. Or did Guggenheim just screw up and make an unsupported statement, and decide to let it hang there unsupported? Comments? Mr. Camp? John?
     
     
     
     
     
     

    1. I have seen the movie twice and plan to comment on it soon. Safe to say, I strongly disagree with Mr. Boyd.
      As for your questions, Caroline, I don’t know enough about Woodside High to comment on whether there is traditional “tracking.” I have twice heard the principal interviewed but not directly address the issue. Emily Jones, the girl in the movie from Redwood City, and her mother certainly believed they would experience it. I interviewed both of them last week and will post the video later this month (after Tom Torlakson gets equal time with Larry Aceves). Emily has two brothers who graduated from Woodside, so Ann spoke from experience. Emily, who comes across as articulate and mature, said she doesn’t test well. She and Ann were convinced that she would be directed away from AP and some A-G courses that everyone at Summit is required to take. The video is worth watching.
      Davis Guggenheim’s quote caught my attention as well, though I would want the precise wording. On its face, it is absurd to say that bad schools cause bad neighborhoods, with deep problems of poverty, unemployment and crime. But a principle of the Harlem Children’s Zone is that a neighborhood transformation can start with a school, with services radiating out from it like spokes of a wheel. And the culture of a school that includes engaging parents can be transformational. It’s also not cheap. HCZ spends tens of millions of dollars on after-school services, health clinics, “Baby College,” counseling. The school is the hub of a huge effort to break inter-generational poverty.

      1. Here is the exact quote from the movie that Caroline referred to: “For generations, experts tended to blame failing schools on failing neighborhoods. But reformers have begun to believe the opposite—that the problems of failing neighborhoods might be blamed on failing schools.”

  10. I’ll admit up front, I haven’t seen the movie yet.  Credit Mr. Camp with voicing the questions that critics of the film are asking, but I do wonder at Mr. Camp’s use of the term “petulance” – which suggests childishness and sulking.  Typical of the paternalistic tone found among many education reformers these days.  The objections being voiced about the film are coming from seasoned professionals in all parts of education, scholars, and concerned citizens who sense an agenda at work here with “Superman” and its attendant publicity (Oprah, NBC), orchestrated by billionaires and their “philanthropic” foundations.  I put that term in quotation marks as it hardly seems philanthropic to use huge sums of cash to essentially buy the changes you seek in  public institutions that are supposed to be governed by elected trustees.  Additionally, Mr. Camp offers up the assumption that the “winners” of the lottery will almost certainly go to college.  Whether the assumption is the film’s or his own, it should be put into a broader context regarding charter schools.  Maybe the film picked the finest, but to the extent that it promotes charters more broadly, it neglects to inform its audience (or so I hear) that charter schools do not, as a collective, outperform traditional public schools.  Furthermore, some of the most “successful” charters have high attrition rates.  It might be true in these particular charter schools that those who graduate will most likely attend college, but at some charters (KIPP schools are the ones widely reported about), the attrition rates are in the neighborhood of 50% – hardly the guaranteed education WfS and/or Mr. Camp would suggest.