'Waiting for Superman's' half-truths and heroes can move you to tears

(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)

Waiting for Superman, the Davis Guggenheim documentary about public education, is headed for the theaters with more hype and about as much substance as a B-grade Western.

As in the B-grade Western there are villains, heroines, simplistic truths, and a pull at your heartstrings.

The plot line of Superman follows five children and their families from New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Silicon Valley as they — like thousands every year — go through school choice lottery programs, hoping to get into the school they want. There’s joy and tears, more of the latter.

The movie does what it intends: It emotionally involves the viewers in the struggle of children and their families to find schools that work for them and to avoid some of the most troubled public schools, aptly named “dropout factories.”

The villains and heroes are easily identified. People who represent teacher unions, like Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, are villains. People who represent charter schools and those who want to kick ass and take names in school districts are heroes and heroines. Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of the D.C. schools, is a heroine. Geoffery Canada, the charismatic founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, is a hero and gives the film its title. Canada recalls that, as a boy, he cried when his mother told him that Superman did not exist, “because no one was coming with enough power to save us.”

The search for a Superman has been an enduring feature of the school reform movement, going back at least a quarter-century: If there would only be a strong, charismatic leader or reading or math program, our problems would be solved. Like many charismatics before him, Guggenheim thinks that he’s found the answer. “In recent years, we’ve cracked the code. The high-performing charter schools, like KIPP and others, have figured out the system that works for kids in even the toughest neighborhoods,”  he told Dom Giordano of the Philadelphia Daily News.

In other words: charter schools good, unions bad. Unfortunately, this is a convenient half-truth.

There are some very good charter schools, and there are charter school leaders who are very good at promoting their schools. But virtually every study of charter school performance comes back with the same message: The results are mixed. One of the largest, most careful studies. done at Stanford, found that only 17 percent of charter schools had statistically significant higher results in math, while 37 percent of the charter schools had worse results than corresponding public schools.

The more we learn about charter schools, the more clearly we understand that the difficulty of bringing promising practices to scale is as complex in those schools as it is in traditional public schools. As Ted Kolderie, who influenced the founding of charters, writes, “No one would ask whether eating at home is better than eating out: Clearly it depends on what you eat in the restaurant and what you eat at home . … A charter is simply permission to start a school: No student learns anything from a charter.”

And, yes, there are some very bad labor-management practices. Both national teacher unions have been slow to adopt a strong quality agenda, and to represent teaching as an occupation as well as teachers as employees. The irony of the film is that it casts Weingarten in the villain’s role, when she has pushed the quality agenda forward, often with substantial internal opposition.

Clearly, unions and management need to negotiate better ways of evaluating teachers and removing those who can’t or won’t teach. Clearly, unions and management need to find ways that seniority is used to place teachers; if new innovative schools are to flourish, they need to be able to pick teachers whose beliefs and practices match those of the school. Clearly, the system needs to provide much greater variety in the types of schooling available, the same specialization that attracts parents by the thousands to wait in line for admission or enter the lottery processes depicted in the film.

These changes need to happen now, and perhaps the best thing about Superman is the sense of urgency it brings to the public policy discussion. But Superman stands in a long line of would-be action heroes that have declared a crisis in public education, and despite its hubris it is far from the best in its analysis or prescription. It’s correct at the end, though. There is no Superman; there’s only you.

Charles Taylor Kerchner is Research Professor in the School Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and a specialist in educational organizations, educational policy, and teacher unions. In 2008, he and his colleagues completed a four-year study of education reform of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The results of that research can be found in The Transformation of Great American School Districts and in Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, published by Harvard Education Press.

Filed under: Charter Schools, Commentary, Reforms, Teaching, Testing and Accountability

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6 Responses to “'Waiting for Superman's' half-truths and heroes can move you to tears”

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  1. Ankie on Oct 4, 2010 at 8:48 am10/4/2010 8:48 am

    • 000

    Saw Waiting for Superman this weekend.  It didn’t really have new information but it put faces on the kids that are going through a broken system.  I hope that Guggenheim follows up with this because I’ll believe that even the kids who did not get in to the school they wanted will do well because these families value education.  The thing that I got out of this movie is it is hard to fire bad teachers.  Also there are some good teachers out there that care very much about the children and can produce high achieving students giving the right circumstances.  

  2. CarolineSF on Sep 30, 2010 at 12:55 pm09/30/2010 12:55 pm

    • 000

    I was going to comment on this atrocity committed by the shining wonderful Utopian miraculous Nirvana charter schools, but Gail Collins in the NYT just did it perfectly:

    My own particular, narrow wrath was focused on the ritual at the heart of the movie, where parents and kids sit nervously in an auditorium, holding their lottery numbers while somebody pulls out balls and announces the lucky winners of seats in next fall’s charter school class. The lucky families jump up and down and scream with joy while the losing parents and kids cry. In some of the lotteries, there are 20 heartbroken children for every happy one.
    Charter schools, please, stop. I had no idea you selected your kids with a piece of performance art that makes the losers go home feeling like they’re on a Train to Failure at age 6. You can do better. Use the postal system.


    The movie also shows the charter school staffs holding welcome signs and smilingly congratulating the ecstatic “winners,” while coldly ignoring the weeping losers (including the children, foolishly toted along by their hapless parents) — their message appears to be “nyah nyah to the rest of you.” 

    Though speaking of charter schools saying nyah nyah to losers, I think there are some interesting comments to be made on the attrition of some of the shining miracle Nirvana charter schools.

    — The SEED school kicks out 70% of its students between enrollment and graduation. (Source: a feature in the NY Times Sunday magazine.)
    — The LA KIPP school shown in the film “loses” 50+% of its students between 6th and 8th grade and doesn’t replace them. (Source: my own research in the Calif. Dept. of Ed database.)
    — St. Geoffrey Canada kicked out virtually the Promise Academy’s entire 8th grade a couple of years ago. (Source: blog accounts of Paul Tough’s book on Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, which I haven’t read myself yet.)

    So the happy winners have a pretty high chance of being bounced out of the schools they so desperately sought.

    Sorry to spoil a scene in “Waiting for Superman” for everyone, but I was also interested when one of the students featured in the movie was 5th on the SEED school’s waiting list (apparently based on lottery placement) but got a call, apparently before school started, that he had gotten in. What happened to the nine students ahead of him, who all presumably wanted spots in the school as desperately as he did?

    I’m also curious about what Peninsula residents reading this think of the notion, as presented in the film, that Summit Prep Charter is the miracle escape from the horrors of disastrous Woodside High. My impression from here in SF is that Summit’s repution is basically “meh” and Woodside’s rep is reasonably decent.

  3. KSC on Sep 28, 2010 at 2:18 pm09/28/2010 2:18 pm

    • 000

    Looks like Superman (make that ‘Supermen‘) came along to bail out ICEF charter schools in LA to the tune of $3 million: http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-0928-charters-20100928,0,3241016.story
    Makes one wonder whether the charter school model is sustainable and replicable when it seems to require vast cash infusions from private sources.

  4. Otto Maddox on Sep 27, 2010 at 7:43 pm09/27/2010 7:43 pm

    • 000

    Sounds like it’s on the same level as his earlier film, An Inconvenient Truth.

  5. Paul Muench on Sep 27, 2010 at 7:55 am09/27/2010 7:55 am

    • 000

    “In recent years, we’ve cracked the code. The high-performing charter schools, like KIPP and others, have figured out the system that works for kids in even the toughest neighborhoods,”
    In other words: charter schools good, unions bad. Unfortunately, this is a convenient half-truth.
    This translation maybe addressing other proponents of charter schools, but its a clear mistranslation of the quote mentioned.

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