Waiting for Superman is charming, emotional, and misguided: Part one (Why shredding teachers’ unions Isn’t the solution, as the film leads one to believe)

Waiting for Superman, directed by Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth), will be the most talked-about movie in American when it comes out September 24. It’s the big-ticket, mass-media, crossover-audience education movie we’ve been waiting for. And it sends audiences home full of passion, indignation, and outrage.

The problem is that the movie pushes a purely anti-union, pro-charter school ideology that won’t improve our school system en masse. The big takeaways from Waiting for Superman are charter schools are saviors, unions are villains. Much of Guggenheim’s ammunition intended to drive the discourse is dated or inaccurate.

The movie follows five lovable children and their families who feel— quite justifiably, as the filmmaker goes to lengths to show—that their local public school is a doomed option as they pin their hopes on admission by lottery to charter schools. The segments featuring the students are poignant and powerful, and the film’s final act is dedicated almost entirely to them.  You badly want these deserving kids to attend schools that will unlock their potential. Any denial or obstruction of that feels criminal.

Indeed, who is denying these kids— and their millions of vulnerable, unheralded counterparts— a great education? One leaves Waiting for Superman believing teachers’ unions the biggest culprit. The film blames unions of educators for putting adults’ interests consistently over students’ needs, a practice that has allegedly protected legions of deadbeat teachers and wasted billions of precious education dollars. This makes for compelling movie-watching, but it’s totally off-base.

Waiting for Superman also deploys images of New York City’s infamous Kafka-esque “rubber rooms” as evidence that teachers’ unions waste money and protect losers. This is problematic for two huge reasons:

Reason #1:  The rubber room cases are dragged out so outrageously long— years, for many— because New York City, not the union, hired so few hearing officers. This is a head-scratcher; one may conjecture that the city didn’t mind keeping this bureaucratic abomination going in order to shovel righteous indignation on its perennial rival, and to score anti-union hit pieces like Steven Brill’s widely read New Yorkerarticle from last year.

Buried in a 2007 Village Voice exposé on rubber rooms, reporter Mara Altman dropped this shocker:

“The length of the process depends on the complexity of allegations and case,” DOE spokeswoman Melody Meyer says. “Some investigations take days, others take months.”

There are currently only 18 hearing officers handling misconduct cases. Each officer is contracted to meet only five times a month. The backlog of cases is immense.

“We have been saying for years that we want these people out of these places much more quickly,” UFT president Randi Weingarten says. “There is no reason for them to be sitting six months or longer without charges being filed.”

Hearing officers are chosen jointly by the DOE and the UFT, but are paid for by the New York State Education Department. With New York City officers making up to $1,900 a day, it’s a lucrative part-time job, which some critics say leads these officers to overly compromising opinions.

Reason #2: Rubber rooms are gone. They all closed, effective this past Monday. The city and the union reached an agreement to get rid of them for the betterment of all. Getting stirred up about them while watching this film moves us backwards, not forwards.

Another uppercut the film levels against unions sprang the Washington Teachers Union’s (WTU) blocking of D.C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s first proposal for radically overhauling the District’s contract with teachers. I’ve got two huge problems here as well:

Problem #1: Guggenheim portrays Rhee as a valiant crusaders who can only look on, heartbroken, as a raucous union meeting scuttles her vital plan. Actually, Rhee’s green vs. red track system was problematic in many ways. For one thing, it deified test scores, an educationally counterproductive practice that teachers have known for years to be dangerous. Rhee may be a self-styled “reformer,” but that doesn’t mean she should have been immediately embraced as a benevolent dictator.

Problem #2: The WTU and Michelle Rhee agreed on a contract. It was passed unanimously by the DC City Council yesterday, the last hurdle before adoption. A vigorous, protracted, often nasty debate happened, and eventually, both sides came to an agreement. The union didn’t ruin everything, despite what Waiting for Superman leads one to believe. Getting upset about the early part of the negotiation process shown in the film helps nobody to move forward and attack today and tomorrow’s issues in classrooms.

The film also claims that tenure protections make it virtually impossible to fire bad teachers. That’s an out-of-date assertion. In January 2010, the AFT partnered with Kenneth Feinberg (Special Master for the TARP Executive Compensation and September 11 Victims Compensation Fund) to present a fair-minded and comprehensive overhaul of teacher evaluations. The plan improves accountability and will remove teachers who can’t pull their weight.

Unions are the most available and politically expedient scapegoat for explaining why so many American schools are underperforming. But blaming them, as Waiting for Superman does, avoids the heart of the matter and distorts the discourse on the best way forward to take on very real and very urgent injustices in American public schools.

I’ll have more to say on the heart of the matter, and Waiting for Superman’s portrayal of charter schools, in my next post.

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