Waiting for Superman?


By Duane Campbell

Waiting for Superman is an emotional film that follows five public school students who compete in lotteries to attend public charter schools. This film was made by the producer of An Inconvenient Truth, Davis Guggenheim. Waiting for Superman has been screened at a variety of film festivals, including Sundance, and was released on  September 24, 2010.

Rethinking Schools editor Stan Karp wrote this after viewing the film:

“The message of the film is that public schools are failing because of bad teachers and their unions. The film’s “solution,” to the minimal extent it suggests one, is to replace them with “great” charter schools and teachers who have less power over their schools and classrooms.

This message is not just wrong. In the current political climate, it’s toxic.”

This film tells a moving story about  problems and injustice in public schools  but it blames the problems of schools on teachers unions.  Why is that ?

Waiting for Superman says  several important things about the challenges of the public education system.  However, the central  message—”charters are good” and “teachers unions are bad”—oversimplifies complicated issues and promotes a particular corporate view of school reform.  This is the viewpoint promoted by the Bill Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, by Michele Rhee and Joel Klien among others.

Are charters superior to public schools?

First,  you need to understand what are charter schools? They are  usually public schools using public money  but without the direct over sight of school districts, school administrations and  school boards.  They often do not allow teachers to have a union and they usually do not have a union contract.  Charters are established by state laws and promoted by federal legislation including No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

In California, research shows  some charters do better than  some public schools, some do worse.  They are about average. The evidence is the  same in New York City.

What are the clear effect of charters?   Charter school  teachers are paid about 20% less,  and usually  are expected to work much longer hours.  The average teacher works 69 hours per week for an average salary of  around $51,000 in California.

In charters  teachers  are usually receive  less benefits and  little or no job security.  You can be dismissed by the director  of the charter for almost any reason.

Why do some charter work better than some public schools?

To begin with as described extensively in my book, Choosing Democracy: a practical guide to multicultural education, (2010)  most public schools are doing quite well.  Up to 50% of the schools, mostly in middle class areas, are doing quite well, graduating students, preparing them for college or career.  Charters work  better than some schools   substantially for the same reason that Catholic schools work better for some  students( even though up to 40% of Catholic school students are not Catholic. They are simply students whose parents have chosen a more constricted school system with a closer tie to values.-much like charters.)

Most students in charters want to be there or their parents want them to be there.   Students and their families need to apply and to be accepted.  The school establishes a culture of school work, discipline and authority.  < Note. Most teenagers need some authority.>  If you don’t fit into this school culture you are encouraged to go elsewhere.  Such a positive  school culture is mutually reinforcing bringing students back to the study table when they tend to wander.

In some public schools, a group  of the students don’t want to be there.- or they do not want to do the work.  A significant minority of students are reluctant to work, to pay attention, and to follow school rules.  The teachers have to spend considerable time and energy trying to keep students paying attention, doing their work. And, some of the parents don’t want to work with the school, others don’t know how to work with the teachers.  And, some parents don’t work with the students.   In this more disrupted environment, even good students get distracted, bullied, and off track and fail to perform.

See my book, Choosing Democracy: a practical guide to multicultural education. 2010.

For detailed alternatives see, Broader, Bolder Approach. http://www.boldapproach.org/

Teachers, Unions and School Improvement

  1. This film is full of inaccuracies, ranging from its portrayal of New York City’s “rubber rooms” (which are now closed thanks in part to the efforts of the local teachers union) to its discussion of the DC teachers contract (which passed in large part because of union efforts). Its claims about school finance are also misleading.

2. Members of the  two largest teachers unions are in the forefront of developing and implementing ways to improve teacher     quality. No teacher wants teachers in the classroom who fail children.

3. The message of this  film is that public schools are failing because of bad teachers and their unions, not because of inadequate budgets, dangerous teaching conditions,racism, poverty, failed bureaucratic efforts by politicians,  and lack of support for teachers.   An alternative view is here : NOTwaitingforsuperman.org.

Two good analyses of the what is wrong with the film are;

“An Inconvenient Superman: Davis Guggenheim’s New Film Hijacks School Reform,” by Rick Ayers on the Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rick-ayers-/an-inconvenient-superman-_b_716420.html

And,  “ Grading Waiting for Superman”, by Dana Goldstein, in the Nation for Sept.23, 2010.  To be published. Oct.11, 2010.

http://www.thenation.com/article/154986/grading-waiting-superman?page=0,0

Great new resource on the real story of public education. http://www.aft.org/notwaiting/

We at Talking Union  encourage the discussion of school improvement on this blog. We  particularly we welcome the discussion of teachers and others well informed about the schools.

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3 Responses

  1. Everyone needs to know that the “charters good, public schools and teachers unions bad” movement has claimed an actual victim here in Los Angeles. Rigoberto Ruelas, a 5th grade teacher in Los Angeles who was publicly identified as a “less effective” teacher in the LA Times database connected with Times articles on “value-added” teaching, apparently committed suicide this week. His body was discovered Sunday afternoon below a remote bridge after he had been missing for several days. By all accounts the 14-year veteran teacher was highly regarded by his fellow teachers and by the community in which he taught.

    All the talk of reform rings pretty hollow here in California as teachers face class sizes of 40 or more. My English classes this semester are all 40+. With California’s budget crisis expected to extend for two more years at least, no wonder people are despairing. Duncan and Obama do not understand or do not care about the seriousness of the situation we face in the schools. I hope everyone turns out to the October 2nd events in DC and elsewhere to demand justice and jobs. Remember Rigoberto Ruelas!

  2. Thank you for the report.
    Unions will need to work together on this.

  3. I am disappointed but not surprised that some will cry “don’t blame the teachers and the unions. It’s not just the teachers or just the union but they both must accept their share of the problem. I have been a school board member and a teacher and a consultant in the schools. There are great teachers but there are sub-par, lousy teacher that are protected by the unions at all cost. The local school boards must take their share of the blame for letting union support for their re-election cause them to not stand up to the unions. It is a complex problem but if the finger pointing continues and the groups refuse to work together, we and out children are doomed.

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