Someone walking out of the theater having just seen Davis Guggenheim’s documentary Waiting for “Superman” shouldn’t be blamed for feeling a breezy confidence about the direction we should be headed with our nation’s schools. “The problem is complex, but the steps are simple,” the film assures us. We simply need to build more charter schools, get rid of lazy and incompetent teachers, create accountability regimes and—oh yeah—hire better teachers. But, first we need to get rid of the archaic bureaucracies and unions that protect these cretins. This would be great if it were true. Unfortunately, the film amounts to propaganda for the reform efforts beginning with President Bush’s No Child Left Behindinitiative of 2001, not a prescription for reform.
Superman tells the story of five children as they attempt to transfer from their local public schools (and one parochial school) for better opportunities at nearby charter schools. These stories are poignant and devastating as we watch families pin their hopes and their child’s future on lottery systems to gain entry to charter schools with few openings. Guggenheim’s film creates a sense of urgency about the problem—low graduation rates, poor literacy and math skills, and the associated costs of an inadequate educational system on individuals and society. This sounds like a snoozer, but the film is emotionally charged, compelling, and well-made. While the film does a good job of depicting the overall context of reform from the policy perspective from charter schools, standardized testing, and merit pay, it cherry picks its cases to push an agenda and fails to illuminate what these reforms mean to teachers and students in the classroom, where learning presumably takes place.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is that the charter schools it portrays are not representative of charters as a whole, which research has shown are no more effective than traditional public schools. Even Guggenheim points out that only one in five charters produces the “amazing” results he is promoting, however this point will probably be lost on most viewers in the emotional pull of the film. Moreover, “better performance” from charters is often a “selection effect” because the parents, like those featured in the film, are already highly concerned about their child’s education and motivated to do something about it.
Guggenheim could have chosen five other examples that would have created an entirely different (and more accurate) portrait. For instance, he could have featured the Channel View School for Research, where my friend Jim has taught for the past six years. It’s a Title One School, meaning that the majority of the students are from low-income households and yet 97 percent of students graduated and 89 percent of graduates enrolled in college last year. Or he could have featured The Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice, where I used to teach. For the past two years, the senior graduation rate was 96 percent, with 90 percent enrolling in college in 2008 and 2009 and 93 percent in 2010. Neither of these schools are charters, and neither select their students. Their successes can be attributed to good leadership, hard work, excellent teaching, and dedicated staff members who care deeply about students and success. Yes, the teachers at these schools are members of the United Federation of Teachers.
Which brings us to the issue of teacher turnover and sustainability. Teacher turnover and burnout are huge problems for many urban schools including KIPP, Green Dot, the Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academy, and others featured in the film. These organizations rely on recent college graduates who stay for a few years before burning out and moving on. For instance, only 35 percent of Teach for America members stay in the classroom longer than four years, leaving before they can become fully effective. We know that good teaching takes years to develop, yet we seem to have come to accept that idea that teaching—especially in urban areas—is a temporary career stop on the way to other things. Turnover undermines student achievement, which depends heavily on building nurturing relationships with students.
This is not to deny that our education system needs an overhaul, that there aren’t bad schools or ineffectual teachers, and that, yes, sometimes unions make it difficult to get rid of some of these individuals. However, unions also provide reasonable protections including “just cause” for firing and basic support for struggling teachers. Last year, even KIPP Brooklyn teachers voted to unionize to create a more sustainable culture to reduce turnover and better serve students.
The accountability movement, which the film endorses, has only made things more difficult for teachers. It may be a good principle to hold all students to the same standard, but students come to class with different needs and abilities and the relentless testing has served to alienate teachers and students alike.
When I first began teaching at a large, dysfunctional middle school in 2001 through the New York City Teaching Fellows, the accountability movement hadn’t yet gained steam. During my first two years, I had trouble scrounging up enough novels or anthologies for each of my students. In my third year, after the enthusiasm for tests really kicked in, I was given six sets of test preparation manuals from Kaplan and Princeton Review, among others. Students received daily test prep from me, and science and social studies instruction was frequently suspended so that students could receive even more test prep there. I had imagined being the kind of teacher who would develop students into competent writers and thinkers who were enthusiastic about ideas; instead, I was charged with teaching test prep day in and day out. When the school’s principal walked into my classroom to tell my eighth graders that the fate of the school was riding on their test performance, I knew it was time to move on.
Teaching is difficult and idiosyncratic work. The success of teaching—learning—is dependent upon the willing participation of the student. Teachers must learn to inspire, cajole, amuse, entertain, and sometimes browbeat students into working and learning. We like to piss on bad teachers a lot, but why not focus on how to attract and retain the great ones rather than how to further denigrate individuals who are doing tough work for low status and pay? Who wants to work in an environment where professional judgment is neglected in favor of decisions made by bureaucrats who know little about the specific context or needs of the students you face everyday?
Even after a few years in the classroom, teachers have seen it all before and they’ve seen it all go. New initiatives appear, training days are provided, programs are rolled out. We watch as the initial enthusiasm disappears and the initiative is quietly abandoned only for another one to appear in a few months. Case in point, D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, one of the film’s heroes, resigned last week. What that means for D.C.’s schools is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile thousands of D.C. teachers are still showing up for work doing their best to improve their craft and to reach the students who are in their classes. Rather than trying to create the perfect model, curriculum, or delivery method, the best way to serve our nation’s children is consider how to make teaching in difficult areas more sustainable so we can hold onto the many dedicated and talented educators we have.