‘Superman’ Tugs Heartstrings by Thumping Teachers

Howard Ryan Oct 26, 2010

Teachers and parents active with the Grassroots Education Movement in New York City donned capes to protest at a screening of “Waiting for Superman.” Photo: Grassroots Education MovementTeachers laboring under slashed budgets in crowded classrooms, under intense pressure to raise student test scores, now face a fresh challenge—from Hollywood.

Davis Guggenheim, director of the influential global warming movie “An Inconvenient Truth,” has released a documentary about schools, “Waiting for Superman,” whose ambitions are equally powerful.

Audiences have been moved by the film. The media have fawned, with NBC, ABC, and Oprah lavishing attention on its ideas for better schools.

President Obama received the children highlighted in the film along with “Superman’s” producers in the White House, while Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised the film as a “Rosa Parks moment.”

“Superman” seeks to win millions of Americans to the cause of education reform, as the corporate sector and Obama’s education policymakers have come to define it. Duncan pins school performance on teachers, who are blamed for the problems in schools and held accountable for achieving better results—as measured by standardized tests that are widely criticized for measuring learning poorly and for narrowing students’ focus to fill-in-the-bubble.

Rising test scores can mean a raise or a bonus for the teacher, while declining scores can mean losing one’s job. The strategy strongly favors privately run charter schools over public schools. It also means reducing the power of teachers’ unions, or, ideally, eliminating them altogether.

‘Teachers have been outraged at the one-sidedness of the movie. It gives the impression that the failure in public schools is the fault of teachers or unions.’

The film makes its case emotionally and effectively by focusing on the aspirations of five children and their loving parents. The children are mostly poor and people of color. Their families see public schools—which the film portrays in the starkest terms—as barriers to their dreams.

The parents try to enroll their children in charter schools with reputations for success but limited slots that are filled by lottery. In the film’s climax, the applicants wait anxiously for their lucky numbers to be called. Will the dreams of these sweet and hopeful children be denied?

“Superman” connects with righteous values: everyone wants better schools, and every child should have opportunities regardless of race or economic status. But the film is deceptive, says Julie Cavanagh, an 11-year special education teacher in Brooklyn and active with the Grassroots Education Movement, a coalition that works for quality public education.


“New York City’s public schools are outperforming charter schools” on test scores, she says—a fact one would never guess from “Superman.” “And the charter schools don’t enroll the same percentage of disabled learners, children in poverty, or English language learners as the public schools do.”

Says Norm Scott, who recently retired after 35 years teaching elementary school in New York City: “Teachers have been outraged at the one-sidedness of the movie. It gives the impression that the failure in public schools is the fault of teachers or unions.”

The film’s heroes, Harlem education entrepreneur Geoffrey Canada and former D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee, built reputations on their readiness to fire teachers. The film’s union villains, led by Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), serve little purpose other than protecting bad teachers.


Ironically, while Guggenheim presents teachers unions as barriers to reform, those same unions are making peace with corporate school reform: pay for performance, job security tied to test scores, public schools replaced with charters.

AFT’s national leaders are acquiescing to the corporate program, says Nathan Saunders, VP of the Washington Teachers Union in D.C., “and local leaders are acquiescing to the national organization.”

Weingarten helped negotiate a “reform-friendly” contract with Rhee this spring, offering bonus pay for boosted test scores while sharply reducing job security. Shortly after ratification, Rhee fired 241 teachers and issued written warnings to hundreds of others.

With the media and politicians blaming teachers, and the unions eager to please even virulent opponents, what might a better vision of school reform look like?

“Teachers unions need to be social justice unions,” says Alex Caputo-Pearl, an 18-year teacher active with Progressive Educators for Action, a caucus in United Teachers Los Angeles.

“Of course, that includes representing teachers and their interests,” he says. “But also, much more deeply, it means representing the interests of the communities that we serve.”

PEAC activists want to make schools relevant to students’ lives and the needs of their communities, while also demanding respect for teachers as workers.

Rather than schools run by unaccountable corporate boards and charter companies, as promoted by billionaires like Bill Gates, Caputo-Pearl envisions “public management” of schools through coalitions of parents, students, and teachers.

He sees unions as essential vehicles to develop these alternatives. But the unions have to lead school reform by organizing with allies for power.

“The teachers unions collaborate for school reform from a position of weakness,” he says. “We have to actually organize on the ground to create a foundation for true reform.”

This article was originally published on Labor Notes.

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