THE BLOG
09/24/2010 05:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Waiting for the Teachers' Union

If you do one thing this weekend, go see Davis Guggenheim's latest documentary, "Waiting for 'Superman' ", which opens in theaters across the country today. The film, which has been met with well-deserved critical acclaim, paints a blunt and at times heartbreaking picture of the state of public education in America, told through the stories of families fighting to get their children into safe, high-performing schools.

First, it's a terrific film. But more importantly, it has helped catapult the debate on education reform to the national stage.

It's not surprising that the film is making many people uncomfortable. The truth is harsh. It's easier to turn away than to watch a crying mom clutch a losing lottery ticket that just cost her child a spot at a top-performing charter school.

What is surprising is that some -- including the teachers' unions -- are railing against the film, dismissing it as anti-teacher and pro-charter school propaganda.

'Superman' is not anti-teacher; nor does it suggest that charter schools are the answer. Teachers are the heroes of any education success story, and 'Superman' recognizes that. It also recognizes that there are good charters schools and bad charters schools. But it demonstrates that charters are finally providing families in traditionally disadvantaged communities with more choices -- something affluent families have always had -- thus increasing the chances for better outcomes. And the most successful charters, like the Harlem Children's Zone schools that are run by Geoff Canada, who stars in the film, or the KIPP schools featured in it, are proving that success doesn't depend upon where you come from, or the color of your skin, or how much money your family has -- because they are getting real results in the poorest communities.

For example, this year, at the Harlem Success Academy, a charter school in New York City, 88 percent of the students passed the state's reading test and 95 percent passed the math test, while comparable schools have pass rates of 35 percent in reading and 45 percent in math. In fact, Success performed at the same level as the very top gifted and talented schools in the City, all of which have demanding admissions requirements, while Success selects by lottery from primarily African-American and Latino students, three quarters of whom are living in poverty.

So why are they able to get better results? The number one reason is because they are not bound by legions of micro-managing regulations, including those contained in today's typical teachers' union contract.

Free from these rules, charter schools in New York can treat their teachers like professionals and reward them for excellence. They embrace an accountability system based on merit. They understand that, like any other profession, all teachers are not created equal. And, they value the future of the kids above the future of the adults. Which means if you are teaching in one of Geoff Canada's schools, and your kids keep failing, you're out.

It's been nearly 30 years since President Reagan presented "A Nation at Risk." In the meantime, our nation has almost doubled its spending (in inflation-adjusted dollars) on K-12 public education, but our gains have been negligible. And, while America's students are in a ditch, the rest of the world is plowing forward. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development administers English, math and science tests to 13 year olds in its 30 member countries. On the most recent exams, the United States was in the bottom third in all three, and trending in the wrong direction in each one. And, where we once had the highest percentage of high school and college graduates among these 30 countries, today we're toward the bottom for high school graduates and in the middle for college graduates.

We can't keep ignoring this problem or thinking it'll get fixed simply by throwing money at it.

Public education is badly failing far too many of our kids and, ultimately, our nation. We must, as Superman does, talk honestly about this uncomfortable fact and why it persists. And that discussion can only begin in earnest if we are prepared to acknowledge what the iconic teachers' union head Albert Shanker told us almost two decades ago: "As long as there are no consequences if kids or adults don't perform, as long as the discussion is not about education and student outcomes, then we're playing a game as to who has the power." Unfortunately, things haven't changed much since then.

Only recently, for example, the General Counsel of the NEA, the nation's largest teachers' union, said:

Why is the NEA an effective advocate? Despite what some among us would like to believe it is not because of our creative ideas; it is not because of the merit of our positions; it is not because we care about children; and it is not because we have a vision of a great public school for every child.

The NEA and its affiliates are effective advocates because we have power. And we have power because there are more than 3.2 million people who are willing to pay us hundreds of million of dollars in dues each year because they believe that we are the unions that can most effectively represent them; the union that can protect their rights and advance their interests as education employees.

I am not naïve enough to think that a movie can change the world. But "Waiting for 'Superman' " does shine a much-needed spotlight on the status quo and the people who benefit from and defend it.

And it reminds us all that our job is to give voice to the voiceless and the powerless kids that are currently being denied the education they need and deserve. Because, let's face it -- they can't afford union dues.

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