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On Guggenheim's Cutting Room Floor

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In the spring of 2009, Randi Weingarten, then head of the United Federation of Teachers, Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot Public Schools, and I invited filmmaker Davis Guggenheim to the Green Dot New York Charter School in the South Bronx. This new small high school, which the three of us founded, is a successful partnership between Green Dot, the Los Angeles-based operator of high-achieving and unionized charter schools, and the UFT.

It was our understanding that Guggenheim, a self-described liberal Democrat, was turned off by the divisive school politics that pit "reformers" against "reactionaries," the self-limiting anti-unionism of today's charter movement, and the counter-productive take-no-prisoners style of high-profile, short-term superintendents. Green Dot, with its impressive record of student achievement and collaborative approach, offered a powerful third-way model that works for kids, can build lasting change, and doesn't demonize hardworking adults.

Guggenheim's crew came to New York and filmed Green Dot students and teachers. Barr was interviewed on a drive through the school's South Bronx neighborhood. Guggenheim even documented the signing by Weingarten and Barr of the school's first collective bargaining agreement. This landmark thin contract makes little mention of work-rules, provides for due process but makes no mention of tenure, includes Green Dot's trademark un-timed "professional day" for all employees, and has ample opportunities for teacher input.

By all indications, Green Dot New York is already a success. In just two years, 100% of students in the school's inaugural class have passed the state's demanding mathematics exam; 100% passed the state science exam; 97% are on track to graduate in four years. Notably, these impressive results were posted by students who have overcome personal challenges: nearly 10% have a learning disability; another 10% are English Language Learners. And family income is low: 88% of students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.

Some reasons for this success include small classes that are scheduled in blocks for more meaningful instructional time; teachers have manageable work loads and keep office hours to give students extra help; and weekly grade-level meetings keep students from slipping through the cracks. These and other features operate in a culture of trust, hard work and high expectations that is shared and nurtured by the students, teachers, and school leaders.

Unlike many popular reforms, the school's founding by Green Dot and the UFT is a powerful and relevant example of management-labor cooperation. This collaboration is codified in a different kind of labor agreement that some philanthropists and academics have advocated for years. It includes provisions sought by many district leaders. Weingarten herself has touted the school as a model partnership that yielded a mold-breaking contract.

Davis Guggenheim, conveniently, had much of this on film. Given his belief that teacher tenure "is the most intractable problem in public education," Green Dot New York, with its thin, no-tenure contract, was a model worth depicting. Yet his new movie, "Waiting for Superman," leaves the school--and its promising, scalable innovations--on the cutting room floor. Apparently Guggenheim was more interested in dramatic narrative than documentary accuracy. In depicting hero reformers saving innocent children from villainous unionists, Guggenheim has told a theatrical story that aims for moral indignation through over-simplification. His calculated omission of Green Dot and similar efforts, such as the Union Park High School in Chicago, present caricatures instead of characters and ignore the category-defying examples that represent relevant and replicable alternatives that can drive sustained change.

Surely the subtle and wonky nuances of labor reform are hard to depict on the big screen, and Guggenheim can almost be forgiven for being a filmmaker, not a policymaker. And no doubt, hard choices are made in the editing room. But in choosing--and reinforcing--the clichés of school reform, Waiting for "Superman" naively endorses an inflammatory politics that only hardens people and their positions.

Some reformers are hoping that "Waiting for Superman" will do for public education what An Inconvenient Truth did for the environmental movement, but I think it unlikely that this new film builds a broad coalition and a collaborative politics of change. The film's endorsement of conventional "truths" about the good guys and bad guys of public education misses an opportunity to expose and discredit today's divisive school politics, to expect more of people, and to promote the potential of unconventional reforms that would have inconveniently disrupted the narrative of his film and today's school reform movement.

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