THE BLOG
10/03/2010 11:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Waiting for a Fair Shake: The One Sidedness of 'Waiting for Superman'

Last week, I went to a pre-screening of "Waiting for 'Superman' ", the new documentary about urban education by Davis Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning director of "An Inconvenient Truth". As a charter school teacher, and Teach for America corps member to boot, I figured it'd be nearly impossible for me to dislike the movie.

But I found something strange happening to me as the film progressed. At the start, I felt moved by the vivid portrayal of the horror of inner city public schools. I grew slightly uneasy, though, as the movie slid into casual union bashing, a feeling that only intensified with the depiction of all tenured teachers as hacks like Lisa Simpson's incompetent teacher, Ms. Hoover. By the time I left, the film's one-sidedness had galled me to the point that I was ready to break into "Solidarity Forever," the old trade union anthem.

"Waiting for 'Superman' " may well perform a valuable service by shining light on a long-neglected issue. But I can't help but focus on the fact that it seems flawed in its two principal policy arguments: that charter schools are a panacea for the problems that face urban schools, and that tenured teachers and unions are implacable, immovable impediments to reform. Let me take each point separately.

As Guggenheim himself notes in passing, only about one in five charter schools actually has an excellent record of improving student achievement. But he fails to square this with his central explanation for the ills of urban education (poor teachers are protected by tenure) and his central policy claim (non-unionized charters provide a better model). If being able to fire teachers at will is what can make a school great, how can it be that four out of five charters don't have a strong record of achievement?

It is undoubtedly true that the charter networks featured in the film, like KIPP, have stellar records of educating some of the nation's least fortunate children. But what makes this possible isn't merely (or even primarily) their at-will employment: it's their longer instructional days and years, airtight cultures, clear and rigorous curricula, and common instructional missions. Indeed, this is what makes traditional schools excellent too, as the recently documented transformation of a massive, unionized school in Brockton, Mass., which came about primarily due to changes to instructional approaches, evidences.

There is no doubt that unions can be impediments to such progress and that some collective bargaining agreements ought to be dramatically loosened. But it is extremely suspect to take this and then argue that eliminating tenure, on its own, will produce the results KIPP does.

The plethora of mediocre, bad, and atrocious charter schools speaks to this, as does the fact that, in totality, charters actually underperform their traditional counterparts. (This is true both nationally, according to the Department of Education, and in my hometown of Chicago, according to the Consortium on Chicago School Research.) And that's leaving aside the fact that, accepting Guggenheim's logic, we would expect no underperforming schools in states with weak or non-existent unions, like right-to-work North Carolina and Texas. That unionized Massachusetts is the nation's perennial top-performer might also require some explanation.

Just as problematic as Guggenheim's argument about charter schools is his unfair savaging of tenured teachers -- seconds after receiving tenure, Ms. Hoover turns her class over to the dimwitted Ralph Wiggum, who reads upside down from a textbook before leaping out a window -- and teachers unions, like portraying American Federation of Teachers chief Randi Weingarten as an unreconstructed dinosaur. The problem isn't so much that these depictions are insulting, but that they obscure the real progress being made by many union locals, almost always with buy-in from their members.

Strangely, the education reformer who has provided the impetus behind many of these efforts, Bill Gates, is quoted extensively in the film but never on this topic. For the past year, Gates has poured resources into Memphis, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles to fund new experiments in compensating and promoting teachers based on quality rather than lock-step seniority and credential rules. With the exception of Los Angeles, Gates is working with traditional, unionized public school districts. As he said in a speech to the AFT this summer:

In school districts and legislatures across the country, you in the AFT have been using your voice to get teachers the feedback and training they need to make a difference for students. Critics who've long complained that teachers unions don't care about student outcomes have been forced to reconsider. In Washington, D.C., New York, New Haven, Tampa, Pittsburgh, Colorado -- you have taken historic steps to bury old arguments and improve student achievement.

Perhaps the most successful case of district-union collaboration comes from the third city mentioned by Gates: New Haven. Under the leadership of union chief David Cicarella, New Haven's AFT local agreed to a contract that allows for teachers to be compensated and promoted (or, for some, fired), based on both evaluations conducted by unionized master teachers and the achievement data of the students. Cicarella negotiated the contract through an open process that any teacher in his local could join, and did so with on-the-ground help of staff from the AFT's national office.

Some might respond that it's naive to consider the New Haven example instructive, and that most unions just won't reform and work with districts like Cicarella did. As a Chicagoan, I'm certainly tempted to agree. But it's actually more likely that reforms pushed by vision-guided union and district leaders will yield positive outcomes than it is that unions will dissolve and traditional public schools will be replaced wholesale with non-unionized charters. This is demonstrated by the fact that the former is happening in multiple places, while the latter has happened only in post-Katrina New Orleans.

The media, this film included, usually prefer to focus on the battle between warring sides than on the quiet progress that is actually occurring. The effect is to reinforce the false narrative of union hacks being wrestled into submission by brave reformers. But neither that story nor its converse -- dedicated educators fending off an assault from interloping scabs -- is productive for anyone.

D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, a hero among reformers, has often said that districts and unions are consumed by "adult issues" that distract from the mission of educating children. Sad as it may be, the narrative advanced by "Waiting for 'Superman' " probably does more to maintain than to change that.