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Richard Whitmire

Richard Whitmire

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The 'Superman' Snub

Posted: 02/ 5/11 02:36 PM ET

There were cheers all around last week from school reform opponents when "Waiting for Superman" failed to make the Oscar-nominee short list. Hard to say which was headier news to them: the Oscars snub or Schools Chancellor (and "Superman" star) Michelle Rhee getting bounced from Washington, D.C.

Justice was served, they blogged, pointing to the overblown claims in the documentary that charter schools could solve poverty, famine, global warming, fallen arches...the list goes on.

These were happy times indeed for this group, which includes everyone from teacher union officials to the liberal "common school" advocates. Their triumph arrived courtesy of a tailwind provided by the devastating movie review Diane Ravitch delivered in The New York Review of Books. She called the movie "propagandistic" and savaged director Davis Guggenheim for his "complete indifference to the wide variation among charter schools."

Wow, what a cage-fight whoopin' that was. It was easy to imagine Guggenheim begging for a tap out as Ravitch pummeled him with fact after fact showing that charter schools are no better than regular ones.

Ravitch was so right about that. Charter schools, on average, are definitely no better than regular public schools. Guggenheim naively assumed that a short disclaimer would suffice: oh by the way, not all charters achieve these results. It was something akin to those quickie car-ad disclaimers: only professional drivers should try driving 100 mph down a slick mountain course.

My advice to those cheering Guggenheim's comeuppance: Sip your victory drinks quickly, because your heady celebration lacks legs. Critics of "Superman" and Rhee overlook two realities: Rhee was trying to do exactly what this applauding crowd says they want, which is improve public schools, and those charter schools in the movie truly are that good.

Let's start with Rhee. Squint your eyes and try hard to recall the scenes from "Superman." Remember Anthony, the kid who really, really wanted to get into a charter school to avoid certain academic death at his neighborhood school, Sousa Middle School? That school is located in D.C.'s beleaguered Anacostia neighborhood.

Here's the interesting story about Sousa. Guggenheim made his documentary at a time when Sousa was most certainly an academic death trap -- dubbed an "academic sink hole" by The Washington Post. But then Michelle Rhee stepped in and appointed a kick-ass, take-names principal who, over a couple of years, refreshed the staff and turned Sousa into one of the most compelling turnaround school success stories in the nation.

And by the way, Ravitch's criticisms of charter schools warrant a school bus-size caveat. Yes, most of America's roughly 5,000 charter schools are no better than regular schools, but about 300 charters (including the ones in the movie) are not just a little better than other urban schools, but a lot better.

To suggest that those 300 charters are anything but critical education safety valves, not to mention important role models for other schools, puts you -- well -- in a Glenn Beck mindset. Different ideology, same myopia.

Still feeling good about the "Superman" snub?

Here's one more development for you to absorb. The backlash against Rhee produced a new president of the Washington Teachers Union, Nathan Saunders, who, during an interview with me for my latest book, explained that having a quality teacher isn't that important to African American students. And the new vice president of the WTU railed against the Sousa reforms in her blog, calling the principal there a "bully" for getting rid of the teachers who had made that school an academic sinkhole.

Go on, savor that victory.