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Waiting For Answers

Pro-charter film makes strident arguments but ignores complexities of the problems facing public schools

The most dramatic moment at last Friday’s education program at the Amherst Theatre, centered on a showing of a documentary film, Waiting For Superman, didn’t occur during either the film or the panel discussion that followed it. It was afterwards in the lobby when Buffalo school superintendent Dr. James Williams had a brief dustup with a charter school principal. Williams could be heard loudly telling Tapestry Charter High School’s Lynn Seagreen-Bass that it was individuals like her who were to blame for the difficulties besetting public schools, and that if people didn’t like the way he was doing his job he might quit. At which point he turned on his heels and stalked out of the theater into the night air.

Seagreen-Bass explained that she had confronted Williams because, while he told the audience inside the theatre that he had closed Seneca and Grover Cleveland high schools, and reopened them with programs designed to reduce Buffalo’s dropout rate, there had been little or no progress in that regard. “He talks about Seneca and Grover Cleveland, but the graduation rate for the city’s African-American males is 25 percent,” she said.

City-wide, it’s about 50 percent.

The volatile, sometimes tetchy superintendent’s outburst was in some contrast to his genially accommodationist posture a few minutes earlier when he invited Buffalo Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, seated next to him on stage, to convene a meeting where possibilities for cooperation between the public and charter schools could be discussed. Of course he might have irked Tapestry’s administrator with his earlier comment that “Charter schools are the flavor of the month.”

"Waiting for Superman" director Davis Guggenheim.

Davis Guggenheim’s (An Inconvenient Truth) Waiting for Superman could be called “the flavor of the month” but this might not adequately suggest its current importance. It’s been celebrated as a compelling cinematic examination of the critical, seemingly intractable failures of America’s public schools. Guggenheim’s film has been on the cover of New York magazine, as well as part of Time’s recent education issue and its upcoming conference. NBC’s own conference late last month featured Superman. During that conference, former news anchor Tom Brokaw gave American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten—the film’s major villain—a grilling. CBS News is planning a series of segments based on Superman and, in that nationally recognized ritual of validation, Guggenheim was a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Last week’s screening and subsequent panel discussion was sponsored by Buffalo ReformED, a pro-charter group, in collaboration with Hoyt and the New York Charter Schools Association.

It’s not hard to understand the film’s appeal and the laudatory responses. Hoyt—whose current re-election campaign has been the beneficiary of well-financed pro-charter lobbying groups—told the audience in the Amherst that he “came into this movie knowing that the system is broken.” That’s the point that Guggenheim and his film pound on. Guggenheim includes a clip of US President George H. W. Bush saying he wants to be known as “the education president” and shows five other US chief executives addressing the dysfunction of America’s educational system. And he underscores the widely acknowledged fact that improvement hasn’t come despite the decades of legislation and programs. America’s high schools are, by and large, “dropout factories,” he tells us, in one of his overstatements. (The national dropout rate is about one-third.)

“The biggest obstacle to real reform is the union contract,” Guggenheim intones in a voiceover. The alleged inability to dismiss uncommitted, incompetent teachers severely hobbles any reform program, locally or nationally, in the film’s argument. Michelle Rhee, the just resigned chancellor of the Washington schools tells the filmmaker that she knows most of the kids in D.C. “are getting a crappy education” and that “there is just no accountability” by the teachers or their union. Rhee and Guggenheim agree that teacher tenure is a great impediment to getting rid of all the lazy, ill-trained, time-serving instructors.

Guggenheim visits a Stanford University professor who touts his curiously precise calculation that if the bottom six percent of America’s teachers could be pushed out, American students’ academic achievements would rise to the level of Finland’s, the Western worlds’ highest. (Cut to a couple of converging graph lines.) In another strange and off-putting scene, Rhee, who has some penchant for grandstanding, is shown cooly firing a principal in what seems a privacy-invading circumstance. In fact, Rhee, after a couple of years of needless and sometimes bitter acrimony and contested large-scale firing of teachers and principals, reached an agreement with the Washington teachers union providing for a form of merit pay and tenure modification.

If Rhee is one of Guggenheim’s heroic actors, the other is Geoffrey Canada, founder of two Harlem charter schools and an umbrella social organization serving a 97-block area. Canada, who sounds a little like a wired Denzel Washington, speaks with a passionate earnestness, and he’s the object of the filmmaker’s admiration, much of it seemingly deserved. Guggenheim’s approval is shared by a wide range of educators and prominent business executives, the result of his reputation as a dramatically successful educational reformer who has pulled students from dead-end, self-destructive lives and sharply raised their academic skills and records, while providing them and more than a thousand others with social and health services. (Goldman Sachs recently donated $20 million to his programs.)

Waiting for Superman

directed by Davis Guggenheim

Playing at the Amherst Dipson Theatre. See Movietimes for showings. Watch the movie trailer on Artvoice TV.

Superman is an often strident, rather inconsistent film. It has some effective, if fleeting, portrayals of kids and their families, and some affecting scenes with real emotional impact. A grandmother of a small boy in Washington and a young mother of a bright daughter in Harlem come across as able and dedicated to the children, and heartbreakingly noble in their sacrifices for them. But the film very often seems to be geared to a slickly polemical, shrill kind of persuasion. Its assertions are more noteworthy for their sweep than for focus and objectivity. At the center of Superman is a self-aggrandizing and intransigent obstacle to progressive changes: teachers unions and the rules under which their members work.

Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, and one of the post-movie panelists, commented that “There’s a lot of things in the film that aren’t true.” He had a point. To begin with, not one currently or recently employed teacher appears in the film. Teaching itself is primarily addressed as something that unions are degrading. If movie audiences missed a qualification of the film’s assumption that more charter schools would bring major relief from what ails public education, they may easily be forgiven. Superman glides quickly by its own admission that only 15 percent of the nation’s charters are doing “an amazing job” and never returns to the point. Nor does it mention that only one-fifth of these schools are better than the average public counterpart (and a number are worse).

Why is this so? It can’t be because charters have to contend with incompetent, tenure-protected teachers, since these schools are organized to avoid this situation. Finland, held out by Guggenheim and the Stanford professor as an ideal, has a largely unionized, tenured teaching force. Superman doesn’t grapple with this discrepancy.

Near the end of the panel discussion, Sam Hoyt said he wanted to know how many Buffalo teachers had been dismissed for inadequacy in the last 30 years. (Afterwards, Rumore told me that he doubted the school system kept this data.) Hoyt may not have intended it, but he left the impression he was sympathetic to the film’s anti-union bias. Public employee unions are hardly in great favor with America’s body politic these days, and they make an obvious and sometimes irresistible target, however self-defeating yielding to this blame urge may be for working- and middle-class people in the future. And there are sections in Superman where Guggenheim’s omissions and blanket assertions verge toward agitational propaganda.

Canada’s two Harlem schools have raised student test scores—although the value of such a test-defined education is open to question. But recent achievement measures indicate that, despite the ardent support of Guggenheim and many others, the schools’ students are scoring on a range from inferior to mediocre. A New York Times article by Sharon Otterman recently reported that even with its $16,000 per-pupil in-class expenditures, only 15 percent of Canada’s seventh graders passed the state’s English test. (The two schools had mixed results in other grades and tests.)

But there’s another, unexamined issue involved here, and perhaps an important lesson. Canada’s efforts aren’t just targeting test scores and class performance in the near term. He’s undertaken to improve the opportunities and lives of the children and their families in his “district” by providing a number of crucial services, from employment counseling to asthma treatments. He’s trying to stabilize and elevate lives. The most important predictors of student failure are class and poverty. Charter school advocates often talk of “school choice,” a kind of expanded-market solution. (Hoyt spoke in those terms during the forum.) Canada’s approach seems to more resemble a European social welfare model. Given the repeated failures of financial, energy and other markets over the last quarter century, this is a topic that might bear consideration. Such a course of consideration is beyond the ken of Superman’s simplicisms and shoddy arguments.

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