The Waiting For Superman Paradox

By Kevin Hart

In the opening minutes of the new education “reform” documentary Waiting For Superman, director Davis Guggenheim has a moment of candor about the charter schools he hails as a panacea for urban education — he admits that most of them are not exactly getting extraordinary results. It’s that admission, educators say, that proves that Waiting For Superman’s subsequent criticisms of public school teachers and their unions are not only overly simplistic, but inaccurate.

The paradox that is neither addressed nor resolved in Guggenheim’s film is that if unions are truly the source of all that ails urban public education, as the movie seems to claim, why aren’t the predominantly non-union charter schools performing better?

For example, Stanford University, in the first national study conducted on the academic performance of charter school students, found that only 17 percent of charter school students were outperforming their public school peers on math assessments. Forty-six percent of charter school students had results that were indistinguishable from the results of their public school peers, and 37 percent of charter school students were performing significantly worse.

Put another way, students at largely unionized neighborhood schools are twice as likely to progress better in their achievement than students in the largely non-unionized charter schools that are competing to enroll them. And these public schools are accomplishing this feat despite research showing that many charter schools are serving lower percentages of special needs students and English Language Learners than their local public schools.

In a recent discussion on Waiting For Superman on NEA Today’s Facebook page, educators said that by focusing on teachers and their unions, Guggenheim painted an overly simplistic and ultimately inaccurate look at the problems facing education in many low-income communities. Those problems run the gamut from poverty to poor health care and nutrition to a lack of parental and community involvement.

“Teachers try our very best, but we cannot work miracles when students are sent to school at a grave disadvantage because they have not received proper prenatal care, proper nutrition, stimulation, and home literacy experiences,“ said New York kindergarten teacher Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski. “The cycle of poverty needs to be stopped.”

The fact is, there are high-performing charter schools operating in the United States. But the research has shown these schools to be the exception and not the rule.

States’ unwillingness to aggressively regulate and close under-performing charter schools has been a source of tension even within the charter school community. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Microsoft Founder Bill Gates, whose foundation has donated tens of millions of dollars to charter schools, have both warned charter school operators that a lack of accountability for under-performing schools was giving the entire movement a black eye.

The problem was noted as far back as 2004, when a U.S. Department of Education study concluded that charter schools, as a group, were not raising student achievement and were not being closed. In recent legislative hearings in New Jersey, the head of the state’s charter school association also acknowledged that lax charter school oversight in some states was hindering charter schools from improving student achievement.

Despite the heavy promotion of charter schools in Waiting For Superman, research shows that they are no panacea. (Read the full statement of NEA President Dennis Van Roekel on the movie.) Improving lower-performing schools does not require a silver bullet, but a multi-faceted approach that involves teachers, support staff, administrators, parents, and community members. This holistic approach has yielded results in places like Putnam City West High School in Oklahoma City, where educators have engaged parents and the community to boost the graduation rate of Hispanic students by 70 percent; and Denver, where the teacher-led Math and Science Leadership Academy is taking a collaborative approach that focuses on mentoring and professional development to boost student achievement; and in Las Vegas, where a teacher empowerment program has led to remarkable gains, including at Culley Elementary School, a “high achieving” school where only five years ago, less than a quarter of students were at grade level.

Educators at these schools say that success didn’t happen overnight — it was hard work that required buy-in from all stakeholders. The biggest change at many of these schools was that they began listening more to educators and inviting them into the decision-making process. That formula may not be pretty or make for good cinema, but it improves educator and student engagement and gets results.

“We designed it, we put this together, and we’re running it,” says Lori Nazareno, one of two head teachers at Denver’s MSLA. “Everybody gets that it’s our responsibility.”

Creating a collaborative, results-oriented approach to improving lower-performing schools is the mission of NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign. For more information, click here.