A barrel-chested comic book character must save public education? Compelling soundbite to sell a movie maybe but when it comes to real education reform, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel gives the American public more credit than the backers of Waiting for Superman. “Nowhere in the film or its discussion have teachers’ voices been heard,” says Van Roekel. “If you want to know how to make a public school great, ask a teacher, not Hollywood.”
In his statement to the media, Van Roekel pointed out that director Davis Guggenheim and the film’s producers missed an opportunity to talk with educators about how to truly transform public education. Instead, the film — and the unblinking cheerleaders it found in such media figures as Oprah Winfrey — demonizes public education, teachers unions and educators. It’s simplistic messaging — charters are good and teachers unions are bad — thwarts thoughtful discussions about improving public schools.
So we’re dedicating this space to the voices of those taking a more even-handed look at the film — a courtesy the film itself does not extend to its subjects. These are the folks who didn’t manage to land an invite from Oprah. And we want to hear from teachers, education support professionals, parents and community members in the comments. What are your thoughts on the movie or its hype? Tell us in the comments.
CRITICS SPEAK UP
Diane Ravitch, Assistant Secretary of Education to George H.W. Bush, The New York Review of Books
“The propagandistic nature of Waiting for “Superman” is revealed by Guggenheim’s complete indifference to the wide variation among charter schools… Guggenheim ignored other clues that might have gotten in the way of a good story. While blasting the teachers’ unions, he points to Finland as a nation whose educational system the US should emulate, not bothering to explain that it has a completely unionized teaching force.”
Arthur A. Benson II, Kansas City school board member, Kansas City Star
“As a little-disguised paean for charter schools, it amounts to little more than propaganda. No viewer could gather that around the country, as here in Kansas City, charter schools mostly fail in comparison to their public school neighbors… The schools in Finland are lavishly praised in this movie but without mention that they are all highly unionized. In Kansas City as elsewhere, the union knows that its future and the jobs of its members are tied to the success of public schools.”
Jonathan P. Raymond, superintendent Sacramento City Unified School District, Letter to staff
“I came away from the movie with an overwhelming sense that we have to stop blaming teachers for problems that have multiple causes, ranging from poor administrative oversight and accountability to a lack of parent engagement. I know how hard teachers work to educate every child and challenge students at their ability level. We need to work equally hard to give our teachers the tools and supports they need to be successful. Let’s stop scapegoating and come together to find solutions that work.”
Harold Meyerson, columnist, The Washington Post
“In the world of Waiting for Superman, every public school is a disaster, every charter school is a rigorous (but nurturing) little Harvard or Oxford, and the blame for the plight of public schools and the paucity of charter schools can be laid entirely on the unions’ doorsteps. You’d never know from the film that charter schools produce test results that aren’t any better than those of public schools, or that the teachers at a number of charter schools — including charter schools that do produce high test results — are, horror of horrors, unionized.”
Brian Jones, teacher and activist, The Huffington Post
“Here we have a message honed to perfection… for the wealthy: the unions are the problem; the teachers need to be cheaper; give me money now for a few beautiful schools that can help break the unions and open up the education market; but don’t worry, we don’t want too much; we certainly don’t want what your children have. That’s what I learned from NBC’s Education Nation Summit. Beware CEOs who say teachers are the problem. And beware CEO solutions.”
Gail Collins, syndicated columnist, The New York Times
“The movie seems to suggest that what’s needed is more charter schools, which get taxpayer dollars but are run outside the regular system, unencumbered by central bureaucracy or, in most cases, unions. However, about halfway through, the narrator casually mentions that only about a fifth of American charter schools “produce amazing results.” In fact, a study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that only 17 percent did a better job than the comparable local public school, while more than a third did “significantly worse.”
Valerie Strauss, The Washington Post
“Forget the fact that the film’s assault on teachers unions is unfair; even Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a true believer in Rhee, has noted that it is silly to blame unions, pointing out that the problems exist in states without teachers unions… Demonizing teachers and traditional public schools, and showing charter schools as a solution to urban public education may make for great theater but it is a bad reflection of reality.”
Leonie Haimson, executive director, Class Size Matters on The Huffington Post
“Given the recent recession and the resulting anger at Wall Street elites, it would be hard to find any other field of public policy in which a few billionaires have so easily controlled the dominant narrative, convinced most of the politicians in both parties and the mainstream media that they know what’s best for our children. Yet none of these moguls have ever sent their children to an urban public school, and seem totally unaware of what really ails our urban public schools.”
Gerald N. Tirozzi, executive director, National Association of Secondary School Principals
“Most perplexing is the treatment of charter schools as the Promised Land of education. Not so, protests Guggenheim, who revealed in a New Yorker interview his intention of the charter lottery as “metaphor” and his fear that the film would be perceived as pro-charter. Yet, every school the film vilifies is a mainstream public school, from which the only hope of escape is a charter school. Contrary to the movie’s depiction, there are lots of high-performing public schools out there…”
Anthony Cody, California Teachers Association member and blogger, EdWeek
“Davis Guggenheim, the movie’s producer, intones, ‘Everybody gets it. It’s automatic. You show up for two years, you got tenure.‘ That is a flat-out lie. In my district, which is known for a strong union, teachers do not get tenure unless their principal wants them to. Many teachers are released at the end of their first or second year. Tenure is by no means automatic. And there are indeed ways to get rid of tenured teachers, who do not have “jobs for life,” but rather have rights to due process.”
Gene Carter, executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
“Moreover, simplistically dividing a profession of 5 million people into “good teachers” and “bad teachers” misses an important opportunity to show how all educators must continue to learn, develop, and grow throughout their careers. Would we ask a proficient doctor to stop learning new technologies or strategies that may help save a life? No. Our most effective teachers are the ones who pursue professional development not only to sustain student achievement, but also to help teach other educators.”
Kenneth J. Bernstein, educator and blogger, Daily Kos
“Now consider the following. The Oprah Winfrey Show is distributed by CBS Television Studios (subsidiary of Viacom/National Amusements) and “Waiting for Superman” is distributed by Paramount vantage (subsidiary of Viacom/National Amusements). Winfrey has been heavily touting the movie on her show. Winfrey has just announced that she is giving $1 million to each of ten charter schools. Yet often charter schools already are getting money from outside sources which enables them to spend far more than an ordinary public school does.”
Aaron Pallas, professor of sociology and education at Columbia University and blogger, The Hechinger Report
“The film and book (yes, there’s a tie-in book, published before the movie’s release) ignore the voices of teachers talking about their day-to-day work. Had Guggenheim chosen to include teachers talking about classroom teaching, he might have further illuminated some of the contextual factors that make urban schools a problem — concentrated urban poverty; communities segregated by race, ethnicity and social class; the lack of high-quality programs for infants and young children; and families that lack the resources to support their children’s schooling, to name a few.”
Esther Wojcicki, Creative Commons board chair, The Huffington Post
“Yes, we need to fix our schools. However, the answer is not charter schools or getting rid of the teachers’ unions as suggested in Davis Guggenheim’s film Waiting for Superman that opened nationwide on September 24. The movie is an over-simplification of a complex problem. Teachers alone are not Supermen; even outstanding teachers cannot change the face of education alone.”
Nancy Flanagan, education writer, EdWeek
“So imagine my surprise to find, last night, this little gem in your publication: “Are Teachers Ruining Our Schools?”… Since your magazine is targeted at vibrant and energetic women with a little gray in their hair, I wonder if it occurred to you, in snagging some free content from the Superman media machine, that a whole lot of your readers are teachers — or former teachers, or sisters or best friends with a (“lousy,” “tenured”) veteran teacher. Would you print a little piece called “Are Nurses Ruining Our Hospitals?”
Education Notes Online
“The film’s premise and claims are uninformed and drastically miss the boat in terms of creating a narrative regarding the real issues our public school system faces. Further, the film completely neglects to engage in any meaningful discussion of the real reforms needed to improve educational opportunity for our children.”
Susan Graham, National Board-certified teacher, EdWeek
“Teachers are intervening in the lives of children every day and some of them have been doing it for 35 and 40 years under conditions that would crush the spirit of a mere mortal. They’re not out there trying to “fix” children so that they look more like little Bruce Wayne Juniors. Most teachers are doing all they can to empower children to define and pursue their own understanding of truth, justice and the American Way. All we ask is that we be allowed to do our job without the Kryptonite of manipulation by power brokers, exploitation by politicians, and denigration by the media.”
Waiting for Superman: An Insult to Educators — California Teachers Association member Amy Sullivan
“Waiting for Superman totally goes against everything I have ever experienced in my twenty-plus years of working with children and staff in regular public schools. The vast majority of other public school teachers I have had the honor to work with put in ten-plus hours/day on their job, work weekends, and spend thousands of dollars of their own money on school supplies/incentives for students. Despite being treated with very little respect and support and given very poor pay, they persevere because of their commitment to giving children the best education they can and because they want to battle against the inequalities inherent in our culture.”
An Upset Educator’s Letter to Oprah: Ask Teachers — Oklahoma Education Association member Britton Gildersleeve
“I wish someone who knew even a little bit about real classrooms, the heart-breaking challenges teachers face daily (teachers spend an average of $400 annually, out of their own meager salaries, to equip their rooms), had a national forum.”
In this New York Times Letters to the Editor round-up on Waiting for Superman, several current and former educators question the premise of the film.
While Waiting for Superman‘s promoters have been busy selling their movie, NEA leaders have been hard at work promoting the message of collaboration and innovation — the foundation of meaningful reform — in education. (Check out a complete video library of NEA leaders’ TV appearances here.) Both NEA president Dennis Van Roekel and Vice President Lily Eskelsen have been highlighting the work of educators through NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign and the need to have their voice at the table in order to transform public education.
NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign— See what real reform that begins with educators looks like.
Not Waiting for Superman — From Rethinking Schools
Not Waiting for Superman — From the American Federation of Teachers
Not Waiting for Superman Facebook page
The Waiting for Superman Paradox — A closer look at the film’s central argument
The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman
Education Votes — Public education activists get energized for the November mid-terms
Speak Up for Education & Kids Facebook page
NEA’s Press Center
EdVoices — See what pro-public education bloggers are saying today
SUPER MYTHS ABOUT WAITING FOR SUPERMAN
- The film promotes nostalgia for a school system of years past, seemingly forgetting past inequities like segregated schools; institutionalization of children with disabilities; and marginalization of and discrimination against female teachers and teachers of color.
- The film glosses over the negative effects of testing mania and Bush-era reforms (NCLB) and ignores the impact of these so-called reforms on certain student populations, such as students with disabilities and rural students.
- The film promotes charter schools as the silver bullet to improve public education, even as it admits that only one charter school in five is more effective than a traditional public school. There is absolutely no discussion of the research confirming that public schools generally outperform charter schools.
- The film’s producer interviewed experts who are uniformly anti-union—mostly “reformers” who believe teachers’ unions are the main obstacle to great public schools. Guggenheim does not interview a single superintendent or politician who has a collaborative relationship with the union where real transformation has taken place (like in Chattanooga, Columbus, OH, Denver and other places.)
- The film blindly supports the Administration’s “reforms” without displaying any real understanding of the issues at hand.