Movie Displays Education Heartbreak


Sure, I could insert some clever references here to kryptonite or various villians faced by one of America’s favorite comic book, TV and movie characters. But Waiting for Superman is too serious and too important to become a laugh line.

The David Guggenheim film has the education community (and hopefully soon many others) abuzz. It is, in the words of a National Review Online column, a "stabbing review of teachers’ unions and a plea for more charter schools."

Yon can check out the movie trailer and learn more. But below is a condensed review that does a good job of letting you know why you should be paying attention.

Bianca, Daisy, Emily, Anthony, and Francisco come from diverse locales — Harlem, L.A., Silicon Valley, D.C., and the Bronx — and are black, Hispanic, and white, but they share the same basic problem: Each is consigned by geography to an inadequate public school. Each wants a choice. 

The stories are heartbreaking. But the real message of the movie is revealed in the scenes of the adults who produce this heartbreak. Superman’s most memorable episode is the cartoon illustration of the “lemon dance,” in which school principals waltz their “lemons” (teachers who just can’t teach but can’t be fired) from school to school. The musical number would be hilarious if it weren’t so devastating. So, too, for the shots of the infamous “rubber rooms,” where middle-aged teachers sit in school kids’ chairs, playing cards or laying their heads on their desks to sleep, collecting full pay and pensions.

Guggenheim chooses one champion and one villainess. Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of D.C. schools, is energetic and assertive. She bluntly admits that D.C. students “are getting a crappy education right now,” she fires a couple hundred incompetent educators, institutes some incentive pay, and starts to turn D.C.’s schools around. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and Rhee’s foil, is on the defensive. “It’s in vogue to bash teachers and unions rather than celebrate the work they do to help kids,” she said, responding to Superman. “That being said, I’m a big girl.”

Weingarten, obviously, can take the criticism, but she hasn’t rebutted it. Perhaps it augurs victory that the only thing she can find to fault is her opponents’ tone of voice. For now, though, Weingarten still has the power and the money. Weingarten’s AFT funneled over $1 million to defeat D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty (who appointed and supported Rhee) in the recent Democratic primary. The winner, Vincent Gray, used his victory speech to announce his desire for “a strong, empowered chancellor who works with parents and teachers.”Translation: Rhee is out. This is part of a pattern. Guggenheim, whose political sympathies are normally liberal, admits that the Democratic party is, on education policy, a “wholly owned subsidiary of the teachers unions.” The AFT and NEA — combined, the biggest campaign contributors in the U.S. — send more than 90 percent of their donations to Democrats.

New York City education chancellor Joel Klein was emotional as he explained the difficulties school reformers face. The important division, he said, shouldn’t be between Republicans and Democrats, between public schools and private, or between any one ideology or another — it’s about kids versus adults. “Right now, our kids aren’t getting educated because it’s all about the adults. We’ve put adults’ comfort before kids’ education. It’s not going to change until it becomes about the kids. The education monopoly wants to keep its monopoly.  The way things are now works just fine for the unions, many of the politicians, and others — that’s why it keeps going. So if we don’t rock this boat, we’re going to under-serve kids, mostly poor kids and kids of color.”

Waiting for Superman, with all the noise and buzz it’s generating, with the acclaim it’s received from diverse political circles, might be just the thing to start the boat rocking.

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