The fuss about “Waiting for ‘Superman’”

by on January 3, 2011 · 26 comments

in Education, Popular

Let’s face it:  The American education system as it stands is a complete mess.  As a nation we are lagging behind America’s key economic competitors when it comes to educating our kids in math and science, and we are woefully in the middle of the pack when compared to all developed nations according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Our schools are struggling.  And it’s getting worse despite what many consider to be our “best efforts” to fix it.  To date, we’ve been long on problems, yet woefully short on answers.

This is the point the controversial documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman’” is trying to make, and filmmaker Davis Guggenheim has created a firestorm in the process.

The premise of the film, obviously, is that public education in America is failing.  Guggenheim lives in Los Angeles, and is a staunch supporter of public education.  However, the film opens up with Guggenheim demonstrating his morning drive to drop his own kids off at a private school, passing several different public schools along the way.  And this bothers him.  He chides his own hypocrisy as an advocate of public education, but what choice does he have?  The schools in his neighborhood are considered subpar.  And if he sticks to his guns and sends his kids to those failing public schools, he risks his own children falling behind.

Guggenheim is very clear about his struggle with his decision.  He has the resources to send his kids to a private school and provide them with a big advantage.  But most parents don’t have that option.  Most parents are stuck sending their kids to public schools that just aren’t making the grade.

The controversy of the film comes from the fact that Guggenheim and his collaborators—particularly the educators whom the film revolves around—challenge the teachers’ unions head on.  He points the finger squarely at underperforming or failing teachers and the tenure system that makes it impossible to weed them out.

With a good teacher, statistics say, a class can progress up to one-and-a-half years ahead of pace and have a solid grasp of the concepts being taught.  Poor teachers, however, typically result in their students lagging a year or more behind the pace.  This is why, the argument goes, it is so important to be able to remove poor and underperforming teachers from our classrooms.

The concept of tenure, Guggenheim points out, comes from our colleges and universities.  It was originally a way to protect university professors from being fired arbitrarily and for political reasons by university administrations.  But it was very difficult to achieve tenure, often taking at least 10 years or more and the meeting of a whole list of stringent criteria.  Tenure was something that professors sweated over for years and had to work extremely hard to achieve.  It was not something taken lightly.

Thanks to the unions, though, public school teachers can achieve tenure in as little as two years.  Because of the tenure system, even when a bad teacher is identified it’s next to impossible to get rid of them.  And the unions aren’t willing to give up that tenure system any time soon.

That point was made astonishingly clear when Washington D.C.  School Chancellor Michelle Rhee proposed a radical new pay scale.  It is often lamented that teachers—especially the good ones—are woefully underpaid, and Rhee wanted to do something about it.  When it came time to negotiate a new contract with the teachers’ union, she put two proposals on the table:  The first would do away with teacher tenure, but through a merit pay system allow teachers to earn up to $130,000 per year in salary.  The second would keep the tenure system with some minor changes, and give teachers a modest raise from the average of just over $56,000 annually to $73,000 per year.

The union refused to even put Rhee’s proposal to a vote.

Critics have also accused Guggenheim of propping up charter schools as the answer to all of our educational woes.  They have accused him of cherry picking a handful of outstanding, high performing charter schools and holding them up as the single model for a successful education system.  But that’s not the understanding that I left the theater with.

Instead, what he is saying is that public education can work, and through these charter schools, we know what techniques and what programs work best.  One out of every five charter schools is an abject failure, he points out.  Not all charter schools are created equally and up to the task of providing a top quality education for our kids.

He’s simply pointing out that through the crucible charter schools have provided us, we now have a very good idea of how to improve our system overall.  What he is encouraging is that we adopt what has been proven to work in the good charter schools and implement them throughout our public school systems.

Students and their parents should not be left to the mercies of a random lottery system to determine whether or not their child gets awarded one of the painfully few available slots in the painfully few coveted charter schools in their area.  A child’s future should not be left completely to the chance falling of a numbered ball or the random selection of a name by a computer or drawn out of a hat.  We can do better, the filmmaker insists.  We MUST do better.

Guggenheim has also been criticized by teachers and the unions for the students he chose to highlight in the film.  All five are highly motivated students with a very strong family support system.  But not all parents are as heavily involved in the educational endeavors as Bianca’s mother Nakia, or Francisco’s mother, Maria, both in New York City.  Most 5th graders don’t have such a clear determination to accomplish specific life goals as Daisy in Los Angeles, or appreciate what a good school can do for them as Anthony from  Washington, D.C. does.  Most 8th graders don’t yearn for the educational opportunities that a charter high school can provide for them like Emily in Redwood City does.

And they have a point.  Not all schools are created equally.  Not all students are created equally.  Not all parents are as equally involved in the education of their children.  But it’s also true that not all teachers are created equally, and yet the public school system is virtually powerless to do anything about it.  And this, the film says, is the primary problem.

Take, for example, Francisco, the New York City 2nd grader.  His teacher has identified Francisco as deficient in reading and reading comprehension.  Yet his mother, Maria, works tirelessly to help him and has identified no such problem.  She has taken her son to three different specialized programs at local universities to have her son tested, and each time they have failed to identify any specific problem.  Francisco, they say, is doing just fine.  Yet his school and his teacher insist that he’s lagging behind.

Countless efforts to contact the school and his teacher, Mr. Saxon, go agonizingly unanswered.  Maria wants a face to face meeting with Mr. Saxon to discuss the “trouble” her son is having in his class, but has been stonewalled.

The problem, the film not so subtly implies, is with deficient teachers and the students’ inability to escape them.  The argument is that if we can get rid of the bad teachers, replace them with more competent candidates, while implementing some of the charter school reforms that have been proven to work and have produced some staggering results, then the problem will have been solved, and America will reclaim its rightful place at the top of the educational rankings.

Sounds simple.  But there’s a flaw in that logic that needs to be reconciled.

While we may think it’s easy to identify underperforming teachers (and in some cases it undoubtedly is), the unions and the teachers themselves argue otherwise.  They question the methodologies used in evaluating teachers.  How do we adequately determine who is effective and who is not, particularly given the differing circumstances from classroom to classroom, school to school, school district to school district, and even state to state?  Is it fair to evaluate a teacher strictly by the scores achieved by his or her students on a standardized test?  Is it fair to evaluate a teacher based solely on a 20 minute in classroom evaluation by the principal?

How do we adequately evaluate teachers, and just as importantly, who evaluates them?  Should they be evaluated based on a set of well defined national standards?  Or should those decisions be left to the local school boards or individual state departments of education, potentially creating a widely varying range of quality standards based on arbitrary local politics?

By the same token, do standardized tests adequately measure the progress of a group of students?

Failing teachers may indeed be the crux of our educational shortcomings as Guggenheim asserts.  But until a system is developed and put into place that fairly evaluates a teacher’s ability to reach his or her students that can at least partially account for the varying socioeconomic circumstances of the school and its students, then the unions will never allow their coveted tenure system to be altered.  And until we can eliminate the grossly underperforming teachers who are holding their students back, we will never be able to bring our educational standards back to where they need to be.

At any rate, see the movie if you haven’t already.  It is scheduled for release on DVD on February 15th, and it is well worth your time.

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

doug porter January 3, 2011 at 10:36 am

this is very tricky. it’s easy to watch this film and come out itching for a fight.
you can’t look at the teachers union outside the context of the reality that there is a full-on campaign coming from the right in this country to destroy the unions as a means of attacking the funding of the political left.
so, yes, the teachers union should be criticized for being obstructionist. and education advocates in places like San Fransisco have successfully challenged the union leadership to get with the program.
on the other hand, the “reform” program in Washington that the movie lauds failed miserably when it came to improving test scores. the voters in DC just booted the Mayor (who appointed the school board) as a means of voicing their dissatisfaction with the results.
as I have said repeatedly in my articles here, the teachers union needs to be a part of the solution, as it has been in Finland and other countries with high performing educational systems. and you’re not likely to gain their cooperation when “reformers” are seen as collaborating with people who seek to destroy their institution.
the trolls that frequent the comment boards with their anti-teacher screeds offer no solutions that will actually help kids–they’re just looking for a fight.


annagrace January 3, 2011 at 11:18 am

I second Doug’s comment. While you note that “Not all schools are created equally. Not all students are created equally. Not all parents are as equally involved in the education of their children,” the only solution proposed is to take on the teachers/teachers unions.

So why aren’t all schools created equally? What are we doing about that and why isn’t that a priority? What are we doing to get parents involved in their children’s education, and I don’t mean fund raising for the PTA.

Unions continue to be held up as the scourge of civilization ie “free market” civilization. That is telling. And troubling.


Andy Cohen January 3, 2011 at 11:39 am

I don’t think that they’re necessarily out to destroy the unions. I do think that they’re trying to hold the unions’ feet to the fire in order to make some serious progress on reforms that the unions are obstructing.

The unions play an important and necessary role in assuring that the teachers are treated fairly. But Michelle Rhee, the (now ex-) DC School Chancellor, had an interesting remark in the movie (and elsewhere that I’ve seen): She says that all of the things going on in the school systems today seem geared toward the adults in the system; toward protecting their status and security, and creating even bigger and more cumbersome bureaucracies. Not nearly enough of those resources or concerns are being directed at the kids; the kids’ interests are taking a back seat to the adults’ interests, and that was what she tried to change in DC.

The union’s job is to protect the rights of the teachers, and I think what they’re saying as that they’ve been a little TOO good at it. Their focus is entirely on the adults in the system and not nearly enough on making it better for the kids who are caught in the crossfire. And what the film is saying, I think, is that the tenure system is one of the root causes of the problems we’re having.

Instead of helping to find solutions, the unions have simply dug in their heels and protected their flanks, deflecting any responsibility for making our education system better. They have a role to play in this, too. They need to take responsibility for the bad apples, which will make life much better for the good ones, which the film asserts will also boost our system as a whole.

The unions aren’t going away, and I don’t think they should. But they do need to take responsibility for their part in fixing what’s wrong. It can’t happen without them. And it won’t happen until they acknowledge their role in screwing it up in the first place (and it’s not their cross to bear alone).


annagrace January 3, 2011 at 12:11 pm

Andy- I don’t doubt that you acknowledge the role as well as the responsibilities of unions. What I do know is that it is increasingly more difficult to unionize in the private sector and there is an attendant effort to show that public unions are unnecessary and to eliminate them if possible.

I know many many teachers k-12. They are deeply concerned about their students and are highly motivated to be the best of teachers. And they are also union members. They are often critical of top down administrative decision making that obstructs their efforts to do right by their students; they despair of not having adequate resources and too many of them teach our kids in deteriorating classrooms; and they realize that there is little they can do to change the transient nature of many of our communities which has on occasion resulted in a 100% turnover in a classroom over the course of a school year. These teachers have spent thousands of dollars out of their own pockets to provide additional materials.

I am simply not buying it that what is going on in the school system today is geared toward the adults, and damn the kids.


Andy Cohen January 3, 2011 at 12:21 pm

The “adults” in the system include the bureaucracy and admins that you allude to. That’s what Rhee was referring to, not just the teachers in the classroom.


RB January 3, 2011 at 1:58 pm

Last year in the middle of the SDUSD budget crisis, the teachers union negotiated a pay raise for their members in future years and a reduction of the school year by five days. Rather than taking a small, temporary pay cut and keeping the school year at 180 days, the union selected five less work days. Clearly shorting the school years is not in the interest of the students. Also clearly showing an adult geared system and damn the kids.

“When school children start paying union dues, that ‘s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.” Albert Shanker, President of the Teachers Union (United Federation of Teachers) from 1964 to 1984 as well as President of the Teachers Union (American Federation of Teachers) from 1974 to 1997.


jettyboy January 4, 2011 at 9:11 am

You convently forgot to mention the contract was offered by the district, and the pay increase comes only after 2 years of a pay CUT across the board. What they seem to forget is that kids need parents and support from home to be successful in school. The main reason schools are failing is because social responsibilities/ norms have left the building.


annagrace January 3, 2011 at 2:37 pm

Waiting for Superman director clarifies his remarks on teachers unions on Fox news.


Andy Cohen January 3, 2011 at 2:51 pm

Good find! And that’s pretty much the way I saw it……..perhaps I didn’t convey that very well in my review. Like I said, he’s pretty much holding the unions’ feet to the fire to get them to join the reform parade.


annagrace January 3, 2011 at 3:06 pm

How convenient to quote Albert Shanker (in 1985) and out of context. Just an FYI, collective bargaining rights for teachers are the result of his organizing efforts in the 60’s. In “Al Shanker Speaks on Unions and Collective Bargaining,” he said:
As long as there are no consequences if kids or adults don’t perform, as long as the discussion is not about education and student outcomes, then we’re playing a game as to who has the power…
What would happen if we had a system where you had pay for performance in the sense of a series of graded sets of rewards depending upon student outcome? Let’s imagine that this September a system goes into effect where five years from now all the teachers in schools that made the most progress in student achievement could get bonuses of $30,000; in other less successful schools, they could get bonuses of $5,000; and in others they could get cost-of-living increases; in schools that made little or no progress, the teachers’ salaries would be frozen; and the worst schools could be closed down, the faculties dismissed, and the school later reopened on some sort of restructured basis by a faculty from, let’s say, the top schools, like a bankruptcy and hostile takeover.”

The attempt to discredit Shanker (and unions) is specious and more of the same inflammatory rhetoric.
“His (Shanker’s) overall legacy has been praised by a wide range of education officials, including New York City’s Chancellor Joel Klein, who told The Huffington Post in a statement:

“He expressed a vision for reform almost 20 years ago that is today cutting edge – professionalizing teaching through real accountability, rewarding success, consequences for non-performance; bringing charters, choice and competition so that we can focus on great schools, not the label on a school; and using technology to transform the way we instruct children. I hope his visionary words are fully embraced.”


lane tobias January 3, 2011 at 7:28 pm

I am so torn on this issue, it pains me even to speak on it. My mother taught in a union-heavy public school district in NJ for 42 years; she orchestrated and took part in a number of contract negotiations, and the results (in some cases) remain to this day – much to the chagrin of Gov. Christie. In the same vein, I was also employed at one point by one of the leaders of this new “movement”, Geoffrey Canada, who was also featured in this movie. What Mr. Canada has done for Harlem overall is undisputable; what he has done for education is still TBD (a few recent NY Times articles are raising the question of whether or not the “Zone” is effective in raising the bar for students as compared to charter schools alone, and whether or not it is even a feasible plan to replicate due to the inter-relationship of corporate interests, public funding, and nonprofit status). I was at my parents house recently and picked up a copy of the Bergen Record; on the cover was a picture of Mr. Canada and Gov. Christie, side by side, at a town-hall discussion in Hoboken (i.e. the wealthy, mostly white Upper West Side extension of Manhattan….). It was interesting, to say the least.

Anyway, what I am trying to get at is that Unions across the board are under attack, and as Doug mentions above the teachers unions seem to be the easiest targets due to the fact that there is certainly a need for an overhaul of public education. But that does not mean that teachers are at fault. nor the unions. nor the students. As we discussed this recently, my mom expressed disgust at the fact that her former district’s union reps voted against pay freezes/reductions and adjustments to (NOT elimination of) the tenure structure in the face of district wide downsizing. The vote effectively resulted in widespread layoffs on top of physical downsizing.

I can say that as a student in a public policy program at NYU, at least 1 in 5 of my classmates are specializing in education policy. This is indicative of the state of things, but what it also means is that this issue is not lost on younger generations. If anything, this film has firmly established one side of the reform movement; there are, of course, a number of other sides too……


Andy Cohen January 3, 2011 at 7:47 pm

Again, and I cannot emphasize this enough: I don’t think the movie is “attacking” the unions, but rather trying to push them to be more participatory in the reform process. If you’ve seen the movie, and watched the youtube link that annagrace provided with the Davis Guggenheim interview on Fox, then you’ll understand better what he’s trying to get at. It’s too easy to say he’s “attacking the unions;” it makes for great sound bites and partisan rhetoric. But if you’re really paying attention, you’ll see that’s not what he’s doing at all.

He is, however, attacking the unions’ staunch adherence and refusal to adjust in any way the current tenure system which he argues has really become toxic.

The unions have a stake in this, and they’ve played a role in the deterioration of our education system. What we need to see is for the unions and the administrators to once and for all get on the same page and work for the betterment of the system for the sake of our kids. Both sides are gonna have to give a lot.


doug porter January 4, 2011 at 7:51 am

I agree Andy that the movies is not an attack on unions per se. The makers of the film have repeatedly said that this was not their intention. But the fact is that those whose seek to attack unions are using the film’s points to further their cause. (And many unions–they are not a monolith– are also too defensive.) There is a core of people involved in the “school reform” business who believe that they can and should destroy the unions, like our own commenter RB, who has stated repeatedly in these pages that compromise or working together is not an option.


RB January 4, 2011 at 8:10 am

Please document (link) were I have said on these pages that compromise or working together is not an option.

And in the spirit of compromise, I ask Doug to join me, President Obama, the film maker and the Sec of Education to support real reforms which includes merit pay, charters, and parent choice. The only place I will not compromise is for benefits for adults at the expense of children.


doug porter January 4, 2011 at 9:33 am

Since you almost always lead your comments with a right hook aimed at teachers, I say it was safe to assume that you’d never be in the same room with them negotiating. (I couldn’t find the most egregious example that I was looking for. It’s there, I just ran out of time…maybe later)
RB July 23, 2010 at 9:54 am
“The fact of the matter is the teachers through their union want no accountability for school performance”

Oh, and here’s another quote from teachers union organizer Albert Shanker:
“a lot of people who have been hired as teachers are basically not competent”


RB January 4, 2011 at 10:27 am

Your right, I do doubt the teachers union wants to compromise. But I ask you to document my lack of compromise, not theirs. But please show your willingness to compromise and join President Obama, Arne Duncan and me in the pursuit of change, accountability and transparency in the schools.

Safe to assume?? In science we are trained not to take this shortcut. I have been in the room during labor and pay negotiations as union observer. I am not anti union. I have been a union member, a delegate for my campus at union conventions, a building organizer and a speaker to union members on retirement and investment planning. I have sign up workers for union certification, worked the polls during union elections, voted in union elections, signed up new member during each year of my employment, walked informational pickets lines and paid union dues. And I will gladly compare my union activities to yours?


lane tobias January 3, 2011 at 7:36 pm

i want to add that lost in much of this argument is the fact that there are too many parents who are just not involved in their kids’ education. if we want to defend teachers and schools, parents need to be at the forefront forming a grassroots support system. Not all parents are to blame; but there is DEFINITELY a need for more involvement on that end.


blaw0013 January 3, 2011 at 8:38 pm

Educators are people who are experts in how children learn the social and intellectual knowledge of a culture, and how to manage or direct that learning.

There are others who have a different set of skills, but who wish to influence the outcomes of schooling.

Education can work to replicate the oppressions and injustices of the culture, or to resist, repudiate, and possibly overturn.

I can tell you that the voice of the vast majority of educators (many of whom no longer practice their craft due to tiring from the fight) seek not to replicate. Those who seek to govern education, are acting in their best interests. And they bring aboard figureheads (e.g. Rhee) who speak with a rhetoric and from a pulpit that propagates this interest.

Education is in a mess in this country. Because schools do not serve children; rather, they serve adults. In many ways.

(Sorry if the response seems incoherent. To do justice would demand a full essay.)

Thank you to my fellow educators who continue to educe creative and critical thought from their students, who demand they question authority, and take action against forces of oppression, whether they be social, intellectual, or economic (or other).


doug porter January 4, 2011 at 7:42 am

Quote from HuffPo article “The Affluent, Failing, Public School: Does It Really Exist?”:
“there was not a single, failing, public school located in the wealthiest communities (in California). In fact, the wealthiest communities produced schools with the highest possible score, a 10, in the GreatSchools rating system.”


John Lawrence January 4, 2011 at 8:50 am

Despite the defense of the movie as not being a frontal attack on teacher’s unions, that is exactly what it amounts to while trying not to be obvious about it. Right wing forces will stop at nothing to eliminate every vestige of unionism, and they have the resources to craft very well defined attacks. The job of principals and superintendents is to stand up for the interests of the children in their system. Not all of them do an outstanding job, but a lot of them do. My father, for instance, was a principal and later a superintendant who considered it his job to do everything he could for the boys and girls in his school system. Although he died 35 years ago, former students are still contacting me with remembrances of the job he did and his legacy lives on at the Clifton E Lawrence Middle School in Wantage, NJ. This has nothing to do with unions. It has to do with the quality of the principals and superintendents whose job it is to protect the interests of their students.

See “The Myth of Charter Schools” for a contrary take:

The whole charter school thing is just another front in the war to delegitimize every public institution and to privatize everything. The fact that it masquerades as an attempt to make schools better doesn’t change the fact that the real goal is to undermine the public school system. How about this as a solution? Since most public school funding is based on local property taxes, it stands to reason that failing public schools are mainly in areas of poverty. Change the way public schools are funded to spread the funds more equitably would do more to upgrade the quality of the teachers than privatizing and deunionizing the school system. And if teachers think they are going to make more money based on merit after the schools are totally deunionized, they will have another think coming once the CEOs and Wall Street types have them totally in their grips without a union to stand up for them. At that point, they will just be wage slaves like the formerly well paid deunionized workers in every other industry.


RB January 4, 2011 at 9:04 am

You do realize that property tax money is spread evenly throughout California?
You do realize that Federal Title I funds provides more money to children in poverty?
You do realize other unionized federal and state employees get pay based both on cost of living and merit without destroying their union or becoming a wage slave?


John Lawrence January 4, 2011 at 6:10 pm

The point is that each state handles the funding differently. In a lot of states (most I think) it’s local property taxes that primarily fund the public schools. That means that wealthier areas have better schools. Can’t let CA be the measure of all things. The fact that unionized federal and state employees get merit pay is an argument for – not against – unions and against the assertion made in the movie that you have to get rid of unions to have merit based anything.


Andy Cohen January 4, 2011 at 6:15 pm

Have you seen the movie? No one in the movie EVER said anything about “getting rid of the unions.” What they want to to get rid of–or at least severely modify–the tenure rules that the union won’t let go of. They’re pretty clear about wanting the unions to be a part of the solution.


John Lawrence January 5, 2011 at 7:33 pm

Yep, saw the movie twice. Still say the whole charter school movement is an attempt to undermine unions and, ultimately, teacher pay. Canada, prominently featured in the movie, makes $400,000. a year, considerably more than a superintendant. The model is the same as any privatized institution – CEO pay in the hundreds of millions. Peanuts for the workers – in this case teachers. Take the health care industry or the student loan industry, for example. Check out for horror stories. And basically this movie is propaganda so it presents only the bright side of the charter school movement. Corporations are pouring money into charter schools. If the same amounts were poured into public schools, you’d see the same results with them.


Ramón January 23, 2011 at 7:14 pm

Andy Cohen needs to understand what tenure is all about. First of all, there is not such a thing as tenure in the K-12 school system. Tenure is only granted to colleges and universities professors. In the K-12 system, all new teachers go through a three years probationary period before getting a “permanent” position. What educators in this system have is what is known as due process. Different amendments of our constitution deal with due process rights for every citizen at different levels. Yes. There are problems. But it would wrong to make the teachers’ unions the boogieman for all the problems our country is facing in education. Unions don’t have teachers’ training program. Unions do not grant teacher certification. Unions do not evaluate teachers’ performance. There is an evaluation process. And, I believe that if it is used correctly by school leaders, those teachers who are not cutting it can be exited. Thus, the first thing is to identify those needing remediation and helping them to improve. If after a period that teacher is not demonstrating a progress in becoming better equip and efficient, then that teacher should be replaced. That’s call due process! The gist about “Waiting for Superman” is that charter schools are the solution and that unions are the problem. Yes. The PISA assessment is showing how our students are doing in reading, math and science and how we’re lagging behind a number of third world countries, but it is also showing that our students are doing better in science than three years ago. There is no question that we need to invest in better teachers’ training, better pay, earlier child education, and more investment in education, period.


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