I watched ‘Waiting For Superman’ last night and I’ll admit the ending had me in tears — though not for the reason that the filmmaker intended.
This movie, I think, will unfortunately stall our country’s progress in closing the achievement gap. It will sway the public opinion and also cause philanthropists to throw their money in the wrong direction. And the shameful part is that the film deliberately conceals nearly all information that might help people come to their own decisions.
The message of the movie is that schools are crippled by the evil teacher’s unions to such an extent that the only chance kids have at all is to win a charter school lottery. Now I think showing the statistics of the different states and how low their levels are in reading and math is an eye-opener to most people. But then they try to support the point that teacher’s unions are so harmful, the director chooses to mislead the viewers into thinking that there are NO ‘traditional’ schools that are beating the odds. Instead after admitting, quietly, that only one in five charter schools are highly successful, he shows us four charter schools that are doing well and the kids who are trying to escape their zoned schools to get to those charters.
They can’t show the good ‘traditional’ schools since that will work against the thesis of the movie. Also, they completely ignore any of the problems with charters, which any ‘balanced’ documentary would have included. For one, if 20% are succeeding, why not also show us some of the others? Also, why not at least include some of the charges against charters (the fact that they don’t get a random sampling of kids since anyone who has enough motivation to enter the lottery already has at least some support at home, or the charges that the charters don’t serve special education or limited English learners). Even if he brought those up so he could refute them, at least the ideas would be out there.
There are definitely some very good charter schools out there. I’ve known Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg of KIPP since 1992 and I always enjoy running into them at various TFA functions. But there are a lot of charters that are not doing well. The study that the 20% comes from estimates 40% are performing worse than ‘traditional’ schools. I would hate to see some of those schools benefiting from this movie. I would have really liked to have seen even one ‘traditional’ school that was working. I can easily think of two here in New York City, both run my TFA alum friends of mine Jason Levy and Brett Kimmel.
One of the most bizarre claims in the move is something along the lines of “For years they used to think that the problems in the community caused the schools to be bad. Now we’re seeing evidence that it actually is the reverse: the problems in the school have caused the community to be bad.”
Michelle Rhee is presented as one of the heroes of the movie. Her idea to dangle twenty thousand dollar raises to get the union to give up tenure was presented as brilliant and the union, who wouldn’t even vote on it, was presented as greedy and lazy.
I personally don’t support Michelle Rhee’s leading by fear (I think she’s about to get fired, anyway). Yes, there are some teachers out there who are not performing, but there are other options besides scaring them. How about supporting them, figuring out what is preventing them from being effective, and helping them get there? I can only wonder if Rhee was so heartless in her 3 years as a teacher.
I have some personal experience with Rhee. In her long list of people she fired, fourteen years ago I came very close to being her first victim ever. I was a CMA at the 1996 TFA institute in Houston and I was having a personality conflict with my school director. Michelle was one of the heads of the institute back then, so I knew I was in a bit of trouble when she showed up at my school and said ‘Want to get some lunch with me?’ When I told her I had to run a session, she assured me someone would cover it. I got into her car and she was very very quiet. Trying to break the tension I made a Godfather II reference, “Are you taking me to Reno to shoot me?” I asked. She didn’t break a smile. Well, I explained my point of view, promised to get along better with others, and avoided getting fired. However, when I reapplied to work at the 1997 institute, I was not re-hired.
Maybe all the talk of her firing teachers hits home with me more than most people, but to me she did not come off a hero in this movie. She looked more like a fourth year teacher who still manages her classroom through intimidation.
I’m pretty disappointed at the lack of balance of this propaganda piece. It’s too bad he missed an opportunity to really help the cause.