The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for ‘Superman’ and One Teacher’s Two Cents ☆

Last fall, Waiting For ‘Superman,’ a documentary about the charter school movement in the US, hit theaters nationwide. It brought with it a tidal wave of media attention, shining a spotlight on the charter vs. public school debate. As a public school teacher, the film of course grabbed my attention.

Its main tenets are that public schools are failing, bad teachers are to blame, and charter schools are the way to fix this problem. To expand on these basic premises, the film cites statistics that show high drop-out rates, particularly among minorities, and low test scores compared to the rest of the world. When analyzing why this must be, the only explanation proffered is that bad teachers, protected by their powerful unions, are systematically underserving their students’ needs, while collecting a paycheck guaranteed by tenure. As someone who has gone through the teaching rite of passage of earning tenure (I remember being taken out to celebrate by my mentor teachers on the day it was granted), I was interested in examining the other side of the issue.

The film follows five children on their journey to win the lottery and gain a place at a charter school. The students and their parents (or, in one case, grandmother) tell, sometimes tearfully, of their fear of being left out and forced to attend the failing public school in their area. The movie culminates with an emotional, tense scene during which the lottery numbers are called as students and families await their educational fate.

The success of the charter schools the movie focuses on, evidenced in the form of test scores, is touted in stark contrast to that of their public counterparts. The film asserts that because charter school teachers are typically not unionized, bad teachers can be fired while good teachers are actively recruited. Additionally, the teachers work longer hours, thus providing more instruction for the students, resulting in higher test scores. Charter schools, therefore, are the answer to solving education’s woes, due to the fact that they have the power to get rid of bad teachers and make good teachers work more.

When I first watched this movie, I was overcome by the blatant and categorical blame placed on the teachers. I kept wondering, when will they talk about other explanations for “failing schools?” When will they talk about students with special needs or with IEPs, English language learners, students living in poverty, students from broken homes, students whose parents are uninvolved with their education, overcrowded classrooms, and excessively high student absentee rates? When will they talk about the cultural shift that this country has seen in recent decades through which the value placed on education has seemingly diminished? When will they talk about these other widespread, systemic issues that undoubtedly impact how students perform on a multitude of levels?

I kept wondering, when will they talk about the good teachers?

The fact that none of these issues were addressed left me feeling bewildered and confused. Were people really buying that explanation? Could it really be true that all of the shortcomings of the public school system were directly correlated to the performance of teachers, and not to any other outside factors? There were so many other perspectives ignored, and I wondered if anyone could make a film with the potential to combat this harsh and one-sided view of education.

Enter The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for ‘Superman.’ Produced by The Grassroots Education Movement and presented by Real Reform Studios, this film is different. It was created not by a Hollywood director, but by working public school teachers and parents, on the ground and in the midst of the public education arena. The film directly challenges Waiting for ‘Superman’ and systematically breaks down the tenets of that film, calling its claims “myths,” and presenting what they see as the reality of the situation. (Incidentally, the title of this film could be interpreted as an ironic dig on Davis Guggenheim, director of WFS, as he is also the director of 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth.)

The film asserts that, contrary to what WFS espoused, teachers and their unions are advocates for children and their families, and for better conditions in our public schools. Tenure is a system that allows for due process protections, which all workers should be entitled to. Interestingly, WFS pointed to Finland’s system of education as a model (due to their chart-topping test scores), yet 98% of Finland’s teachers are unionized. Educators there are treated as professionals and included in the decision making process.

Another statistic conveniently left out of WFS’s analysis of Finland’s education system is the fact that while 20% of American students live below the poverty line (as calculated by eligibility for free or reduced lunch), 4% of Finnish students fall below that line. Poverty is not an excuse for failing schools, but a reality, the implications of which must be taken into consideration when analyzing root causes of academic performance. The Inconvenient Truth Behind WFS asserts that ignoring the implications of poverty on student performance and instead blaming teachers accomplishes nothing. Instead, that energy would be better spent reaching out to parents for involvement in their child’s education, improving health services, and enlisting community members in the effort to support disadvantaged students.

Perhaps the most striking myth debunked in The Inconvenient Truth Behind WFS is the idea that charter schools get better results because of their business model and better teachers. The fact is, many charter schools serve far fewer (if any) special education students, English language learners, children who are homeless or in foster care, and students who qualify for free or reduced lunch at their neighborhood public school. They hold lotteries for placement, but have the ability to “counsel students out.” Public schools can’t do that.

Additionally, charter schools have drastically higher student and teacher attrition rates. Geoffrey Canada, CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, actually dismissed an entire class of children from HCZ based on their low test scores, and restarted his program with only children who attend HCZ from kindergarten on. KIPP charter schools require parents and students to sign a “contract for excellence,” and can dismiss students who do not follow it. Public schools can’t do that, either.

It has even been shown that KIPP’s student attrition rate is in line with their test scores. In other words, if they have students who aren’t following their contract or meeting the academic standards that will make KIPP look good on paper, they send them packing back to public school. A series of line graphs in The Inconvenient Truth Behind WFS illustrate this relationship: as student enrollment decreased, test scores increased.

Furthermore, not all, or even most, charter schools actually outperform public schools. Stanford University researchers looked at 2,403 charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia and found that more than 80 percent of them performed the same as, or worse than, traditional public schools. Put another way, only one in five charters are more successful than their public counterparts.

Both films are staunchly one-sided. But as someone who tries to look at both sides and figure out what I believe based on the evidence each side gives, I came to the conclusion that using these types of organizations as models of how the education system should look is unrealistic. Charter schools aren’t public schools. They are defined as “education corporations,” and operate with little or no oversight. Using their model to reform public education does not mesh. A close examination of the message in Waiting for ‘Superman’ clearly shows that because “successful” charter schools use a model that is not truly public and does not serve all students, while the rest of them do no better than public schools, they are not a replicable or sustainable solution.

So what is? It’s fairly easy to dismiss the movement to privatize education as we see that it leaves some gaping holes in truly high needs areas, but we are still left with the need for real reform.

As a public school teacher with six years in the classroom, I cannot deny that I have seen a wide spectrum of teachers. As in any profession, there are some who go above and beyond, some who do a good job of what’s expected of them, and, yes, a few who could be doing better. But the percentage of good teachers, teachers who are passionate about their profession and about their students, who are masters of their craft, who work through the end of the school day and into the evenings and weekends grading, lesson planning, or providing extra curricular activities for students, who think deeply and earnestly about how to best reach their students both academically and on a personal level, who constantly evaluate and revamp their own practices, teachers who go to work every day and, for better or worse, love their job, far outweigh those who are slacking.

To improve education, these teachers should not be vilified or blamed, but encouraged and appreciated. For those who are struggling or not meeting the standards that any good teacher would expect of their colleague, they need support too. Evaluators should spend more time in the classroom. In my district, the administrators were required to observe tenured teachers once each semester. That is not enough. If you really want to weed out the bad apples, administrators should be spending more time in the classroom, dropping in unannounced, seeing what’s really going on, and providing real, constructive feedback. If administrators are too overloaded, then master teachers should be enlisted as evaluators. Many new teachers flounder those first years and we all know the statistics of how many teachers quit in the first five years. They need mentors and dependable, practical, applicable support.

Tenured teachers who are delivering “read the chapter and answer the questions in the back of the book” types of lessons, who are just coasting and counting the days until retirement, should absolutely receive the kind of tough critique from administrators they may require. There are systems in place to deal with bad teachers, involving a due process that allows for warnings, follow-ups, and further evaluations before being let go. If administrators cared about the quality of teachers in their school and spent more time in the classroom ensuring the best for their students, these few bad apples would be dealt with. They would have a choice to get their act together, or leave.

But after all of that, after revamping how our teachers are evaluated and supported, we will still have what Guggenheim calls “dropout factories.” This is because, ultimately, there are already a multitude of great teachers who far outweigh the bad. They’ll still be there, every day, teaching their hearts out. But the students they’re teaching will still bring an array of issues with them into the classroom.

For anyone who thinks that students’ home lives don’t impact their achievement or the ability for even the best teacher to teach them should spend a little time in one of my school’s team meetings. This is a time when a group of middle school teachers who share the same 120 kids sit down and discuss how their students are doing: Levi had a meltdown today because he was exhausted from being up all night after his brother was arrested. Amber is cutting again; her parents’ divorce is really taking its toll on her. Brandon’s mom is in rehab for meth… again. He and Mikey got in a fight at lunch because Mikey called her a “druggie.” It goes on and on. Your heart is breaking, your frustration is mounting, but you keep on teaching.

But it’s not just about the poor kids, the kids coming in with difficult home lives. There are plenty of kids in all-American, storybook homes who are failing miserably, but happily, with little or no consequences at home. Students who are so hopped up on energy drinks to sit down and do their homework, and parents who acquiesce to their every whim, giving them a new video game or cell phone to appease them. There were countless times when I would learn how students from relatively well-to-do families (compared with many of my other students) would report no consequences for failing test scores or report cards. Their cell phone, video game, or TV watching privileges were not taken away, nor did their parent have any interest in meeting with me for a conference.

Once, Tyler, a student who had recently received a 30% for one quarter of 7th grade ELA, due almost entirely to the fact that he turned in zero homework assignments, came to me with a request for me to gather the next week’s worth of assignments. His parents were taking him out of school for a week to vacation in Florida. Baffled, and with much skepticism, I gathered all of the week’s work and assembled it neatly into a folder with hand written instructions. A week later Tyler was back, tanned and smiling, with zero  assignments I’d put together for him done.

Absenteeism is a huge problem in schools, among rich and poor alike. I have seen many parents consistently write notes for their children to arrive late, leave early, or not come at all when there is no good reason for it. It’s hard to teach students who aren’t there.

The truth is, as amazing as teachers are, as proud as I am of being a part of this profession that has the potential to effect so much change, teachers are not all-powerful. They are not magicians. There are many things beyond our power to control, including Brandon’s mother’s meth addiction and Tyler’s parents who bought him a new Nintendo DSi to play on the flight to Florida. To say that teachers are the reason for the failing education system ignores the fact that many of our students come to us from homes where education is far from a top priority. Obviously there are many, many supportive and involved parents who do value education and their children’s teachers. But these are not the students we are concerned with. Theirs aren’t the kids pulling down our test scores.

Scapegoating teachers is the easy thing to do. We are public employees, and therefore fair game for criticism by any and all who pay taxes. We are a group that can be controlled and manipulated, while parents are apparently untouchable. When we talk about accountability, for once, I’d love to hear the word parents in that sentence.

The educational powers that be are afraid to touch this aspect of the issue; it’s too dangerous, too many potential lawsuits. It’s much easier to affect teachers and kids than the community at large. But I disagree. There are ways to reach out to families and help them feel included in their children’s education: parenting classes (required for the parents of students failing due to missing assignments or missing class, if any administrator would be so bold!) that can be put on in the community (“Love and Logic” being one that has seen great success), school sponsored social events for parents and guardians with counselors and other school professionals there for support and advice, school to home liaisons who can work with families and help find solutions to problems impacting students’ success at school.

If we would just take the money being funneled away from public schools, which serve ALL students, and put it into programs that have a holistic, family centered approach, and if we hire experienced, involved administrators who demand a high standard of excellence from their teachers, my guess is that’s where we’ll see some real reform.

In the meantime, we’ll keep teaching.

Click here to read a related article about TC’s Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, Assistant Professor of English Education, and her work facilitating critical engagement with the film Waiting for Superman in schools of education.

The views or opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Teachers College or the Department of Arts and Humanities at Teachers College.