Despair, villainy and no hero to save the day

The Times Educational Supplement, September 2010, News

The problem of the United States’ busted public schools comes down to one simple truth, says polemical film-maker Davis Guggenheim: There can be no great schools without great teachers. Focus on that, he says, and obvious solutions will follow.

Guggenheim’s new feature-length documentary Waiting for “Superman” opens in movie houses here next week. A searing indictment of the American public school system, the film is being tipped as an equal to his Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth.

As the title implies, there is no single superhero in this tale ready to swoop in and sort out the mess. But there is a villain. And as the release date approaches, the US’s national teaching union is bracing itself for impact.

Waiting for “Superman” follows the fortunes of five children hoping to escape their failing neighbourhood schools for a place at a better-performing charter school. Government-funded but in most cases operating outside union control, charter schools are frequently arenas for experimentation. The good ones are also massively oversubscribed, and the few available spots are allocated by lottery.

In a scene used in the movie trailer, an antiquated lottery machine randomly dispenses numbered balls while a hall full of tearful children wait to hear if their number is called. Which children will be given an opportunity to forge ahead with a decent education, and which left to fall behind, determined by the chance drop of a ball.

Alongside the drama of the childrens’ stories is an analysis of the problem. That schools are failing here is uncontested: as many children will drop out of high school as will graduate, while among 30 developed countries, the US ranks 25th in maths and 21st in science. “Either the kids are getting stupider every year or something is wrong with the education system,” says Geoffrey Canada, educational reformer, CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York and one of the film’s heroes.

But the cause of the problem and what should be done about it are far more controversial. Guggenheim’s support for teacher evaluation judged against student achievement and for the removal of failing teachers, his depiction of practices like New York’s (since dispanded) rubber rooms – where those awaiting disciplinary action sit around doing the crossword on full pay – and his portrayal of the unions as putting members’ job security above the interest of the children has found him crossing swords with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

Prepared for an onslaught of criticism, the AFT’s president, Randi Weingarten, has taken pre-emptive action. In a note sent to the media, she dismissed Guggenheim’s simple truth as simplification. The film is “inaccurate, inconsistent and incomplete” she wrote. “When certain facts don’t advance his story line, he makes them disappear.” Most charter schools perform no better than regular public schools, she argues, and those held up as shining examples, like the schools in the Harlem Children’s Zone, have been bolstered by additional private funding.

Weingarten has a difficult role in this confrontation. As the head of the union, she must talk tough in defence of her members. And yet, a participant in the film, she is reported to have cried on watching it. By all accounts she knows that change is on the way and is quietly doing her part to usher it in.

Commitment to education reform comes from on high. President Obama’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top initiative has refined the tests of student achievement in Bush’s No Child Left Behind, and set out to strengthen teacher accountability. The media has also pitched in. A few weeks ago the Los Angeles Times published a ranked database of 6,000 local teachers based on its own analysis of their performance.

Some fear, however, that the charged emotional tone of Waiting for “Superman” could cloud debate rather than deepen it. Americans may finally be taking their crisis in education seriously, but will Guggenheim’s film take them any closer to knowing how to solve it?

This article at the TES