Look! Look! Up on the screen!
A lot of lawmakers at the Tennessee Capitol think teachers’ unions are at least partly responsible for a lot that’s wrong with public education. And now they’ve got a movie to prove it.
More than a dozen members of the state Senate and House of Representatives sat in on a special matinee viewing of the 2010 film Waiting for ‘Superman’ in a Legislative Plaza hearing room one afternoon earlier this month. The screening was organized by Germantown Senate Republican Brian Kelsey and the film’s producers, who’ve shown the award-winning documentary to policymakers and education reform groups around the country.
Republican and Democrats alike who watched the movie all said afterward that they’re troubled by the state of education in America generally, and in Tennessee particularly. The film, they said, strengthened their resolve to effect positive change that is “about children, not adults,” a theme central to Waiting for ‘Superman’.
Another Inconvenient Truth
Released on DVD just last week, Waiting for ‘Superman’ follows the plight of several students and their families as they try to escape floundering public school systems by gaining entrance and new opportunities in more successful charter schools.
It is directed and narrated by Davis Guggenheim, who also directed the Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, a film credited both with dramatically raising the public’s alarm over global warming and bestowing environmentalist sainthood on Al Gore, Jr.
Waiting for ‘Superman’ takes its title from a comment made early on by one of its main figures, a successful charter-school founder in New York named Geoffrey Canada.
“One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me Superman did not exist, because even in the depths of the ghetto, you just thought he was coming,” recalls Canada, who grew up in the South Bronx. “She thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real. I was crying because no one was coming with enough power to save us.”
Wanna Be Your Superhero
Memphis Democrats John DeBerry, Jr. and Lois DeBerry (no relation) were among those who attended the screening of the film in Nashville. Both indicated they found it provocative and moving.
During a panel discussion on the the film and its lessons for Tennessee, Lois DeBerry, the former Tennessee House speaker pro tem of 24 years — the first African-American woman ever to win that post — became too emotional to speak and had to temporarily withhold her remarks until she collected herself.
“In 2011, I just can’t believe that we’re no further along in educating our children,” she said a while later. “Our children deserve better than this. And as Tennesseans, we can do better than this.”
Lois DeBerry’s obvious frustration, sadness and anger, said Rep. John DeBerry, are feelings shared by most who care deeply about the plight of children, particularly poor children, in failing American schools. “Many of our hearts are broken by what we see happening to many of our children, especially in urban areas,” he said.
“I think that basically we have been in denial in urban areas. For too long we’ve kind of put our head in the ground, and refused to take the bitter pill that there are some drastic and immediate changes that have to be taken,” he added.
DeBerry, Jr. spoke of a “a big pile of money” in public education, and of the many adults eying it, intent on acquiring or controlling how it gets spent. But the providers of education services are not, he said, “as important as the end product.”
“That end product is a student who can think, who can read, who can reason and who can perform in today’s world,” said DeBerry. “The rest of the world is, excuse the expression, kicking our butts, with a whole lot less money, because their education systems look at the child — at the recipient and not the provider. We’ve got too much attention on the providers, and not enough on the recipient.”
Added Lois DeBerry: “Children are waiting for a Superwoman and a Superman, without politics. They are waiting to be educated.”
“You ask me why charter schools are good for Tennessee? It’s because of what we saw in that film,” she said. “Because our kids, all of our kids, no matter where they come from, deserve the very best education that we can give them. And God is going to hold us responsible if we don’t do it.”
Waiting for ‘Superman’ isn’t just about charter schools. It also analyzes the role teachers’ unions play in American schools. And they come off as an obstinate force of obstruction, fundamentally hardwired to resist innovation and experimentation that potentially threatens the status quo.
The movie leaves the audience with the impression that teachers’ unions at minimum hold dual and conflicting loyalties. Union leaders say they have the best interest of students at heart. But oftentimes, the film argues, unions use their considerable political muscle to protect sub-par teachers from professional competition — or even from having to meet basic, on-the-job performance criteria as a condition of continued employment, an otherwise commonplace reality in private-sector working environments.
The system of teacher tenure, for example, is alleged by many who speak in the film to be a nearly impassible roadblock to reforming failing schools.
“In universities, professors are only granted tenure after many years of teaching, and a grueling vetting process, and many don’t receive it,” narrates Guggenheim. “But for public school teachers, tenure has become automatic.”
Geoffrey Canada says in one scene, “You can get tenure basically if you continue to breathe for two years. You get it.”
“And whether or not you can help children is totally irrelevant,” he adds. “Once you get tenure we cannot get rid of you. Almost no matter what you do, you are there for life, even if it is proven you are a lousy teacher.”
Some of Tennessee’s most powerful GOP education-oversight lawmakers are vocal advocates of lessening teachers’ union influence in education policy discussions. And a common sentiment expressed by them after watching the film was that no “sacred cow” will stand in the way of their reform proposals this session.
The nation is watching Tennessee as a result of the state winning more than $500 million in federal “Race to the Top” funding last year, said Senate Education Chairwoman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville. That means bold steps are necessary, both to prove the state is serious about reform, and to enact solutions to problems that others around the country can look to emulate, she said.
Gresham said Waiting for ‘Superman”s portrayal of teachers’ unions as an impediment to education reform rings true to her. It naturally follows that undermining what gives unions their power is key to limiting their capacity to disrupt or thwart brave new initiatives, she said.
“The issue of collective bargaining has to be met head-on, and for many of the reasons that we saw in this film,” said Gresham.
Kryptonite Sold Here
Teachers’ unions and their supporters have denounced Waiting for ‘Superman’.
The National Education Association has even set up a special resources page of anti-Superman criticism.
Waiting for ‘Superman’, said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, “demonizes public education, teachers unions, and, unfortunately, teachers.”
“Nowhere in the film or its discussion have teachers’ voices been heard,” said Van Roekel. “If you want to know how to make a public school great, ask a teacher, not Hollywood.”
Waiting for ‘Superman’ is merely “a slick marketing piece full of half-truths and distortions,” said a Huffington Post reviewer. “It rejects the inconvenient truth that our schools are being starved of funds and other necessary resources, and instead opts for an era of privatization and market-driven school change.”
Another professor, Diane Ravitch, an education policy researcher at New York University with ties to the center-left Brookings Institution, wrote in the New York Times last month that Waiting for ‘Superman’ may indeed represent “the most important public-relations coup that the critics of public education have made so far.” And she acknowledged that the film is “a powerful weapon on behalf of those championing the ‘free market’ and privatization” in the “clash of ideas occurring in education right now.”
But she claims the film is more the stuff of “right-wing” fantasy than responsible documentary.
“The movie asserts a central thesis in today’s school reform discussion: the idea that teachers are the most important factor determining student achievement. But this proposition is false,” wrote Ravitch.
“(W)hile teachers are the most important factor within schools, their effects pale in comparison with those of students’ backgrounds, families, and other factors beyond the control of schools and teachers,” she continued. “Teachers can have a profound effect on students, but it would be foolish to believe that teachers alone can undo the damage caused by poverty and its associated burdens.”
Ravitch’s conclusion is that expanding market-style competition in America’s public education systems could produce disastrous results. “The stock market crash of 2008 should suffice to remind us that the managers of the private sector do not have a monopoly on success,” she wrote.
A Legislative Locomotive
The Tennessee Education Association says the GOP’s push to undermine unions this session is rooted in a desire for “political payback” stemming from the TEA’s admitted preference for Democrats when disbursing union political contributions. And to that end, Republicans have proposed ending automatic payroll deductions of government employees’ union dues, which could over time have the effect of drying up a lot of the TEA’s own financial support.
But there’s more to this political beef than campaign cash. Many Republicans blame unions for much of what ails inner city public schools. GOP lawmakers suggest unions have willfully perpetuated failing education systems, which has exacerbated urban poverty and social dysfunction, which in turn undermines the ability of families, neighborhoods and communities to promote and sustain institutions of educational excellence.
“Teachers’ unions have had this death-grip, this ‘let’s-stop-everything’ mentality. And look at where it has gotten us. We are in the cellar not just in the nation, but in the world as far as developed countries’ systems go,” said Knoxville GOP Sen. Stacey Campfield. “The teachers’ unions say, ‘Just leave things the way they are and somehow things will magically change.’ Well, it is not going to change. We have to make changes if we want to see the situation change.”
“The time is now, and if the union doesn’t want to be a pat of it, well then I’m sorry, but maybe they have to be put aside a little bit,” said Campfield, a member of the Senate Education Committee.
Kelsey, who also serves on the Senate Education Committee, is — along with Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville — sponsoring school-voucher legislation this year called the “Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act.”
Kelsey, Ramsey and many other Republicans — as well as a few Democrats — also support expanding the number and role of charter schools in Tennessee, including in the state-controlled “achievement district” that will likely include a number of failing Memphis schools. Finally, there appears to be broad GOP support for making it more difficult for a teacher to earn and maintain tenure, and for prohibiting local school districts from collectively bargaining with teachers’ unions.
Kelsey maintains that his intention for organizing the Waiting for ‘Superman’ screening for lawmakers was not to denigrate teachers in general. In fact, the opposite is true, said Kelsey: He wanted to inspire lawmakers to propose and support reforms that reward teachers who embrace the challenge of producing better educational results.
“Our research has shown us that having a great teacher in the classroom is the No. 1 way to improve education,” Kelsey said. “And in fact, we undervalue great teachers.
“On the other hand, often, very often — and we have seen this in Tennessee — teachers’ unions are holding us back from educating children,” said Kelsey.
Lt. Gov. Ramsey said the political fact on the floors of both chambers of the Tennessee Legislature is that the GOP is going to drive the debate and agenda on education reform this session. That agenda will involve expanding school choice and forcing education providers to compete for taxpayer dollars, he said.
“I’m a big proponent of competition,” said Ramsey. “That’s the reason I think charter schools are a good way to go. I do think that these scholarships that we are talking about in those failing schools to allow parents to take their money and allow for competition…is a step in the right direction.
“There’s not one magic bullet, I think this film pointed that out. It’s a combination of a lot of things that can improve school systems.”
And Republicans are keenly aware that they couldn’t really ask for a friendlier legislative climate for enacting their favored programs and initiatives, he said.
“The spotlight is on us,” said Ramsey. “In the past we may have used excuses that bills were killed in some committees in the House, or that the governor wouldn’t sign a bill. Republicans, for the first time in the history of this state, have the majority in the House, the majority in the Senate and the governorship. We can’t make excuses any longer, and I think that the time is right, right now, to reform education in Tennessee.”