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School & District Management Opinion

‘Superman’ and Solidarity

By David Liebowitz — October 15, 2010 7 min read
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In 1958, four years after the stage premiere of “Waiting for Godot,” Samuel Beckett penned the most autobiographical of his 20 plays, “Krapp’s Last Tape.” The 69-year old Krapp, the lone character in Beckett’s spare work, prepares for his ritual of recording a reflection on the past year of his life by listening to old tapes of himself at the ages of 20 and 39. The last words the “wearish” Krapp hears before he begins to record his ominously “last” tape are from his 39-year-old self: “Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.”

So, too, in Davis Guggenheim’s new film, “Waiting For ‘Superman,’” are we presented with a narrator who looks longingly upon the bygone years of American exceptionalism, when our economy was the world’s most productive and our children the best educated. Guggenheim articulates the failings of the current system of education delivery through the story of five heartbreakingly precious children: Anthony, a Washingtonian raised by his grandmother hoping for the “bittersweet” chance to attend the SEED charter boarding school; Francisco, a math enthusiast, and Bianca, a cast-away from parochial schools, both seeking a spot in the Harlem Success Academy; Daisy, an aspiring nurse, doctor, and veterinarian with dreams of attending the Knowledge Is Power Program’s Los Angeles College Preparatory Academy; and Emily, the movie’s only white child, from suburban Silicon Valley, trying to avoid the tracking of her district’s high school at the Summit Preparatory Charter High School. For each of these students, the traditional public school system has failed.

Beyond the individual stories, the film’s synthesis of evidence ensures it a lasting place in the annals of educational-crisis reports, alongside the 1966 Coleman Report, 1983’s A Nation at Risk, and 1990’s “Tough Choices, Tough Times.” Despite rumblings by some in the blogosphere who take up scholars David Berliner and Bruce Biddle’s claim that this is a “manufactured crisis,” the film effectively employs the litany of statistics familiar to education policy observers: low proficiency rates on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, comparatively poor performance on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the Program for International Student Assessment exams, stagnant high school and college graduation rates, all coupled with rising per-pupil expenditures, to build a case that Superman is needed.

Fortunately, according to Guggenheim, while the golden era of American schools may be over, the fire in the bellies of the new wave of reformers, like the dynamic Geoffrey Canada, the hard-charging Michelle Rhee, the unassuming Bill Strickland, and the boyish Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, provides evidence of a new hope. Since 1991, when the Minnesota legislature passed the first charter-authorizing law, networks of charter schools such as KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Green Dot, and Achievement First have grown, with the explicit purpose of preparing students from low-income communities for academic, college, and career success.

Neither the film's Superman, nor any isolated pocket of brilliance holds the answer to the systemic challenge of offering each child an excellent and equitable education."

A key tool employed by the “no excuses” charter schools to achieve their results is to recruit, develop, and retain only the most effective teachers. Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek, doing his best to make an Excel chart captivating on the silver screen, explains that were the U.S. school system able to eliminate the bottom-performing 6 percent to 10 percent of its teaching force, we would be able to close our national achievement gap with perennially high-flying Finland.

Presenting evidence that ranges from horrifying undercover footage of professional malpractice, to a jaunty, animated “dance of the lemons,” Guggenheim asserts through example what University of Michigan professor Brian Rowan found through analysis: The quality of classroom teachers varies wildly, not just between but within schools. Whereas, the outstanding charter schools to which the film’s stars seek access can select and de-select teachers at will, the traditional public schools are bound by collective bargaining agreements and state tenure laws that prevent rewarding outstanding teachers and firing incompetent ones.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, whether as an evasive interviewee or a national-convention ringmaster, plays the role of the film’s villain, interested in protecting the interests of adults over those of the children they serve.

Other education commentators ranging the political spectrum, from Rick Hess, to Mike Petrilli, to R. L’Heureux Lewis, have ably noted the incompleteness of the film’s proposed solutions. Even lay reviewers in Slate and The New York Times have pointed out the lack of panaceaic school strategies. Methodologically rigorous evidence exists to show that in both New York City and Boston, students who win lotteries to attend oversubscribed charter schools outperform their losing peers by margins large enough to overcome the “Scarsdale-Harlem” (or Roxbury-Wellesley) gap. However, equally compelling evidence suggests that the alternative governance of charter schools alone is not enough to ensure that all charters are as strong as the ones to which the five “Waiting For ‘Superman’” protagonists have applied. The Stanford University CREDO study of charter schools across the country found wide variability in their performance, with only 17 percent performing at significantly higher levels than their district counterparts.

Equally important is that whatever effects the quasi-experimental lottery-based studies find, the results are generalizable only to those children whose parents or caregivers entered them in the lottery. We still struggle to find scalable solutions for children who are learning English, have severe disabilities, or lack involved caregivers, all of whom are underenrolled in charter schools.

The film also fails to foresee the groundbreaking shifts in teacher-effectiveness policy precipitated by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition. Whether through the elimination of New York City’s “rubber rooms,” the dramatic reappraisal of tenure in Colorado, or the revolutionary District of Columbia teachers’ contract and evaluation system, the landscape of federal, state, and local policy has been altered in ways unimaginable even two years ago. Fascinatingly, in each of these cases, the AFT and Randi Weingarten have stood shoulder to shoulder with legislatures, governors, and superintendents to demand these changes. Despite the potential these policy reforms offer for improvement, neither Guggenheim nor Hanushek is able to articulate how de-selection can work as a large-scale improvement strategy when we have so few metrics on which to select effective teachers to replace those these laws allow us to remove.

None of this denies the power of excellent schools (whether charter or not) and inspiring teachers (whether unionized or not) to dramatically bend the arc of children’s lives. I taught for six years in a high-performing charter school that twice won the national Blue Ribbon Schools award. Since then, I have worked in the central office of a major urban school district, a state secretary of education’s office, and a state education agency, and I currently intern as a principal-in-training at an 1,100-student K-8 district school where 91 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunch.

In every one of these settings, I have had the privilege of teaching and learning alongside intelligent, passionate, and creative colleagues. I have also been struck by the institutional ideologies that impede collaborative efforts to improve children’s education. Which charter school network will assist district leadership in turning around their lowest-performing schools? Which superintendent will convene the successful charter school operators within her district to learn best practices? What school board will devote resources to systematically develop its teachers following the results of a disheartening study? Which local-chapter president of a major urban district will agree to a thin contract?

Guggenheim’s narrative implies that the Superman of the film’s title, drawn from Geoffrey Canada’s childhood realization that there was no hero to rescue him from the South Bronx, has come in the form of the new generation of education reformers. Most sober educators, including Canada himself, recognize that the fictional Krapp’s 39-year old fire is not enough alone to solve the world’s problems.

Neither the film’s Superman (think George Reeves, not Christopher Reeve), nor any isolated pocket of brilliance holds the answer to the systemic challenge of offering each child an excellent and equitable education. While Beckett’s aged, defeated Krapp can only look back with disgust at a solitary life of hubris, each member of our generation must forge lasting bonds of solidarity that will, with shared, humble purpose, build, brick by brick, the foundation of a more just society. Nothing so hard was ever so important.

A version of this article appeared in the October 20, 2010 edition of Education Week as ‘Superman’ and Solidarity

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