Not waiting for Superman

Be forewarned: There’s a documentary coming soon to a movie theater near you that portrays public school teachers and their unions as the villains responsible for low student achievement, while painting charter schools and their promoters as the heroes looking out for the best interests of schoolchildren.

This film, entitled “Waiting for Superman,” does get a couple of things right, by all accounts. It calls for world-class standards in public education, and it calls on audiences to support a major effort to raise literacy rates. But its other main policy prescriptions–proliferation of privately operated charter schools, along with using students’ achievement-test scores to determine public school teachers’ evaluations and pay–are presented as if they were supported by strong evidence of positive effects on student learning, when in fact such evidence is sorely lacking.
Selective snippets of an interview with AFT President Randi Weingarten are used in the film to reinforce the false premise that teacher unions are an obstacle to reform. Weingarten says the main problem with the film, though, is not that it caricatures her and her union but that it omits entirely any examples of successful teaching within the traditional public schools. Not even one good teacher from a neighborhood public school is allowed to get a word in edgewise. Nothing is allowed on the screen to detract from the idea that a student in quest of good teaching had better win the lottery to attend a high-performing, privately run charter school.

As Weingarten has pointed out, “The fact is that only 17 percent of charter schools are better than public schools and 38 percent are much worse. The film could have looked at different schools and investigated why they worked or didn’t work, but that probably wouldn’t have made great theater.”

What’s needed, Weingarten insists, is not a “boutique” educational option that works for a small fraction of our student population but rather one that works for all kids. And AFT is fully engaged in a host of efforts to help make that happen, including efforts that directly address the need to provide for improved teacher development and evaluation–along with the time, tools, and trust teachers need to do their job.

In other words, AFT members are not waiting for anybody else to do this important work–we’re doing it right now ourselves, with the help of parents and community partners, in our neighborhood public schools. For a look at some of the excellent work we’re talking about, check out www.aft.org/notwaiting, a new feature of the AFT Web site that serves as a corrective for the inaccuracies and omissions of “Waiting for Superman.”

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