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Schools: The Disaster Movie

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Geoffrey Canada at one of his Harlem charter schools.  

Among the reformers in “Superman,” Canada emerges as the brightest star: His blend of intelligence, charisma, and moral urgency is impossible to resist. As the founder and the guiding hand of the Harlem Children’s Zone, Canada is engaged in a vastly ambitious social-development project, an attempt to transform 97 hardscrabble square blocks of the city with a comprehensive set of services for the poor, from a “baby college” for new and expectant parents to two charter schools—though he is no charter purist.

“I didn’t want to do charter schools,” Canada tells me. What he wanted was a chance to run the public schools within the HCZ in partnership with Klein, to hire his own principals, fire poor teachers, pay the better ones more and the inferior ones less. Klein laughed at him: “It ain’t gonna happen. If you want in on this game, the only thing you can do is start a charter school.”

The performance of Canada’s charters—which saw some of their test scores decline appreciably when the state recently toughened up its grading system—is a subject of furious, as-yet-inconclusive debate. But the argument Canada makes for charters doesn’t rest on the success of his or anyone else’s endeavors. “The whole point of charters is that you can close the ones that fail,” he says. “I’m all for it! You close them and constantly innovate, and things get better.”

Canada’s mention of innovation gets me thinking about a recent front-page article in the New York Times that reported on the mediocre or dismal performance of many charter schools. To critics, this is proof that the charter movement is a washout, when the data actually demonstrate no such thing—for as any student of technology will tell you, innovation is built on failure. The point of letting a thousand flowers bloom isn’t that they will all survive. It’s that most will die but a few will flourish, and those hearty varietals are the ones that should be cloned and planted elsewhere.

“Exactly,” Canada says. “But this is what drives me crazy. Folks are absolutely furious that we want to innovate. ‘This guy wants to say public schools are failing!’ Well, they are. ‘He wants to say some teachers are lousy and should be fired.’ Well, they are and they should be. The fact that people get mad when you say that stuff, it’s amazing to me. People have no intention of having this business change. None.”

“Nobody wants to call a baby ugly,” says Education Secretary Arne Duncan. This movie “is like calling the baby ugly. It’s about confronting brutal truths.”

Among those to whom Canada is referring are superintendents, politicians, and the people who run schools of education. But Canada makes it clear that he believes the biggest impediments to innovation are the teachers unions. During the session in the theater, he noted drily, “I’m sure there are things the unions have done to help children. I just can’t think of any.”

But Canada is too sharp not to know that the story is more complicated. In recent months, the AFT has taken a series of steps that were once unthinkable, and that might open the door to the types of innovations for which Canada pines. The steps have come haltingly, reluctantly, but they have come—largely as a result of one of the most complex characters in education or politics today.

The character in question is the AFT’s Randi Weingarten. If Canada is among the heroes of “Superman,” Weingarten comes across as its villain. Though Guggenheim would dispute the characterization, a reviewer for Variety wrote that the movie renders the union boss as “something of a foaming satanic beast.”

In person, Weingarten doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to Linda Blair in The Exorcist. The longtime head of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers before taking over the national union in 2008, she is relentlessly precise, wicked smart, more a hardheaded pragmatist than a wanton ideologue—and also a shrewd and crafty pol keenly attuned to her own image. As one friend of hers observes, “Randi wants to be seen as the inheritor of the mantle of Albert Shanker,” the heralded AFT president from 1974 to 1997 who was an early and apostatic proponent of charter schools. “She wants her legacy to be that of a reformer.”

Weingarten has always been willing to talk the talk of reform, and of late she has done so forcefully, urging her members to accept more-stringent evaluation systems and declaring that the unions shouldn’t be in the business of protecting awful instructors. “Teachers don’t want to teach with bad teachers,” she tells me flatly.

Weingarten’s increasing willingness to walk the walk of reform has been even more impressive. The most vivid instance has been in Washington, where in July 2008 Michelle Rhee placed on the table a daring contract proposal: In exchange for giving up lifetime tenure and linking their pay to student performance, teachers would have been able to earn as much as $130,000 a year. (Alternatively, they could have kept their job security—along with salary ceilings about two-thirds as high.) How did the D.C. teachers union react? As “Superman” shows in devastating detail, it refused even to allow a vote on the plan.


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