Schools: The Disaster Movie

Waiting for "Superman" is a paean to reformers like Washington, D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee (left), while it casts AFT president Randi Weingarten (right), in the words of Variety, as "something of a foaming satanic beast."Photo: Mike McGregor

The Harlem-based educator and activist Geoffrey Canada first met the filmmaker Davis Guggenheim in 2008, when Canada was in Los Angeles raising money for the Children’s Defense Fund, which he chairs. Guggenheim told Canada that he was making a documentary about the crisis in America’s schools and implored him to be in it. Canada had heard this pitch before, more times than he could count, from a stream of camera-toting do-gooders whose movies were destined to be seen by audiences smaller than the crowd on a rainy night at a Brooklyn Cyclones game. Canada replied to Guggenheim as he had to all the others: with a smile, a nod, and a distracted “Call my office,” which translated to “Buzz off.”

Then Guggenheim mentioned another film he’d made—An Inconvenient Truth—and Canada snapped to attention. “I had absolutely seen it,” Canada recalls, “and I was stunned because it was so powerful that my wife told me we couldn’t burn incandescent bulbs anymore. She didn’t become a zealot; she just realized that [climate change] was serious and we have to do something.” Canada agreed to be interviewed by Guggenheim, but still had his doubts. “I honestly didn’t think you could make a movie to get people to care about the kids who are most at risk.”

Two years later, Guggenheim’s new film, Waiting for “Superman,” is set to open in New York and Los Angeles on September 24, with a national release soon to follow. It arrives after a triumphal debut at Sundance and months of buzz-building screenings around the country, all designed to foster the impression that Guggenheim has uncorked a kind of sequel: the Inconvenient Truth of education, an eye-opening, debate-defining, socially catalytic cultural artifact.

“Superman” affectingly, movingly traces the stories of five children—all but one of them poor and black or Hispanic—and their parents as they seek to secure a decent education by gaining admission via lottery to high-performing charter schools. At the same time, the film is a withering indictment of the adults—in particular, those at the teachers unions—who have let the public-school system rot, and a paean to reformers such as Canada and Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools, who has waged an epic campaign to overhaul the notoriously dysfunctional system over which she presides.

Among leaders of the burgeoning education-reform movement, the degree of anticipation surrounding “Superman” is difficult to overstate. “The movie is going to create a sense of outrage, and a sense of urgency,” says Arne Duncan, Barack Obama’s secretary of Education. New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein concurs. “It’s gonna grab people much deeper than An Inconvenient Truth, because watching ice caps melt doesn’t have the human quality of watching these kids being denied something you know will change their lives,” Klein says. “It grabs at you. It should grab at you. Those kids are dying.”

The education-reform crowd is not alone in waiting for Waiting for “Superman”—though for those on the other side of the ideological fence, it would be more accurate to say that they are bracing for “Superman.” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a character in the film, complains that it is “unfair,” “misleading,” and potentially “dangerous.” Indeed, not long ago, United Teachers Los Angeles posted on its website a flyer describing “Superman” as “scathing” and “attacking U.S. teachers” and calling for volunteers to appear in a TV ad to give “the other side of the story.”

The excitement and agitation around “Superman” might seem hyperbolic, overblown. Yet both are symptomatic of a signal moment in the annals of American education, when a confluence of factors—a grassroots outcry for better schools, a cadre of determined reformers, a newly demanding and parlous global economy, and a president willing to challenge his party’s hoariest shibboleths and most potent allies—has created what Duncan calls a “perfect storm.” It’s a moment when debates are raging over an array of combustible issues, from the expansion of charters and the role of standardized-test scores to the shuttering of failing schools and the firing of crappy teachers. It’s a moment ripe with ferment and possibility, but also rife with conflict, in which the kind of change that fills many hearts with hope fills others with mortal dread—and which gives a movie like “Superman” a rare chance to move the needle.

Davis Guggenheim had no intention of starting a fight with his movie. At first, in fact, he was about as interested in making “Superman” as Canada initially was in appearing in it. After An Inconvenient Truth, Guggenheim was deluged with offers to take on every conceivable cause: cancer, Africa, the oceans, you name it. Guggenheim just shook his head—and his reaction was no less negative about tackling education: “I don’t think it can be done,” he said. “It’s a storytelling quagmire.”

Davis Guggenheim also directed An Inconvenient Truth.Photo: Patrick McMullan

Guggenheim knew whereof he spoke. The son of legendary documentarian Charles Guggenheim and an accomplished director of fiction (Deadwood, 24, NYPD Blue) and nonfiction (It Might Get Loud, the Barack Obama biographical short at the 2008 Democratic convention), he had already made an education documentary. Entitled The First Year, the film followed five public-school teachers during their initiation to the classroom—and was consigned to irrelevance when it made its debut on PBS five days before 9/11. But even had the timing been less miserable, Guggenheim believes that The First Year had no chance to have much impact. “It was vérité, as pure as it gets, but it preached to the choir,” he says.

What caused him to reconsider taking another run at the topic was the experience of driving his children to school in Venice, California. At 46, Guggenheim is an unrepentant liberal and supporter of the public schools. And yet here he was, passing three of them every day on his way to the private institution that his kids attend, “betraying the ideals I thought I lived by,” as he puts it in “Superman.”

This cascade of lefty-yuppie guilt led to Guggenheim’s first epiphany: to put himself in the film as its narrator, which would let the piece take, he says, “the tone of an op-ed.” His second was to make in effect two separate movies, welding them together only at the last minute. Movie No. 1 would be the story of the kids and the charter-school lotteries, while Movie No. 2 would deal with what Guggenheim calls “the folly of the adults”—from the parade of presidents of both parties pledging fundamental change but delivering none, to the administrators shuffling bad teachers from school to school, to the union bosses chanting “It’s all about the kids” while working feverishly to protect their members’ every contractual right and privilege.

“I would compare it to the muckraking of the early-twentieth century,” says former New York City Council member and current Harlem and Bronx charter-school operator Eva Moskowitz. “But the thing that distinguishes this film from a simple exposé is that it gets at the political underpinnings of why we’re in the crisis that we’re in.”

In the run-up to “Superman” ’s release, however, it’s precisely the political dimensions of the film that have been causing unending angst for Guggenheim. “Here’s what I’m scared of: that the movie will be misperceived as a pro-charter, anti-union piece,” he says. “The movie isn’t anti-union; it’s pro-kids. And to be pro-kids, I have to be tough on all of the adults, starting with myself. And the movie’s not pro-charter. It’s just that lotteries happen at a lot of charter schools, and the lottery is the central metaphor in the movie. It’s like, you could have the American Dream—if you win the lottery. The lottery is a metaphor for what we do to our kids.”

For the combatants in the war over the future of education, of course, charter schools are more than that: They are among the conflict’s most brutal battlefields. Publicly funded but autonomously operated, accountable for results but largely free of government oversight and entirely free of union rules such as lockstep pay and lifetime teacher tenure, charters now serve more than 1.5 million students across the country. To reformers such as Duncan and Klein, they hold fantastic promise: of empowering principals, slicing through red tape, creating competition for mainstream public schools. But to critics, charters are a chimera—a faddish panacea that represents much of what’s wrong with “Superman” and the ed-reform movement writ large.

That Guggenheim is right to be worried that his film will be seen as taking sides in the charter debate was evident one night in July, when I tagged along with Canada to a screening in Washington for education-policy wonks and activists. At the Q&A session afterward, a woman raised her hand and said, “My main concern is that the documentary seems to send the message that all charter schools are successful. As you know, there are a minority … that are very successful, but way too often they are no better than the neighborhood schools.”

“This is really about good schools, whether they are charter schools or public schools,” Canada said, immediately conceding the point that many of the former are “lousy.” “But here is the issue in public education,” he went on. “Those charter schools [that are performing well] are seen as a threat. It’s like, ‘If only we can find out a reason why they don’t really work, then we’ll all feel better’ … What I mean is that as long as we’re all failing, then there’s nothing you can do.”

Geoffrey Canada at one of his Harlem charter schools.Photo: Evan Kafka

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.

But in April of this year, the two sides at last came together, in no small part because Weingarten had become enmeshed in the negotiations. To the reform crowd, the D.C. contract looks like a revolution and a template, complete with pay for performance, an end to seniority-based layoffs, and what amounts to the demise of tenure: If a teacher is rated “ineffective,” he or she will be canned immediately; a “minimally effective” rating two years in a row earns the same result.

Most astonishing to Rhee was how easily the contract was finally approved. “The entire time the union was fighting us, they said, ‘Our members are never gonna accept this’—then it passed by an 80 to 20 percent vote!” she exclaims.

Without Weingarten’s imprimatur, of course, the vote never would have happened at all. Even more unexpected and courageous was her role in the passage of a new ed-reform law in Colorado that would make at least 50 percent of teacher evaluations dependent on test scores. The law was enacted despite the adamant opposition of the National Education Association—the larger of the two national teachers unions, and also the less urban and more retrograde—but with the endorsement, after a few minor amendments, of Weingarten’s AFT.

Given all this, you might think that the self-styled unionist reformer would be taking a victory lap. You would be wrong. Instead, Weingarten has been poor-mouthing the D.C. contract. Over breakfast in Washington, she was at pains to argue that, all appearances to the contrary, the union had made no large concessions, that “tenure was preserved intact,” that the contract “isn’t the breakthrough that New Yorkers and others think it is.” (When I put these claims to Klein, he fairly snorted: “If there are no concessions in there, give it to me! I’ll take that concession-free contract tomorrow!”)

On other matters, too, Weingarten’s tone is anything but conciliatory. When it comes to those she ritually describes as “so-called reformers”—a group she says is populated mainly by “elitist Democrats”—she argues that they find it “fashionable” to “demonize teachers” and “scapegoat the union.” Her dyspeptic attitude toward “Superman,” she says, boils down to her belief that it “will give license to that kind of demagoguery” and “takes us in the wrong direction,” toward “the idea that all you have to do is put in an iconic figure [such as Canada] and everything will be fine.”

Many of Weingarten’s arguments here don’t remotely pass first inspection. Whatever its flaws, “Superman” casts no aspersions on teachers, only on their unions. (The idea that criticizing the latter isn’t the same as knocking the former cuts no ice with her: “Teachers and their union are essentially the same,” she says.) More to the point, her contentions fly in the face of the progress in which she has had a hand.

What explains Weingarten’s apparent schizophrenia is the balancing act she is forced to pull off by a membership split between moderates and militants. (Asked by Politico, Proust-questionnaire style, to name her favorite body part, she said, “Legs—because I have to walk a tightrope most of the time.”) In her stint at the UFT in New York, she honed a signature style whereby her substantive compromises were coupled with rhetorical ferocity. Now, on a grander stage, she is doing the same thing again, attacking reformers and “Superman,” and even distancing herself from her own achievements, to maintain her authority with her people while at the same time giving herself space to move in the direction of reform.

For some of the “Superman” co-conspirators, this is one of the main values of the film. “It gives Randi cover to say to her membership, ‘Guys, if we don’t concede on some of this stuff, we’re going to lose a lot more,’ ” Canada says. One of his allies makes the same point differently: “Everything is Hegelian here, and the dialectic has to be driven by pushing her hard. When Davis’s film comes out, people will get agitated, and she’ll have to tack even more to the center. Randi knows how fast the ground is shifting under her feet.”

“Superman” may indeed be the cause of some of the tectonic rumbling beneath Weingarten’s pumps. But the epicenter of the ed-reform earthquake isn’t in Hollywood—it’s in Washington, at the White House.

When Obama took up occupancy there, neither side in the ed-reform debate was sure what to expect. For decades, Democrats at the national level had been a wholly owned subsidiary of the unions. But Obama was booed on the campaign trail for supporting merit pay, and secured his party’s nomination without the support of the AFT, which sided with Hillary Clinton. His choice of Duncan, who’d run the Chicago public schools with a penchant for consensus between reformers and the unions, to lead the Department of Education was seen as a signal that Obama would seek to chart a middle course.

Yet over the nineteen months of his term, Obama has done nothing of the kind. Rather, he has unfurled an education agenda that has delighted reformers, upset the unions, and in the process delivered more on his promise of transcending partisan divisions in the service of pragmatism than he has on any other issue.

The splashiest element of that agenda has been Race to the Top. Capitalizing on lean economic times and scarce tax revenues, RTTT employed a meager sum—$4.3 billion, less than one percent of the total of all federal, state, and local education spending—to create a competition among the states to adopt a series of reformist measures, from expanding charters to tying teacher evaluations to test scores to boosting curriculum standards. A frenzy of activity ensued, as more than 40 states took part, with two winning the first round in March and nine more, including New York ($700 million), and D.C. scoring in the second in August.

Those states were ecstatic with the injection of cash into their depleted coffers, but Duncan believes that the reforms instigated by RTTT will outlive the momentary windfall—and are likely to stick even in states that didn’t finish in the money. “My prediction is that when the last [RTTT] dollar is spent, you’re not gonna see states dumbing down their standards again,” he tells me. “I think we’ve crossed the Rubicon.”

Equally salutary in the eyes of reformers has been Obama’s willingness to defy his party’s education orthodoxies in other ways. Perhaps the most notable example involved an appallingly underperforming high school in Central Falls, Rhode Island. When the school’s board of trustees decided to sack all of its 77 teachers after the local union rejected a plan that included a longer school day and after-school tutoring, Obama supported the mass firing. “If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn’t show signs of improvement, then there’s got to be a sense of accountability,” he said.

“You cannot overestimate or overstate the power that comes with a Democratic president saying things like, ‘Choice and competition are good,’ and, ‘We should put more money in charter schools,’ and, ‘If teachers are ineffective, we should fire them,’ ” exults Rhee. “Never did I expect in my lifetime to hear a Democratic leader saying that, let alone a president.”

The positive fallout from Obama’s policies and his new vernacular has been tangible. “When we rolled out our new teacher-evaluation program last year, we said 50 percent of the teachers’ evaluations would be based on how much student growth they saw,” Rhee says. “People went nuts. ‘How is that possible? Why 50 percent? How are you gonna measure it?’ Now stuff like that is taking place all over the country. Two or three years ago, if you had said that would happen, people would have told you that you were high on crack. But here we are. And that’s huge.”

Yet what Rhee and other reformers understand (though they are sometimes loath to admit it) is that more-rigorous evaluations, higher standards, and greater accountability will only get you so far. Toward the end of “Superman,” in a quiet moment, Guggenheim intones, “The one thing those who work in the trenches know is that you can’t have a great school without great teachers … Look past all the noise and the debate, and it’s easy to see: Nothing will change without them.”

Years of research has shown that Guggenheim is right, that no variable is more critical to the success of students than terrific teachers. But maybe the most inconvenient truth when it comes to education reform is that the ability to fire bad teachers, or identify those who require help, or pay more to entice those who are superb to deploy their skills in the venues where they’re needed most, will change the quality of the teacher corps only on the margin. A real revolution in education will require a more foundational change—one that addresses the way in which the nation goes about turning people into teachers in the first place.

The ridiculousness of how we do it now is a bugbear of Geoff Canada’s. “We say to these young people, ‘We’re going to make a deal with you,’ ” he explains. “ ‘We are not going to pay you a lot of money, but we are going to give you a lot of time off. You’ll always get home before dark. You won’t work weekends, and you’ll have every summer off.’ It’s a terrible message we’re sending that these perks come with their job. What kind of people does that attract to the profession?”

The answer to Canada’s question is distressing and depressing. Whereas the best public-school systems in the world—Finland, Singapore, South Korea—recruit all of their teachers from the top third or better of their college graduates, in America the majority come from the bottom two-thirds, with just 14 percent of those entering teaching each year in high-needs schools coming from the upper third. And the numbers may be getting worse. According to a recent survey conducted by McKinsey, a meager 9 percent of top-third graduates have any interest in teaching whatsoever.

The McKinsey survey is part of an important study that the consultancy will publish later this month, based on its work in school systems in more than 50 countries. For a long time, there has been debate about what, if any, kinds of financial incentives would help create a better talent pool for K–12 teaching in America. The debate has been intense—with the unions arguing simultaneously for fatter salaries and that money isn’t the primary motivator for those who enter the profession—but hypothetical. The McKinsey study attempts to move the discussion into the realm of the empirical, by using market research to estimate what it would take, money-wise, to induce top-third grads to overcome their reluctance to teach, especially in high-needs schools.

The answers are surprising. To start with, the report makes clear that in the countries with the best schools, teacher quality is a national priority: Educators are paid competitively; education schools are highly selective; jobs are guaranteed for those credentialed; and professional development is ample and subsidized. In America, none of that holds true: Schools of education are largely open admission; credentialed teachers often can’t find jobs; professional development is pitiful; and the pay is lousy and, more important, it is seen as lousy by top-third graduates. “Most of them think they could earn more as a garbage collector than as a teacher,” says Matt Miller, a senior adviser to McKinsey and one of the study’s leaders.

Changing that perception would mean changing the reality, but the payoff would be dramatic. According to the study, a Rhee-style compensation package—starting salaries of $65,000, top salaries of $150,000—plus funding for teacher training could raise the percentage of top-third grads among new teacher hires in the one-in-six neediest schools from 14 percent to a whopping 68 percent. The cost at current teacher-student ratios: just $30 billion a year, or about 5 percent of total K–12 education spending.

By nature, such research is imprecise and imperfect, and there is no data proving that hiring teachers from the top third would boost student achievement. For some American-education gurus, those weaknesses may be a cause to doubt McKinsey’s work—an attitude that policymakers in Singapore or Finland would find dumbfounding. You want data, we’ll give you data, they would say: Take a gander at our kids’ stratospheric proficiency in math, reading, and science; how’s that for data?

For the United States, the issue of teacher recruitment isn’t just important. It is pressing. Of the roughly 3.3 million teachers nationwide, roughly half are baby-boomers approaching retirement in the coming decade. “Our ability to attract and retain great talent over the next few years is going to shape public education for the next 25 or 30 years,” says Duncan. “It presents some challenges, but it also presents an extraordinary opportunity.”

The same can be said of all of the issues raised by “Superman.” They are urgent and difficult, unquestionably, but also far less intractable than they seem—or that we’ve made them seem. “We know what works,” says Guggenheim. “What works is pragmatism. You go into a school, you hire good people, you have good leadership, and you fix it.”

Such comments will provide ample fodder for “Superman” ’s critics. Already an assortment of academics, think-tankers, and blockheaded bloggers are lining up to pummel Guggenheim as a dilettante and an agitprop peddler, and his movie as sensationalistic and simpleminded. What’s needed here, the critics say, is reasoned, careful discussion: more data, more study, more learned convocations, maybe even a blue-ribbon commission.

Guggenheim shrugs at such sentiments, for he’s heard them all before. “The chief obstacle for An Inconvenient Truth was the environmentalists, who’d become smug and complacent and had no idea how to tell their own story,” he says. “It’s the same with the education wonks. They’re gonna pick apart this aspect and that aspect of the movie, and they’re gonna totally miss the point.”

But the rest of us shouldn’t. For decades, the conversation about our schools has been the preserve of the education Establishment—and the result has been a system that, with few exceptions, runs the gamut from mediocre to calamitous. Waiting for “Superman” is no manifesto. It offers no quick fixes, no easy to-do lists, no incandescent lightbulbs to unscrew. What it offers is a picture of our schools that isn’t pretty, but that we need to apprehend if we’re to summon the political will necessary to transform them. “Nobody ever wants to call a baby ugly,” says Duncan. “This is like calling the baby ugly. It’s about confronting brutal truths.”

Looking squarely at those truths will cause the blood of some viewers to reach a roiling boil. Fingers will be pointed, and they should be—directly at the adults who have perpetuated the grotesqueries that consign generation after generation of America’s children to failure. If that leads to some hellacious donnybrooks, so much the better. “If you want to change public education, you have to do something that feels like a threat to the status quo,” says Canada. “If we don’t fight about this, if we can shake and be friends, we ain’t going to change. And if we don’t change, huge numbers of kids ain’t going to make it. There is no Superman coming to save them. All they have is us.”

Schools: The Disaster Movie