(Jim Clark) – Recently I was chatting with Washoe School Board President Estela Gutierrez about educational challenges in Incline/Crystal Bay. During a lull in the conversation she asked if I had seen “Waiting for Superman”. I responded “Huh?”
She explained that it is a new documentary film on the troubles and cures for our education system by Davis Guggenheim, director of the Al Gore adoration film “An Inconvenient Truth”. I told her I am not a big liberal film fan but she insisted that it was well worth seeing. I discovered that although the film opened in New York and Los Angeles last October it was not being shown locally yet. So I bought the book.
The title derives from a 1950s Superman TV show in which a school bus full of kids drives off a cliff but all are rescued when the Man of Steel flies in and gently catches it before it crashes. The work consists of portrayals of heartbreaking challenges experienced by minority students in urban areas intersticed with presentations by experts on how to fix things. The final theme is that the nation’s future depends on good teachers; that coddling of bad teachers by their powerful unions ensures mediocrity. The work also praises inner-city charter schools which have discovered that all kids can learn but have to use a lottery system to select students for entry. The finished job has received lofty praises, many from conservatives despite the director’s liberal stance, as well as searing criticism from teacher unions and their allies.
It begins with the personal experience of Director Guggenheim, living in Venice, California, every day driving his kids past three public schools to their private school. He acknowledges that this hypocrisy troubled him so he began two years of research for his documentary. Although he is a life time liberal and supporter of workers’ rights he painfully concludes that tenure and teacher unions are the biggest impediments to quality learning. Guggenheim wrote: “In the film I reveal the uncomfortable truth about the Democratic Party which receives more campaign contributions from teachers’ unions that from any other source”.
Guggenheim then turns to a presentation by Eric Hannushek, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institute, Stanford University. His research shows that between 1960 and 2007 pupil-teacher ratios went from 25.8 to 15.5 and annual (inflation adjusted) dollars spent per student from $3,170 to $11,674 but student achievement (N.A.E.P. scores) remained flat. He concludes that excellent teachers can overcome impediments to learning and that a policy of incenting teachers to excel should be implemented based on local conditions, not handed down from the state or federal level.
Then Washington DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee makes an appearance. She was hired by the city’s mayor to play the “tough sheriff” and indeed she bucked the teacher union time and again ridding the district of bad principals and teachers. After the film was made and the book printed the union raised millions of dollars to elect a new mayor who would fire Rhee. Regrettably that occurred last November which illustrates one aspect of the “powerful teachers’ union” problem.
Washington Post education columnist Jay Matthews then tells about years of research into effective charter schools such as the KIPP (knowledge is power program) Academies and Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s’ Zone schools.
Finally Bill and Melinda Gates discuss their Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching initiative to find out what makes excellent teachers, also referring to a KIPP academy in Houston that graduates 95% of its students, 90% of whom go on to college.
Although some of the criticism may be warranted I predict that “Waiting for Superman” will pack in moviegoers and will be the focus of the public education debate in the future.
(Jim Clark is President of Republican Advocates, a vice chair of the Washoe County GOP and a member of the Nevada GOP Central Committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)