Where Are You Superman?

Article excerpt

Where are you Superman? James Paterson reviews Waiting for Superman Directed by Davis Guggenheim (Paramount Vantage, 2010, 102 minutes)

What we're against is proposals that divide people.' So says Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, in response to a proposal from Washington D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Rhee's controversial idea was to give teachers a choice between retaining their unrivalled job security and a modest pay rise, or forgoing it for the chance to earn dramatically higher wages based on performance. As Davis Guggenheim, director and narrator of Waiting for Superman, tells us, local union leaders were so threatened by Rhee's proposal that they refused to allow their members to vote on it.

Guggenheim, director of Al Gore's global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth , is not exactly a fire-breathing conservative. He was also responsible for Barack Obama's 2008 Democratic National Convention biographical film and his 30-minute television campaign advertorial. But with Waiting for Superman , this director could hardly have delivered a more stunning indictment of education bureaucrats, teachers unions and, by extension, the Democratic Party.

Jonathan Alter of Newsweek (who wrote a flattering biography of Franklin Roosevelt and is generally sympathetic to Democratic presidents) says in the documentary that ?teachers unions are a menace', and that the national Democratic Party is their ?wholly-owned subsidiary.'

Waiting for Superman combines devastating survey data and examination scores with an often emotional portrayal of five young Americans whose local schools are failing them, to paint a bleak picture of US public schools.

Since 1971, spending per student on education in the United States has increased from $4,300 to $9,000 in inflation-adjusted terms. At the same time, test scores of American students have stagnated while the rest of the world surged ahead. The proportion of American students judged ?proficient' in reading and maths for their year level is appallingly low-less than 40 per cent in most states, and as little as 12 per cent in the worst educational districts like Washington D.C.

The system of granting ?tenure'which effectively guarantees a teacher's job for life-as well as staunch resistance from unions to merit-based pay come under heavy fire in the movie. In just one example of the damage inflicted by tenure, the state of Illinois has had only 38 school districts out of 876 ever successfully fire a tenured teacher. Compared to other professions-where one in fifty-six doctors and one in ninety-seven lawyers lose their right to practise, just one in every two and a half thousand teachers ever lose their jobs.

The challenges of firing incompetent or negligent teachers were demonstrated by New York State's notorious ?rubber room', where more than 600 tenured teachers awaited disciplinary hearings on their full salaries and benefits. In these fiscally-straitened times and at a cost of more than $100 million annually to taxpayers, the rubber room highlights the threat posed by education unions not just to quality education, but also to the fiscal solvency of state governments.

Statistics like these are particularly galling when considered against testimony from experts interviewed in the film. One argues that the effect of sacking just the worst 6-10 per cent of teachers and replacing them with merely average ones would catapult the United States to the top of educational world rankings.

Waiting for Superman , however, is not all doom and gloom. Against this depressing backdrop, the film also profiles educational entrepreneurs who offer some hope for American students from low-income backgrounds.

Geoffrey Canada is one such visionary. Himself a product of a rough neighbourhood and raised by a single mother, he set out to reform education in the United States first as a teacher, then as an educational consultant. …