Friday, December 31, 2010

Anti Teacher Union efforts and Waiting for Superman

           I have posted here several critiques of  the film, “Waiting for Superman,” so I do not need to repeat these criticisms.  The most fact based criticism is here What Superman got wrong.
My goal in the following is to share my own reaction to the film.
 First, it is an important film and I encourage people to see it.  It illustrates to a rather uninformed public  several of the important issues including the budget crisis in schools and the importance of having quality teachers.  

In October the film, “Waiting for Superman” dominated the television talk shows, forums, and press with a message that public schools are failing, the teachers’ unions are to blame, and that charter schools are the answer to the problems of public schools.   Superman is not only a film about schools, it is also a part of a wider sophisticated assault on unions and particularly public sector unions.  In the Fall 2010  election in California  Meg Whitman extended the criticism of the teachers union and made it  a major issue in her  $160 million dollar self financed campaign  for Governor.  The film and the Whitman campaign  illustrate how corporate funding produces a political narrative.  The corporations and the foundations involved  are distinct, but the process of corporate or oligarchy funding to shape the political and economic dialogue are similar.
The film  Waiting for Superman is a part of the effective  strategy of corporate take over of education policy and corporate victories in framing the issues of education reform . Historian Diane Ravitch describes  this corporate take over in her well written  book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System; How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. (2010).  There are several specific criticisms of the  facts and the framing in the film including  Ira Shor of the City University of New York saying  “Overall it benefits the hedge fund billionaires now bankrolling charter schools and conservative politicians,”  on the site
             Prominent education historian Diane Ravitch, formerly an Under Secretary for Research in the Department of Education during the Reagan Administration, criticizes the film  as propaganda citing  substantial evidence that charter schools do not have a record of producing better achievement than public schools . ( NYReview of Books). ). [ full disclosure.  This writer has long criticized Ravitch for her positions on multicultural education and particularly for her role in writing the California  History/Social Science Framework, the document that shapes whose history is taught in California school textbooks.]  Ravitch argues  that Superman  is a propaganda master piece blaming unions for the many problems of public schools including the budget crises and  alleged problems recruiting and keeping  quality teachers.

            Waiting for Superman  makes two glaring claims that were  political assertions by anti union advocates  such as Joel Klien and Michele Rhee  when the film was made but  now are  objectively wrong.  Superman  claims that the teachers union leadership in Washington D.C. would not allow the union contract proposed by  Michele Rhee come to a vote of the teachers.  Since the film was made the contract was submitted to a vote and it passed.  That is Rhee got the contract she wanted- which the film claims was made impossible by union obstruction.  In September Rhee was encouraged to leave her position as Chancellor of Washington D.C. schools.  The film  further supports its claim that incompetent teachers are difficult to remove  from teaching by citing the extreme case of the New York City room, called by the press the “rubber room.”  It is a compelling story.  However, the so called “rubber room was eliminated last year by the very union contract which the film makers claim was protecting incompetent teachers.
            The film, and the  general assault on teachers unions is a part of a media savvy campaign by pro charter groups including Democrats for Education Reform and the groups which Ravitch in her new book  calls the ,”Billionaire Boy’s Club including the Gates, Olin, Bradley and Broad foundations among others.
Unfortunately  Waiting for Superman distorts the needed discussion of school reform by developing only one side of the debate- that of the corporate  foundations  and their well funded spokespersons.  The film producer, David Guggenheim,  decries the teachers unions as a special interest while the film  promotes  the views of the  Bill Gates, the Olin Foundation, the Bradley foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the entire raft of very conservative economic interests by providing articulate spokespersons such as Michele Rhee, Joel Klein,  Goeffrey Canada , Arne Duncan, among others.    Several of these  foundations’  declared interest is  to shrink the public sector – as in public schools- and to spend less money on tax supported institutions.
 A frequent line from the  film narrator is “reform experts agree “ when in fact they do not agree.  The narration recognizes only the corporate sponsored reform  direction  and does not acknowledge  the  viewpoint of literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of persons who have been working  in the trenches for substantive school reform for decades.
Randy Weingarten, President of the AFT is seen in edited and clipped statements in the film.  In  August at the AFT convention she described the corporate sponsored  “reformers”   this way,
 Never before have I seen so few attack so many, so harshly, for doing so much—often with so little.
I don’t know if I should call the people attacking us, quote, “reformers,” as they like to be known—or performers, which might be more accurate. Because many of them seem more interested in engaging in political theater than constructive conversation.
So I’ll just call them the “blame-the-teacher crowd,” and even though many of them have set their sights on all public institutions, I will focus on the institution that has gotten the most abuse—public education.
The blame-the-teacher crowd would have Americans believe that there is only one choice when it comes to public education: either you’re for students, or you’re for teachers.
That is a bogus choice.
When a school is good for the kids, it’s also good for the teachers, and vice versa. “
The Michele Rhee, et al  well funded charter advocates  define themselves as the reform movement and the media generally echos their claim.   Teachers and union leaders seeking equity based reforms have not been able to break through the foundation funded “consensus” and media punditry.  
 I urge readers to see the film and to enter into the debates about the nature of schools and schooling in the U.S. We need a well informed dialogue on the quality of public schooling in our society and how we could improve that quality- but we are hearing from only one side of the debate.  An excellent alternative  to the corporate promoted view of schools in general is found in Mike Rose’s, Why Schools?  Reclaiming Education for us all.   Policy alternatives to Rhee, Duncan crowd  blaming of teachers is well documented in the Broader- Bolder Approach documents found at www.
The  school systems in many of  our cities are currently at a crisis  point and the school reform agenda has been hijacked by corporate sponsored  “reformers” who  have taken  millions from the schools while promising future improved  achievement.   To follow the money I urge you to read,  “the Ultimate $uperpower: Subsidized Dollars Drive Waiting for Superman Agenda,” ( October 20,2010) at
There is a problem with the great majority of real school reformers spending their time combating the charters/boy’s club groups.  Battling the media frenzy takes time that could be spent improving schools.
However, the battle must be engaged.  The charters/ boy’s club group, including the Democrats for Educational Reform, Bill Gates, etc., have successfully captured the Obama administration policy apparatus under the leadership of Arne Duncan.  Their policies, known as Race to the Top, are the funded, active policies.

         As the film well illustrates, many schools serving urban and impoverished students  need fundamental change. These schools do not open the doors to economic opportunity. They usually do not promote equality. Instead, they recycle inequality.  The high school drop out rates alone demonstrate that  urban schools  prepare less than 50 percent of their students for entrance into the economy and society. We cannot build a safe, just, and prosperous society while our society  leaves  so many young people behind. Among our tasks as progressives is to raise the voices of parents and teachers in the school reform debates leading up to the Congressional attempt to re-authorize No Child Left Behind this Spring.
Published in Democratic Left, Winter 2010. as Facts are Kryptonite to Superman.


directorblue said...

I appreciate the rational discussion, but there is a solution that you have omitted (or perhaps avoided).

Public sector unions were largely non-existent before the 1960's. The municipalities that employ teachers have no profit margins, owners or shareholders. Civil servants should flatly not be permitted to unionize.

I have no issue with public schools, but the teachers' unions have become so intertwined with the Democratic Party -- to the detriment of teachers, students and the taxpayers -- that the union bosses themselves have become insidious forces for the status quo.

And we all know that is not sustainable.

As for the failure of schools in the urban core. The answer to that is well known: rebuild the family structure. Study after study after study shows cause-and-effect as clearly as night follows day.

Happy New Year to you and yours.

Unknown said...


Well said. Children in public schools do not have a union to represent their interests. It's a fallacy to think their interests are always aligned with those of the teachers. I see how students in my son's school are disadvantaged every day by strict enforcement of provisions in the almighty' "Contract."

English-Polish military said...

You said a very important thing: "Civil servants should flatly not be permitted to unionize." Although I'm a civil (or the military :-) ) servant I fully agree with your statement. Unions spoil the base, the foundation of civil serving. If the situation is that bad just take another job. And I said "job", because there are some professions closer to passion and dedication than to simple "making money for a living."

Duane Campbell said...

In the prior comment English-Polish military says, Civil Servants should not be permitted to unionize.
As the writer of the original post, I distinctly did not say this.

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