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Superman's Super Myths
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"Superman's" Super Myths

“Waiting for Superman” is latest attack on public schools

Excerpted from the October 2010 Ohio School article. Click here to read the full article.

Last year, it was “The Cartel,” a shoddy documentary making the case for charter schools. Now it’s “Waiting for ‘Superman’” — in a movie theater near you. There’s a lot of media buzz about it: Time magazine has given it a lot of coverage and the issue was a focus of the September 20 Oprah TV show.

The film, directed by Davis Guggenheim and produced by Lesley Chilcott (“An Inconvenient Truth”), purports to analyze the failures of the American public education system by following several students. The film received the Audience Award for best documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

What you need to know:
The OEA’s 130,000 members and the 3.2 million members of NEA welcome and encourage filmgoers to join in our mission of delivering a great education for every student. OEA affiliates and individual members have consistently advocated for the basic right of all students to attend great public schools, and we hope the film inspires more Americans to become engaged in a larger discussion about the shared responsibility for ensuring that America has a public education system that prepares all of our children, not just some of them, to live and compete in a global society.

”Waiting for ‘Superman’” is a film that evokes strong emotions. It tells the story of injustice in America’s education system—a story that teachers and education support professionals have been telling for years. We are glad that more people are talking about these issues and generating ideas about how to improve our nation’s public schools for all students.

“Waiting for ‘Superman’” says important things about the challenges of the public education system. However, the reductive messaging —“charters are good” and “teachers unions are bad”— oversimplifies complicated issues and threatens to thwart thoughtful discussions about improving public schools. Improving public education is a shared responsibility—parents, teachers, administrators, elected officials, and other adults must come together to determine how to make schools in their community great. Unfortunately, this is not reflected in the film’s tone, which is divisive rather than collaborative.

“Waiting for ‘Superman’” Super Myths: A closer look at the film and its flaws

Super Myth #1: Teacher unions are “bad” but teachers are “good”

While acknowledging the many issues facing public education, in a sometimes animated and entertaining manner, “Waiting for ‘Superman’” concludes that teacher unions and teacher contracts are destroying the schools. Teacher unions are portrayed as “bad” and teachers as “good.” (Guggenheim fails to understand that the teachers are the union, they are the members. Teachers elect the union leaders. Teachers approve the negotiated contract.) Although the movie tries to detach teachers from the teachers’ union, by portraying teacher unions as the root of all evil in public education, Guggenheim is, in essence, placing the blame on teachers. Those interviewed in the film are uniformly anti-union— mostly “reformers” who believe teachers unions are the main obstacle to great public schools.

Super Myth #2: Charter schools are a magic, silver-bullet solution

OEA believes that charter schools and other nontraditional public school options have the potential to facilitate positive transformation and foster creative teaching methods that can be replicated in traditional public schools for the benefit of all students. By definition, charter schools are free from many of the restrictions placed on traditional public schools. The innovative ideas that make some charter schools successful stem from the very issues OEA members have long identified as things they want to change about public education.

Charter schools are only able to serve a small percentage of the student population, and only one in five charter schools outperforms traditional public schools. In fact, research suggests that two in five charter schools perform worse than traditional public schools. Recent films have suggested that charter schools are the only way we can improve public education, but even well-known proponents of charter schools are critical of these films:

“Movies that sell charter schools as a salvation are peddling a simpleminded remedy that takes us back to the worst charter puffery of a decade ago, is at odds with the evidence, and can blind viewers to what it takes to launch and grow truly great charters. These flicks accelerate the troubling trend of turning every good idea into a morale crusade, so that retooling K-12 becomes a question of moral rectitude in which we choose sides and “reformers” are supposed to smother questions about policy or practice. They also wildly romanticize charters, charter school teachers, and the kids and families, making it harder to speak honestly or bluntly.”

(Rick Hess, education commentator, American Enterprise Institute. His complete article can be found at: http:// Charter schools are one solution, but schools across the country are benefitting from a range of exciting, new ideas that are the result of communities working together to improve their local schools. NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign supports schools that are thinking about education differently— including successful service learning programs in Ohio schools—school districts are working collaboratively with local unions to improve teaching and learning.

Super Myth #3: Unions are unwilling to commit to “common sense” solutions

America’s public education system has recently captured the attention and imagination of lawmakers, newscasters, commentators, filmmakers and the general public. In many places, the situation is urgent, so for those new to the conversation, the impulse is to recommend simple, silver-bullet solutions.

OEA has always been supportive of proven, research-based (and therefore “common sense”) reforms, as a cornerstone of its efforts to provide a great public school for every student. Smaller class-sizes; increased teacher autonomy and flexibility; higher status for the teaching profession; improved teacher quality and professional development programs; broader support and involvement by parents and the community; adequate tools and resources; modernized schools— these are things we know, from research and experience, that will improve our nation’s schools. All schools should have the tools and resources necessary to help all students succeed—students shouldn’t have to rely on chance or a lottery to get a quality education that prepares them to succeed in life. OEA members are eager to receive the support that is needed to ensure all students, not just a few, have access to quality public schools.

Because OEA members are in schools and classrooms every day, we are also aware of the challenges our public schools face, and we are eager to have collaborative discussions to help determine ways that we can work with parents, community organizations, elected officials, and other concerned adults to benefit America’s students. Educating our children is a shared responsibility, and the debate over how best we do that should be cooperative, not divisive.

Super Myth #4: Unions don’t represent the opinions of their own members, and only exist to protect “bad” teachers

The nation’s teachers unions comprise of more than four million individual members: teachers and education support professionals, students preparing to be teachers, higher education personnel and retired educators. At all levels, policy is debated and agreed to be among democratically elected members—our members’ opinions are diverse, and collectively they set the organization’s agenda at the local, state, and national levels. OEA members’ dues are spent on a range of priorities, which are democratically and collectively agreed upon each year by delegates to the Association’s Representative Assemblies.

Nobody—especially OEA members—wants teachers in the classrooms who do not help students to learn and prepare for the future. OEA has been at the forefront of developing and implementing ways to improve teacher quality.

“Waiting for ‘Superman’” makes the claim that “union contracts” protect bad teachers. In fact, the so-called “tenure” law—which is actually a process for fair dismissal—is a state statute, and not part of any collective bargaining agreement. Teachers should be evaluated rigorously and regularly, and if they cannot improve, they should no longer be employed. But it is and always will be OEA’s position that the process for removing a tenured teacher should be fair, so that any teacher should only be removed for just cause, and not for some unfair reason.

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