The Empire Strikes Back at ‘Waiting for Superman’

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(Via The American Federation of Teachers is very, very pleased with three stories appearing in liberal publications that purport to debunk aspects of the excellent documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman,'” a movie by “An Inconvenient Truth” Oscar winner Davis Guggenheim that exposes the sorry state of many public schools, particularly in poor urban districts, and pleads for more charter schools. This week the AFT sent out a press release happily including links to a would-be Diane Ravitch takedown of the film in The New York Review of Books as well as pieces in the Columbia Journalism Review and on a New York Times blog.The Times blog posting is a particularly substance-free attack on the film and an implicit defense of the status quo; it says that an impoverished Bronx mom who visited a dynamic Harlem charter school with her child then returned to the school with Guggenheim’s cameras in tow to recreate the experience of her first visit. Quel scandale! The Ravitch piece makes only the mildest murmurs of protest about teacher tenure, which as the film demonstrates is essentially awarded to any pedagogue who can remain breathing. Ravitch says tenure amounts merely to giving teachers “due process.” Well. It’s a process that leads to three out of 55,000 tenured New York City teachers getting the sack. Maybe all the others are doing a fine job.

The documentary effectively poses the question, “Have our schools gotten so bad that we’re willing to allow actual competition?” The teachers’ unions and their water-carriers in the press suddenly sound conservative when it comes to threats to repair a broken system. Slow down! Let’s think about this! What’s the rush? They essentially argue: Our kids are poor (so what can be done?), charter schools don’t always succeed (no one said they did: the point of free markets in anything is that bad businesses be allowed to fail, yet this principle is almost never applied to any obviously failing public school), the charter schools are cherry-picking motivated students (though why the best students at the worst schools should be damned to suffer a poor education is never explained) and, of course, that schools need to be lavished with ever-more “resources,” though Guggenheim ably demonstrates that some charter schools that spend a fraction of what public schools do show substantially better results.

“Waiting for ‘Superman'” has done well, though not spectacularly, at the box office, with receipts over $5 milllion. What the teachers’ unions really, really don’t want to happen is for the film to reap an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. Such an honor would entice many more Americans to see this vital film.