Superman, Rhee and Everything in Between

I have a couple of things on my mind this morning, all somewhat connected.  Before I am through, I am going to recommend a bunch of websites, all worth a look in my humble opinion.  So here goes.

Waiting for Superman, Davis Guggenheim, Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates on OprahThe publicity train for “Waiting for Superman” pulls into the station this Friday, when the movie opens, and its cross-country trek has been a marvel: fulsome praise on Oprah, the cover of Time, and so on.

For a balanced view of the movie, please read Nick Lemann’s review in the current issue of the New Yorker.  And here’s another, tougher review, this one by a teacher.

I have already reviewed the movie but want to reiterate my point: the bleak picture of public education that the movie paints is a huge disservice to millions of kids and teachers.

Because I ran the meeting where charter schools were born (1988) and have been following the story ever since, I resent the movie’s endorsement of charter schools as the solution. 

That’s wrong and misleading and may lead to the creation of more for-profit charters that will exploit the very kids that Oprah wants to help.  While many charter schools are terrific, an equal number are disappointing.  The point to remember is that the name ‘charter school’ tells you nothing about what’s happening inside. Here’s a useful analogy: the word ‘restaurant’ on a building tells you nothing at all about the food—you have to have a meal or two, talk to customers leaving after they have eaten, or read the reviews.  But Davis Guggenheim’s movie presents charter schools as the magic bullet, no questions asked, no doubts raised.

I know Guggenheim and Paramount want to make a buck, but their message is superficial and dishonest. The real debate ought to be about something more fundamental. We need more schools and teachers and education policy types who ask (metaphorically speaking) “How is this child intelligent?” instead of the test score version, “How intelligent are you?”

That’s the more promising approach, not wholesale damning of public education and teachers that is the message of the movie.

At some point in the near future I hope to review three other movies about schools. One of them, “August to June”, is not yet available for public consumption because the producers are negotiating distribution arrangements, but I urge you to keep an eye out for this uplifting portrait of what a classroom can be.

Education Week, that invaluable publication, has a compelling interview with Michelle Rhee, conducted right after her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, suffered a humiliating loss last week. It’s worth your time.

Last night PBS NewsHour aired our exclusive coverage of the new merit pay study conducted over the past three years in Tennessee. If you missed the piece by my colleagues John Tulenko and Cat McGrath, watch it here (or below).  As always, we have companion podcasts, digging into the issue in greater depth.

This weekend I will be in Houston, speaking at the annual joint meeting of TASA/TASB, the Texas Association of School Administrators and the Texas Association of School Boards. Emmitt Smith, the Cowboys’ Hall of Fame running back, and Daniel Pink are headliners, and I am eager to hear both of them.  I’m going to tell my audience about my one (failed) interview for a school superintendent’s job, among other things.

For education wonks, Texas is (take your choice) Mecca, Jerusalem, or Lourdes, because “No Pass, No Play” and, later, “No Child Left Behind” originated there.  One could argue that modern school reform, for better or worse, has its roots deep in the heart of Texas. (And Texas has also given us three of the nine U.S. Secretaries of Education, Lauro Cavazos, Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings!)

Next week I will hang around Education Nation, the 2-day NBC event that is bringing together a huge number of leaders in New York City.  Rumor is that there will also be some real teachers in the crowd. Let’s hope they have a voice.

Speaking of teachers, I’d love to hear directly from classroom teachers (and parents too) about how this school year has started. I read and read lots of scuttlebutt about crowded classrooms and disappearing art and music classes, but what’s happening in your building? Thanks.

Related Links

Schoolwork by Nicholas Lemann [New Yorker, 09/27/10]
Waiting for Superman? Or Just Another Clark Kent Dressed Up? by Alistair Bomphray
[Teacher Revised, 06/30/10]
A Review of Waiting for Superman
[Taking Note, 08/31/10]
August to June
[Official Website]
Teaching for Dollars: Race to the Top, Part 4
Pay for Performance: Interview with Nashville Schools Superintendent, Jessie Register
Texas Association of School Administrators
[Official Website]
NBC’s Education Nation
[Official Website]

7 thoughts on “Superman, Rhee and Everything in Between

  1. What is happening in my building?The classes are very overcrowded. I teach computers in elementary school. There are between 24 and 30 in every class.
    Louisville has tried integrating schools with a complicated bussing system. Some children consistently get to school 20 minutes late and are not picked up by their busses until 30 minutes after school.
    Most schools in the district did not make their NCLB goals. Instead of having a few tougher schools we could concentrate in and poor money into, we have created 155 mediocre schools.


  2. I am a parent just beginning to deal with the public school system – I have a 4 year old. Last year he was in PreK-3 with a very hardened, strict, cold older teacher. I was not thrilled to see her rough, loud and hard demeanor with the children, they were only THREE years old! After 2 weeks of her we lucky enough to be transfered to another class, totally by happenstance.

    The new teacher was younger, vibrant, hugs the students, took the time to help them zip up their coats, find their mittens, go over their work needs repeatedly….little things I never experienced with the much older teacher. This new teacher was more one-on-one and immersed in her JOB. Her attitude was professional but understanding, firm but kind.
    The projects the new teacher had the students involved in, during a two-week comparison period, were unique and thought provoking, all catering to a 3 year olds’ curious nature.

    At the end of the school year, pink slips were handed out to various teachers and their assistants, part of the new budget cuts. Our lovely teacher, with the energy, charisma, creativity and patience all little children need in order to thrive and excel, was fired.

    A few weeks later I saw the older teacher, who was my appaling first experience with my child in the local public school system, and she was still working at the same school. I watched her bark and boss her students around, cold, callus and mean. The children openly showed sadness and cowered. It was gross to see.
    Not only was this older woman sitting on the cusp of retirement, and a more likely candidate for a pink slip, she was a really terrible representative for teachers. This woman kept her job, via the protections placed upon tenure, rather than the effect and contributions she would have on all those little minds. I was relieved we were spared her wrath but annoyed at the system and worried for the students who will continue to receive second-rate teachers.

    Thank goodness we had a great teacher our very first year, she made us all really enjoy school! I hope there is a new job out there which appreciates all she has shown us, with her time, energy and attitude. This current school system and the disservice it does our young is appalling!
    I wish parents were polled concerning teacher attitude, ability, and employment.


    • I’m sorry you had that bad experience, Elizabeth.

      Just to clarify a point: While the teacher may have been protected by tenure, that’s not the same issue as the seniority provision that means “last hired, first fired.” Of course that policy also means that some good teachers are laid off because they’re younger and newer, and some less able teachers stay because of their seniority. On the other hand, those seniority rules provide job security that makes teaching a more attractive profession despite its low pay, the challenging work and the fact that currently it’s a national fad to blame, shame, abuse and vilify teachers. So you can see that it’s a little more complicated than it seems.

      The issue with polling parents brings up one of the same points that connects with the reasoning behind teacher job security. I’ll sum it up with an apocryphal complaint from a hypothetical parent: How dare you give my child a D? I demand that you raise her grade to A or I’ll give you a bad review and get you fired.

      So you can see the complexities there too.


  3. My new principal made our daily schedules – no art, PE, – music is mandatory by state law so even though she tried she couldn’t cut that – science and social studies occupy the same block of 30 minutes per week (my block is on Thursdays) – otherwise it is reading, writing, ‘rithmetic – ironically she comes to us as a first year principal after being a dean and VP at a school where the principal was fired and half the staff replaced (what we now call a “SIG” school) … they just didn’t do the program hard enough apparently, so we are … oh boy. She has mentioned your approval of outing teachers in LA already twice – “even Merrow thinks it was good” – she thinks that is great – really want to thank you.


  4. Thanks for your assessment of the swirl around Waiting for Superman.

    “But Davis Guggenheim’s movie presents charter schools as the magic bullet, no questions asked, no doubts raised.”

    I absolutely agree. No good regular public schools were shown, not one.

    No one wants the status quo but there are multiple avenues to go down, not just one.


  5. Mr. Merrow,

    I enjoy seeing your contributions on “The Newshour.”

    In your initial review of “Waiting For Superman,” I was surprised about how you (and the film) apparently lump what seem to be magnet schools in with all charter schools.

    Public or private, magnet schools tend to outperform their peers. In the film, all the “good schools” were magnets.

    In my own state of Michigan, only three public high schools have more than 50% of their graduates being “college ready” (as measured by ACT); two of them are magnets. In Detroit, two magnet high schools outperform all other city schools, and most suburban schools.

    “Waiting For Superman” makes the unremarkable point that schools that are attractive enough to resort to lotteries for obviously motivated students (and their supportive families) tend to succeed. Mr. Guggenheim shows that there are hundreds of students competing for dozens of spots. Sadly, there are tens-of-thousands of students in the cited districts who don’t care about the state of their own schools, let alone sign up for a lottery for a more rigorous one. Yesterday, the Detroit Public Schools went looking for FIVE THOUSAND students who haven’t yet attended school this semester.

    The complacency that permeates our society is our undoing. As the film shows, and as Michigan’s “college readiness” rate illustrates, education is not a priority. Those demographics who are academically supportive (even driven), tend to do well in school; those lack urgency, settle for mediocrity.

    In Michigan, we’ve lost our manufacturing base. We used to have a top ten per capita GDP, despite having a bottom third education level. In the past decade, our income is now meeting our schooling. Still, we somehow think we can afford years of post-secondary remediation; we think we can attract high-paying jobs. Even with a 15% unemployment rate, little has changed.

    The question I wanted to see “Superman” answer was, “How do we transform society so that all students have the enthusiasm of Anthony or the other children?”

    The film only hints that elimination of tenure and merit pay would help. It offers no concrete proof. I would like to hear Mr. Guggenheim’s opinion of the recent Vanderbilt study on merit pay.

    Of course, if “salary schedules” are eliminated, it would be interesting to see if experience counted for something if teachers transferred to another district. In the marketplace, however, you’d likely see gifted, experienced, and well compensated teachers moving to magnet schools as readily as the students.


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