state of the union

Before an edu film hits theaters, union leader goes on attack

Davis Guggenheim’s education documentary “Waiting for Superman” doesn’t come out for another two weeks, but teachers union president Randi Weingarten has already assumed a fighting stance.

In an email sent to reporters yesterday — most likely in response to this NY Magazine review — Weingarten describes the movie as a moving, perhaps even emotionally manipulative, inaccurate portrayal of the public school system.

She criticizes Guggenheim for his flattering portrayal of charter schools and goes so far as to say that most charter schools perform worse than district schools. They are “an escape hatch-sometimes superior, most often inferior,” she writes.

New York City’s United Federation of Teachers runs a charter school in Brooklyn, which has recently received mixed performance reviews.

To:    Members of the Media

From: Randi Weingarten, AFT President

Date:  September 8, 2010

Re:     Response to “Waiting for Superman”

Is America ready to settle for a good education-for the few? That’s the unfortunate takeaway from a soon-to-be released documentary film, “Waiting for ‘Superman.'” The film, by Davis Guggenheim, shows how tragically far we are from the great American ideal of providing all children with the excellent education they need and deserve. Yet, despite Guggenheim’s unquestionably good intentions, “Waiting for ‘Superman'” is inaccurate, inconsistent and incomplete-and misses what could have been a unique opportunity to portray the full and accurate story of our public schools.
“Waiting for ‘Superman'” has been screened by private audiences throughout the country and will be released for the general public on Sept. 24. In the event that you write about the film, I wanted to share my thoughts directly with you about it.

One can’t help but be moved by the stories of the five children and their families Guggenheim follows as they encounter a lottery system for admission to the schools upon which they are pinning their hopes for a good education. Their stories, in a very real and emotional way, drive home the point that the opportunity for a great public education should come not by chance, but by right.

But the filmmaker’s storytelling falters in other key areas. The film casts several outliers in starring roles-for example, “bad” teachers and teachers unions as the villains, and charter schools as heroes ready to save the day. The problem is that these caricatures are more fictional than factual.

There are more than 3 million teachers working in our 130,000 public schools. Are there bad teachers? Of course there are, just as there are bad accountants, and lawyers, and actors. I wish there were none. There also are countless good, great and exceptional teachers working in our public schools every day in neighborhoods across the country-although for this film, they apparently ended up on the cutting room floor. It is shameful to suggest, as the film does, that the deplorable behavior of one or two teachers (including an example more than two decades old) is representative of all public school teachers.

Guggenheim has found ways to make facts and data interesting, even entertaining. But, when certain facts don’t advance his story line, he makes them disappear. The treatment of charter schools is one of the most glaring inconsistencies in “Waiting for ‘Superman.'” Guggenheim makes only glancing reference to the poor achievement of most charter schools, despite the abundance of independent research showing that most charter schools perform worse than or only about as well as comparable regular public schools. Nevertheless, he illogically holds them up as the ticket to a good education for disadvantaged students.

I wish all schools had the wealth of resources enjoyed by the charter schools featured in the film, which are part of the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ). The charter schools in the HCZ have what we should be fighting to have in every public school-services that help eradicate the barriers to academic success, and funding to ensure that students and teachers have the tools they need to succeed. HCZ schools receive two-thirds of their funding from private sources and one-third from the government. This private money funds staff and curriculum, as well as extensive medical, dental and tutorial services. We know kids’ needs are met when these wraparound services are combined with high-quality instructional programs. In the end, funding these programs will make a fundamental difference for all children.

“Waiting for ‘Superman'” misses two crucial points. First, we have to be committed to supporting a public school system that provides all our children with access to a great education. And second, we must focus our efforts on the most promising and proven approaches-those great neighborhood public schools that work. I’ve seen such success stories across the country in schools that reduce barriers to academic success, as is done in the HCZ schools; schools that offer great curriculum, extra help for students who start or fall behind, and supports for teachers. Where the system has failed is to not take these proven models and scale them up. The solutions aren’t the stuff of action flicks, but they work.

Films like “Waiting for ‘Superman'” are gripping for a reason: They connect us to real life struggles. They may even call much-needed attention to the challenges confronting many students and schools. But the attention will be misplaced, if it centers on off-base solutions and denigrating good teachers rather than on what works to improve our schools.

Imagine a sequel to “Waiting for ‘Superman'” released a few years from now. Would we rather stick to the cinematic model of providing an escape hatch-sometimes superior, most often inferior-to a handful of students? Or would we offer a model in which we had summoned the will to do the hard but effective and far-reaching work required to make meaningful changes to entire school systems, providing all children with the best possible choice-a highly effective neighborhood school?

The most effective solutions didn’t make it into the film. In other words, Guggenheim ignored what works: developing and supporting great teachers; implementing valid and comprehensive evaluation systems that inform teaching and learning; creating great curriculum and the conditions that promote learning for all kids; and insisting on shared responsibility and mutual accountability that hold everyone, not just teachers, responsible for ensuring that all our children receive a great education.

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”