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.

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”