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.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”