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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 11/18/2010

Teachers give 'Superman' director an earful

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by educator Anthony Cody. After 18 years as a science teacher in inner-city Oakland, he now works with a team of experienced science teacher-coaches who support the many novice teachers in his school district. He is a National Board-certified teacher and an active member of the Teacher Leaders Network. This appeared on his Teachers Magazine blog, Living in Dialogue.

By Anthony Cody
Waiting for Superman director Davis Guggenheim has fulsome praise for teachers, and on Huffington Post this week he has asked for our feedback. He writes:

"Teachers live it everyday so they get it -- the good and the bad. And I am moved by all the reactions: the emotion, the criticism, the longing to help the kids in my documentary."

So far, Guggenheim is the one who has been getting it. And the feedback teachers have posted thus far spans the spectrum from critical to blistering.

It is fascinating to follow this process. I watched (and wrote) when Waiting for Superman was introduced to the public through two Oprah shows, and a $2 million promotional campaign underwritten by the Gates Foundation. I watched (and wrote again) that very special week when NBC news lavished airtime on schools in their Education Nation programming, where Guggenheim and his celluloid heroes Michelle Rhee and Geoffrey Canada were toasted by billionaires for their courage. The voices of teachers occasionally peeped up unbidden, but were largely ignored.

In the realm of corporate-sponsored galas and conferences of grant recipients, I am sure Guggenheim remains the toast of the town. He is finding that teachers have an independent voice, however, and while we may not have much access when NBC runs the show, we are capable of typing in a little box and hitting the submit button.

Here are a few of the comments his post has received:

Amy Valens, who has created her OWN wonderful documentary, August to June, about what a great school looks like, writes:

"What makes those charters better, and which changes are applicable to other schools--public or otherwise? Certainly showing teachers as people who pour knowledge into kids heads doesn't forward the conversation, nor does fear mongering with out of context statistics. With the opportunity to introduce little-heard voices with positive ideas, instead you relied on the same folks that the Business Roundtable has been trotting out through the media for years."

Shanee Garner writes:

"We don't need a documentary about public education without a single public education teacher. I expected a more nuanced view of education you know, where, you look at the factors that cause failing schools such as poverty, inequitable funding, harsh government guidelines, zero tolerance policies. Not some union bashing and teacher scapegoating nonsense."

Glynis Cooney:

"I am no fan of the teachers' unions, but in the current climate of anti-teacher and anti-(non charter) public school that you helped fuel, I fear what my job will look like next year without them. Since your film failed to show all the private donations that aided the profiled schools successes, there are reinvigorated claims that we are overfunded and wasting tax-payer funds."


"This film was a wasted opportunity. How could you make an entire film about the problems in so-called "failing" schools, and never actually visit or interview anyone within them? And how could you rely on the "expert" analysis of people who have never taught or studied education, let alone tried to understand the issues facing struggling schools? Several of your "experts" are ideologues who are deeply invested in undermining public education. That would be like re-making An Inconvenient Truth, leaving out all of the findings of climatologists who have spent their lives studying climate change, and giving over the majority of the film to people who think climate change is a myth."


"Superman is being used to attack due process in our state and the Republicans will probably make teaching an at-will job. Then, all you will have in inner city classrooms will be long-term subs and incompetents who nobody else will hire. Superman is being used to argue that kids don't need expensive socio-emotional supports, just more test prep and standardized testing to fire teachers. I've had more than forty students who have killed someone or died violently. Superman is being used to show that all we need to overcome urban pathologies is high expectations. Superman is feeding the civil war between progressives....

Traceydouglas writes:

"Given the funding sources for your film, I find it hard to believe your movie is anything but a slick propaganda piece for privatization via charter schools. I would suggest you are being disingenuous to suggest otherwise."

,,, Out of 52 comments posted [at the time Cody wrote his article], there has been ONE person who has posted a positive comment and guess what? She wants his help to promote a for-profit education business.

Several people have also indicated their comments were filtered out by a moderator.

Thus far, Davis Guggenheim has not responded.


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By Valerie Strauss  | November 18, 2010; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Anthony Cody, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  anthony cody, attack on teachers, charter schools, davis guggenheim, superman, teachers, teachers unions, waiting for superman  
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I've seen the film and as a retired Massachusetts public school teacher my heart ached for Daisy, Francesco and all the kids that didn't "win" a lottery slot in the local charter school lottery. Their hopes of getting into Purgatory (a charter school) and having have to resign themselves to surviving in Hell (neighborhood school) were the real tragedy portrayed by the film.

No, charter schools alone will never be the answer or the reform that turns the world around for so many of these kids but charters are their hope, their opportunity to escape their otherwise doomed futures.

The most disappointing aspect of the film from my standpoint was the demonetization of the AFT and Randi Weingarten to the enigmatic exclusion of the real problem in education reform, the NEA. While Weingaten has made conscious efforts to compromise and make concessions to benefit children with ed reformers as evidenced by contracts in New York City and Washington, DC, the NEA maintains it ubiquitous anti-reform posture at every turn. Their SOLE strategy is to maintain the status quo and protect their members (of which I have been one my entire adult life and embarrassed to be so) at all costs, while children continue to be back-burnered regardless of the consequences. All the while the NEA attempts to distract reformers with convoluted solutions for our urban schools, the NEA is THE problem in public education today.

Posted by: phoss1 | November 18, 2010 7:08 AM | Report abuse

There is little question the movie lacked balance. The same folks appear on TV every other day, clearly, they cannot be actually running a school or a school system. It just is not possible.

Posted by: topryder1 | November 18, 2010 7:09 AM | Report abuse

topryderf1 -- judging by the extent of "success" in almost any urban, and many other, public school systems, just who can actually run a school or school system? Deliver good classroom education?

Posted by: axolotl | November 18, 2010 9:21 AM | Report abuse

" charters are their hope, their opportunity to escape their otherwise doomed futures."

really - doomed futures? You got that from the movie? Even the movie showed that one of the kids had perfectly good suburban public school to go to. And the movie didn't show the other kids public school alternatives, so you can't know that they are doomed.

What do you make of the percentage (and we don't know what it is) of kids that go to urban public schools and do fine - graduate, get higher education or a decent job and don't get into drugs or go to jail. Obviously their non-charter education didn't doom them.

Sure, they should have more and better choices, but it may not be a charter school, which could be -- could be -- no better than the current choices they have.

Posted by: efavorite | November 18, 2010 10:14 AM | Report abuse

Here's all anyone needs to know about the "reform" crowd: Joel Klein just went to work for Newscorp, Rupert Murdock's ubiquitous propaganda machine. The very antithesis of education.

Posted by: mcstowy | November 18, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

Charters have many of the same problems as the public schools. I agree there is little difference in results in the grand scheme of things. Then why do DCPS teachers continually bash the charters? Why do they feel so threatened by them.

Posted by: axolotl | November 18, 2010 8:19 PM | Report abuse

Charters are perpetually hailed as the magic-feather miracle insta-solution by powerful and high-profile voices from "Waiting for Superman" to President Obama, while public schools and teachers are widely vilified as "failing." Then if supporters of teachers and public schools dare make the smallest peep in dispute of the characterization of charters as miracles and public schools as failures, the charter advocates accuse us of "bashing." If you want to know why public school advocates criticize charters -- or at least challenge the endless fawning over them as miracles -- that's the reason, though.

Posted by: CarolineSF | November 18, 2010 9:26 PM | Report abuse

Sarah, you can't possibly be that dense. Yes, public school employees are "threatened" by charters. Well, perhaps you are dense. I suppose I will have to list the obvious reasons that most of us already know:

1. Charter schools have the ability to be selective in who they admit. Not all states require a lottery system. If students are special education students, they typically do not get accepted into charters (even with a lottery system). Yes, there are a few charters that have some special education kids, but their populations do not match the community's population of special education students who should be enrolled. Public schools, however, open their arms to everyone and take the left overs.

2. Very few non-English speaking students are enrolled in charters. I read somewhere that two or three average urban schools in LA or Texas have more non-English speaking students than all of the charter schools added up together.

3. Little or no budgetary oversight occurs. Many of the major players are in the business to seek tax-exemptions or to line their pockets. Yes, there are a few exceptions. Public schools, however, have many vultures looking through their accounting practices and telling them how they can spend their monies.

4. Charter schools have a tendency to take the middle or top performers and leave the rest with public schools. "The Children" who are left over at public schools tend to have no real positive peer role models any more.

Now, even if one of the above mentioned items is true in any form, that is enough to explain why "DCPS teachers continually bash the charters" and why "they feel so threatened by them."

Posted by: DHume1 | November 18, 2010 11:49 PM | Report abuse

Oh, I'm well familiar with all those arguments, David/DHume1. Sorry to inadvertently give you a work out.

Assuming most of the findings of fact (the differences) are valid (they are), why not let the charters thrive? It gives some growing number of kids a less difficult, arguably more effective education in some, but certainly not all cases.

The reverse is true in the public schools, which give few students a good education in a place like DCPS?

Your arguments -- and you seem impressively loaded for bear -- begin to suggest you are a unionista and or a self-interested/conflicted partisan in the education wars. Perhaps a researcher or educrat or professor at a weak college.

Regardless, you prefer the status quo, most of all so you can study it. In your likely suburban locale, the schools are not all that troubling.

If you go into Wards 7 and 8 -- which you never do, I know; it would be difficult for you -- you will find parents extremely interested in the charters. Interest is high in all the other wards, too. The reason: they see DCPS as, in most schools, a one-way trip to a hard life. That's the system you are working to preserve, and you should be ashamed.

Posted by: axolotl | November 19, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse


No problem with the work out. I was able to look up some stuff that I did not know about.

However, you made four mistakes:

1. The reverse is not true in all public schools. Anyone who has ever taught, coached, or been around groups of low kids knows how difficult it is to move them in the right direction. Having very few peer role models around only exacerbates the problem. You don't need to teach to realize this. Go out and coach a kid's baseball, soccer, or football team with no stars on it. See what happens with their morale. See how quickly they progress compared to teams that have stars on them.

2. What I am has no--absolutely no-- bearing on the validity of my statements. You frequently employ these lame implicit arguments to suggest that something must be wrong with the speaker. Perhaps ad hominem attacks work with you in your own personal situations, but here they demonstrate your callowness and your failure as a detective.

3. You assumed that I prefer the status quo. That's not the case. I went back through what I wrote again, and I can't find anywhere where I stated anything close to that. I simply answered the questions in your earlier post. If I were you, I would be ashamed if I made a jump in reasoning like this without any facts to back it up. Tsk-tsk.

4. I hardly ever cross the river to go into wards 7 or 8. I have been through there at least eight or ten times this year, but it is not something I do regularly since I do not drive north to my job. Therefore, it "is" something I "do" occasionally.

I once had a high school teacher tell me to be careful of assumptions and absolutes in my argumentation. I guess no one ever told you the same thing. Too bad.

I can see that you are making a valiant effort to keep your myth alive, Sarah. Someone must be proud.

Posted by: DHume1 | November 19, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

I don't understand why people assume that if you are against the push to increase the number of charter schools that you are for the "status quo". People, what we need is for public schools to be unshackled and have the same freedoms as the charters so that public education can be wonderful for EVERYONE, not just the lottery winners and the children lucky enough to be retained by the charters.

Posted by: teachermomnj | November 19, 2010 5:35 PM | Report abuse

Comments about WAITING/SUPERMAN that were in any way critical of the film were summarily deleted by HUFFPO monitors in the first weeks of the film's debut, especially when Arianna Huffington posted her 'GameChangers' series that included Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee in the education mix.

I know Geoffrey Canada has his own set of peccadeloes, drawing nearly a half a million bucks in salary plus perks every year -- running two charter schools -- with an amazing budget and two billionaires on his board, with extraordinary remedies employed to raise test scores, including the elimination of an entire low-performing grade.

Michelle Rhee's situation, as I'm sure you're well aware of, is more seamy, after having played 'fixer', per IG Gerald Walpin's report, to allegations of her (fake) boyfriend/fiance former basketballer Kevin Johnson's dalliances with underage girls at the charter he founded and for which she worked as a Human Resources manager/board member. Johnson's St. Hope charter schools have been run in the red from day one and were found by Walpin to have used Americorps funds fraudulently. The school was also found by the State Superintendent of Public Instruction to have employed unqualified teaching staff, which they have lately had to lay off after the past two school years because of a lack of funding caused by abysmal fiscal management. St. Hope was also granted an entire high school campus by the Sac Unified School District, with a fund of $20 million for remediation, ostensibly to serve neighborhood children. But to highten test scores they cherry pick students and boot underperformers to distant area high schools leaving the East Sacramento area with no comprehensive high school for miles around. Even with St. Hope's cherry picking and manipulation of testing data, they STILL underperform against area schools, most prominently, McClatchy High School, in the cross-town neighborhood of Land Park in Sacramento. Now, Johnson is attempting to 'mayoralize' public schools in Sacramento, perhaps creating a job for girlfriend/fiance Rhee in the process, to which many school activists have reacted with serious trepidation...

I'm sure you also know that Rhee's former husband runs a nonprofit antiunion teacher recruitment organization that receives millions in funds from Rhee's former DCSchools by providing a ready army of teachers set to walk into DCSchools and 'teach' with little training or experience to boot.

This story needs to be told nationally, for it exposes just how poorly one of the darlings of the charterization movement has behaved in her past... It is NOT as pretty a picture as depicted in WAITING/SUPERMAN...

Posted by: bbbbmer1 | November 20, 2010 6:04 AM | Report abuse

The WfS snake oil attacked millions of public school teachers who work in a thankless profession for little pay. Music to Davis' private funders - edu-profiteers who are lining up to turn public opinion against teacher's unions and tenure. Loot the public coffers and increase profits by reducing human capital. A corporate utopia.

The charter school snake oil is exactly that- ineffective reforms that serve hedge fund managers and corporations under the guise of saving poor kids.

Someone should make a movie about the financial benefactors of privatized charter schools. Read:

Big banks are making a bundle on charters (Juan Gonzalez):

Gentrification of inner cities is driving the movement:
From Barbara Miner (http://www­.notwaitin­gforsuperm­

"Smack dab in the middle of Greater Hedgistan is Harlem.

These two worlds—one rich, white and powerful, the other poor, Black and Latino but located on prime real estate— meet in the charter school world, although not as equal partners.

“Charters have attracted benefactors from many fields,” a New York Times article noted almost a year ago. “But it is impossible to ignore that in New York, hedge funds are at the movement’s epicenter.”

Posted by: jcgrim | November 20, 2010 8:29 AM | Report abuse

Some inconvenient facts for Davis Guggenheim & his legions of acolytes who seems to think teacher unions are the villains.

The December 2010 ATLANTIC has a state-by-state ranking of "students performing at the advanced level in math proficiency." The top five states, starting with the best, are Massachusetts, Minnesota, Vermont, New Jersey, and Washington. The percentage of teachers unionized in those five states is 99.3, 99.3. 91, 100, and 100.

And the bottom five states, starting with the worst: Mississippi, New Mexico, West Virginia, Louisiana, Alabama. Percentage of teachers unionized: 2.2, 36.8. 10.5, 11.6, and 16.

Guggenheim's film might better have been titled "Looking for Bogeyman."

Posted by: dbuck1 | November 21, 2010 6:05 PM | Report abuse

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