In looking at Davis Guggenheims documentary Waiting for Superman, there are two scenes in particular that allow the viewer to fully empathize with the difficulty reformers face while going up against the school system. At 1:25, Michelle Rhee is describes the benefits of her proposal for Washington D.C’s educators. The plan itself would allow teachers to choose between keeping tenure and receiving a small raise or opting out of tenure completely and receiving a better raise (Guggenheim 1:24). She is just as optimistic as many reformers are when they believe that their plan is the answer that the educational system has been waiting for. Rhee had been able to remove a number of principals who were standing aside as their schools continuously failed numerous students. With teachers however, Rhee, like most reformers, couldn’t break through the wall of teacher tenure. “The mentality is that they have a right to that job. I believe that that mindset has to be completely flipped on its head and unless you can show that you’re bringing positive results for kids than you cannot have the privilege of teaching in our schools and teaching our children” (Guggenheim 1:24). Currently, teachers that were no longer teaching their students effectively were still able to collect their paychecks. If that could be fixed, good teachers would be able take over the schools and steer students that had once been considered failures towards the path to success.
Knowing that she was trying to do something for the greater good of the students, Rhee was certain that her proposal wouldn’t face much opposition. I chose the scene at (Guggenheim 1:25) directly after her proposal was completely disapproved by the teachers union. A solution that she believed was so simple, one where everyone would win, all of a sudden became so complicated. The look on Rhee’s face while she rides in the back of the car is the look that every person who’s tried to change the system has had at least once. She learned that there was much more that needed changing than the contracts themselves. “Now I see in a lot more coherent ways, why things are the way they are. It all becomes about the adults” (Guggenheim 1:25). It’s those adults, however, that we don’t get to hear from in Waiting for superman. Throughout the entire movie, the teachers themselves were silent.
In Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potters book A Smarter Charter, the authors identify the importance of having the teacher’s perspective when trying to make any major changes in the school system. Rhee’s goals were just and, although she had made the proposal optional (teachers did still have a choice to keep their tenure if they chose) it didn’t seem as if their opinions had been consulted in the formation of the proposal overall. What keeps teachers unions and teacher tenure in favor with teachers is the protection they provide. Rhee’s proposal would guarantee a raise but, as many teachers have experienced before, without their tenure there is no guaranteed job should their boss become unreasonable of the country once again encounter a period of time that turns American’s against each other.
…the basic union structures and protections should remain in place, he argued. Shanker noted that traditional school districts that were the most innovative provided such an environment. “You don’t see these creative things happening where teachers don’t have any voice or power or influence.” Only when teachers feel protected from the whims of administrators are they willing to take risks (Shanker, 1988b, p.9) (Kahlenberg and Potter 8).
Teachers might have gone against the decision of the local teachers union and decided to take up Rhee’s proposal had they felt that some part of the proposal would have guaranteed a fair evaluation and that they would be protected from the ever changing United States climate. Rhee might have been able to make that a successful change if she had gotten that input from the teachers whose jobs were directly affected by her proposal.
Guggenheim, Davis. Waiting for “Superman.” 2010. Film.
Kahlenberg, Richard D., and Halley Potter. A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.