Waiting for “Superman” by Davis Guggenheim follows the real experience of five students to see the problems of public school system and interviews many education reformers nowadays to talk about how to fix these problems. At the beginning of the film, it uses data and diagrams to show the failure of public school education system now.
Among all of these problems, by the experience of Francisco and his mother, Guggenheim leads the audiences to what he thinks is the most critical problem, bad teachers and teacher unions which protect these teachers. “Students with high-performing teachers progressed three times as fast as those with low-performing teachers, and yet they cost the same to school” (Guggenheim, 34:50).
In the film, he provides many examples of bad teachers with recording of real scene in school, cartoon, news and movie clips and interviews of famous educators. Once a kid videotaped a teacher reading newspaper and not teaching while the students were playing by themselves at the back of the classroom. However, these teachers can’t be fired since they are under the protection of teacher unions. Even Howard Fuller later fired that worst teacher in the videotape, he had to rehire him back with one year’s pay. These teachers are called “tenure” which guaranteed their jobs for life (Guggenheim, 36:05). In the clip of The Simpsons, after the second the teacher becomes tenure, she lays on the chair and let the student teach the class.
There’s a term called “the dance of the lemons” (Guggenheim, 43:30). “Lemon” teachers are those bad teachers which can’t be fired. At the end of the year, the principals get together and pass that teacher to the next school. Because of the contracts with teachers union the school not only can’t fire the bad teacher, but also tie teachers’ hands. Even some teachers do really well, schools can’t pay them more based on their performances since it’s not in the contract (Guggenheim, 42:02).
Even though in the film, David Guggenheim really criticizes the teacher unions, Richard D. Kahlenberg who is the writer of The Smarter Charter argues that there is no empirical support and evidence saying “teachers’ unions are the central impediment to educational progress in United States” (Kahlengerg, 2012). Kahlenberg states that teachers unions are actually doing some good things such as paying teacher bonuses to attract them to high-poverty schools. Teachers unions allow teachers to have their own voices. What’s more, by responding to the problem of bad teachers in the film, Kahlengerg says that teachers unions today are trying to get rid of those teachers who are not working, “not based strictly on test scores or the subjective judgement of principals, but through multiple measures of performance, including “peer review””(Kahlengerg, 2012). Kahlengerg believes that teachers unions are actually strengthening schools instead of being the heart problem of education system.
Guggenheim, Davis. Waiting for “Superman.” 2010. Film.
Kahlenberg, Richard D. “Bipartisan, but Unfounded: The Assault on Teachers’ Unions.” American Educator 35, no. 4 (2012): 14–18.