The film, Waiting for “Superman” by Davis Guggenheim focuses on a key scene that is centered on the affects of teacher tenure and the teacher union contracts. This scene is extremely insightful and focuses on an ongoing controversy of teacher unions and how they are affecting urban students’ education. Teacher unions are also a main topic of concern that the director, Davis Guggenheim, focuses on and disagrees with to some extent. In the screenshots we see that “bad teachers” as Geoffrey Canada calls them put as little effort as possible into teaching their students. Because the teachers know that they have a legal contract that is fully supported by the teachers’ unions, they tend to slack off in their instruction and effort that they give their students. What happens is that teachers are unable to be fired by the school board. Their contract states that they will have a job for life. In the film, we see that one of the teachers is relaxing in his chair reading a newspaper article while students in the back are gambling (35:35 & 35:27). The director uses clips from previous research where a student puts a camera in his backpack and video tapes the class as it is in motion. By using this form of evidence the director is making the fact that teacher union contracts and teacher tenures produce lazy, uncaring, and clueless teachers. Because the evidence that he provides is filmed by a student, it makes his stance more believable. The screenshot of the teachers’ union contract is provided to show that no matter how “bad” the teacher may be, they are protected by the union contracts (43:53) that they have signed. It shows a “lemon teacher” who is not putting in much effort and instead is passing time. At the end of the year, because the teacher has a contract, the school superintendent is unable to fire him or her, so that teacher is then passed onto other schools in hope that the previous school will receive a better replacement. The director is very creative in using popular cartoons such as the Simpsons to display how known the concept of teacher tenures are and the way that he is assuming many teachers practice their teaching once they have received their tenure. He shows a portion of an episode where the teacher has officially been put on tenure and decides that she no longer wants to teach the class, but instead elects another student to teach while she relaxes and reads a magazine (36:51). All of these snippets of various scenes in the film play a major role in that it definitely shows that the author does believe that teacher unions are a strong cause to the decay in urban education and that “bad” teachers use teacher unions for support no matter how good or bad they are.
Author Richard D. Kahlenberg has written an article that defends teacher unions which are said to be one of the main causes in the decline of Urban education. However, Kahlenberg defends the teachers’ unions in his article titled, “It’s Not the Teachers’ Unions.” Kahlenberg gives a brief description of the film director, Davis Guggenheim. Kahlenberg states in his article that Guggenheim “…is a self-described liberal who nevertheless paints unions as the central problem in urban education and nonunion charter schools as the solution.” Kahlenberg is showing that Guggenheim’s one sided view on the teacher unions, leads him to make some false interpretations and representations of teacher unions in his film. Kahlenberg later goes on to state in his article that director Davis Guggenheim briefly touches on the fact that the country of Finland has the highest ranks in the world in K-12 math and reading achievement. However, Kahlenberg brings to the reader’s attention that the director fails to mention that the teachers in Finland are unionized and that is contributing to their success in academics (Kahlenberg, 2010). Because director Guggenheim strays away from this important background information, his argument that teacher unions are to blame for the decline in urban education is not supported. Kahlenberg goes on to further attack Davis Guggenheim’s statement that nonunionized charter schools are the best way to run charter schools. Guggenheim further states that one in five charter schools are performing amazingly. However, Kahlenberg includes statistical research on charter schools in his article that states “…17 percent outperform regular public schools to any degree; 37 percent underperform; and 46 percent have no impact” (Kahlenberg, 2010) furthering his belief that even charter schools that do not have unionized teachers are still not performing at their best and still fall low in the ranks. The author continues to further defend the stance of the teacher’s unions from the criticisms of Davis Guggenheim by noting that in the film, the director focuses on aspects in the teacher’s unions that are seen as negative but have been changed and are now gone. The example of the New York City “rubber rooms” where the teachers are paid to sit and do nothing all day (Kahlenberg, 2010). Kahlenberg also brings attention to the ideas that teacher unions are in full support of getting rid of teachers who are unable to help their students succeed. He also mentions that the teacher unions have agreed to specific performance pay plans that will help teachers perform better to some extent. One definition that I found about the performance pay plans stated that the method to this was that “Pay will vary with some measure of team, individual, or organizational performance” (McGraw-Hill, 2002) proving that unions have agreed to pay teachers according to their performance or give pay increases to how well a teacher is performing in her class to some extent.
Overall, Kahlenberg’s article defends the teachers’ unions in charter schools and says that they are not the cause of the decline in urban education. He makes it clear that the director of Waiting for “Superman” overlooks many facts that show the “good” and the effort that teacher unions have done to help the urban education system. Because Kahlenberg wrote this article, it allows readers to get both sides of how teacher unions have their faults and their strengths. However, it does bring insight to the fact that the director, Davis Guggenheim, strays away from certain facts in his documentary and is only giving one view of the teacher unions and how they affect urban schools. This could be because he does believe that charter schools should be non-unionized, which forces him to show the side of the story that he would like portrayed.
Guggenheim, Davis. Waiting for “Superman.” 2010. Film.
Hill, McGraw. 2002. Performance pay plans presentation. Web. 14, April 2016.
Kahlenberg, Richard D. “It’s Not the Teachers Unions.” The American Prospect. 12 Oct. 2010. Web. 14 Apr. 2016. <http://prospect.org/article/its-not-teachers-unions>.
Welner, Kevin G. “The dirty dozen: How charter schools influence student enrollment.” Teachers College Record 17104 (2013).