Waiting for a Better Movie

“Waiting for ‘Superman’” illustrates important problems but is short on the right solutions

After putting it off for over a month, during which I wondered how a 111-minute film could possibly claim to deconstruct America’s complex education crisis, I finally succumbed to the rave reviews and ventured out to see “Waiting for ‘Superman.’”  Ultimately, while I found the film’s portrayal of teachers’ unions to be insightful, director P. Davis Guggenheim falls short in identifying the best solutions to combating these unions. Specifically, the film relies on an outdated conception of “merit pay” and fails to recognize the most important factor preventing America’s brightest graduates from becoming teachers: the profession’s declining prestige.

The greatest strength of Guggenheim’s film is its diagnosis of the problem with America’s public schools: a breakdown in the teacher-student relationship. As research indicates, except for socioeconomic factors beyond schools’ control, teacher quality provides the single best indicator of student success. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that students whose teachers were rated in the top ten percent for effectiveness scored up to “17 percentile points higher in English and 25 points higher in math” than students whose teachers were in the bottom ten percent. Monitoring teacher quality is the most effective way for schools to improve student performance—all that remains is for them to start doing it.

One of the reasons they don’t, however, is the strength of teachers’ unions. Dr. Howard Fuller, former superintendent of the Milwaukee school district, claims that he couldn’t fire teachers who had been caught on camera reading newspapers instead of teaching their classes; when he did eventually fire the teachers, he had to hire them back a year later (with back pay) because of union-backed tenure statutes. When New Jersey Governor Christopher J. “Chris” Christie, in an attempt to prevent layoffs, asked teachers to take a pay freeze for one year and contribute 1.5 percent of their salaries to health benefits, the union refused his offer. Ultimately, while one in 57 doctors and one in 97 lawyers lose their licenses every year, the comparable statistic for public-school teachers is one in 2,500.

These aren’t examples of unions protecting hardworking employees victimized by unfair management; these are unions abusing their power to protect underperforming teachers and ensure excessive benefits that no other employees in either the public or private sector enjoy. They illustrate the reasons why tenure, a vestige of the system of college professorships, should never have been extended to protect grade-school teachers. In no other profession are workers systematically shielded from assaults on poor performers, and teaching—that most important of professions—shouldn’t be exempt from the standards of accountability that govern a responsible workforce.

For Guggenheim, making teacher pay contingent on performance represents the corrective to uncompromising unions, but his film overlooks the difficulty of effectively measuring teacher performance. The fallback system of evaluating educators based on standardized test scores, which the film seems to advocate, is arbitrary and incomplete. Students who have benefitted from the teacher’s class may underperform due to nerves or poor test-taking skills. Other factors like parental involvement may contribute to a student’s improvement, just as much as teacher competence and socioeconomic or personal circumstances can negate the progress made by an effective educator. Essentially, test scores can be influenced by too many factors besides good teachers to make them a reliable standard of teacher performance.


Nonetheless, they may constitute one factor within a more holistic approach, as former Chancellor of the Washington, D.C., schools Michelle A. Rhee has proposed. Under Rhee’s system, test scores would be combined with detailed classroom observations and broader measures of student improvement. This holistic approach provides a more accurate means of determining teacher effectiveness, and providing higher-performing teachers with higher salaries makes sense both to reward the strongest educators and incentivize improvement among their lower-performing peers.

Nonetheless, short-term solutions to the problems posed by teachers’ unions cannot compensate for the fact that America’s brightest college graduates aren’t seeking out teaching as a desirable profession. In nations such as Finland, where teachers are universally unionized and students consistently outperform American children, unionization poses less of a problem because teaching is regarded as a prestigious profession that attracts the best and the brightest. Protecting incompetent teachers isn’t as much of a concern because competent teachers self-select into the system.

In the United States, programs like Teach for America, which has attracted thousands of qualified applicants, and the Boston Teacher Residency, which provides aspiring teachers with a four-year training program similar to a doctor’s residency, are helping to raise the profession’s prestige in the eyes of college graduates. Expansion of these and similar programs can affect the kind of cultural change necessary to alter the way Americans view teaching as a career. It is this broader approach to education—an approach that acknowledges the importance of measuring teacher performance and encouraging America’s best students to become teachers—that “Waiting for ‘Superman’” misses. Until a documentary that presents this kind of approach comes along, I’m not waiting for Superman—just a better movie.

Peter M. Bozzo ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.