By Marsha Sutton
By suggesting that kids should have longer school days, school on Saturdays and only one summer month off a year, the documentary movie “Waiting for Superman” seems to offer an opposing viewpoint from
which argues in favor of lessening high-pressure demands on over-stressed students. But the two films focus on the needs of two completely different cohorts of children who are at opposite ends of the economic continuum.
“Waiting for Superman” has garnered national attention, focused as it is on schools in urban centers where kids living in poverty don’t have access to schools and teachers of quality.
The film follows individual children anxious for admittance to charter schools that would allow them to opt out of their poor-performing neighborhood schools. Private school is not an option for these low-income families, and this movie shows the heart-breaking desperation of parents who long to give their kids the education they never received. And it all comes down to a lottery, to chance with long odds, to names pulled out of a hat.
Viewers are left to wonder: Is this any way to run public education?
Teachers’ unions were bashed; charter schools were idealized. The message was simplistic. Choice was presented as the answer and teacher tenure the obstacle that blocks improvement in public education.
The movie explained how tenure began, initially, for college professors, and was difficult to attain. Tenure soon became an entitlement for all public school teachers, most receiving a guaranteed job for life after only a few years of work.
New York’s Rubber Room, as shown in the film, houses hundreds of New York’s worst teachers who have been suspended for a variety of reasons. But because of tenure and union protection, each teacher accused of misconduct receives full salary and benefits and sits all day in this room, doing nothing, awaiting adjudication. This reportedly costs the country’s largest school system over $35 million annually.
The film, by Davis Guggenheim who also directed “An Inconvenient Truth,” has become a catalyst for a national conversation about inequity in public education.
During a panel discussion after an Oct. 14 showing of the film which was presented by San Diego’s Economic Development Corp., Larry Rosenstock, founder and chief executive officer of the High Tech High charter schools in Point Loma, called tenure the Achilles heel of teachers’ unions. For public schools, he said, if you fail, “you’re there forever.”
Although 80 to 85 percent of teachers “have passion and compassion,” Rosenstock said that unions need to “shift the focus away from protecting bad teachers.”
Yet he also said that, by the same token, those who favor more charter schools shouldn’t protect all charters just because they’re charters, acknowledging that some are not worth preserving.
Rosenstock said that organized teachers’ unions exist to benefit their members, and “because children don’t have advocates, employee interests are going to prevail.”
Panel member, businessman and Del Mar parent Michael Robertson said nothing will change until parents can vote with their wallets and take their money away from bad public schools.
“I know you are sitting there with a bitter taste in your mouth,” said Bill Freeman, head of the teachers’ union for the San Diego Unified School District. But the issue is much bigger than just teachers, he said.
Freeman blasted accountability measures that tie test scores to teacher performance, saying there are many excellent teachers instructing students who can’t speak English and consequently do poorly on standardized tests. “Teacher evaluations by test scores would mean getting rid of good teachers,” he said.
He said teachers don’t mind accountability but didn’t specify what measures would be acceptable. Drawing groans from the audience, he also said, “We don’t have tenure,” and that teachers can be fired at any time if there is cause.
Rosenstock, whose High Tech High draws 10 times the number of student and teacher applicants for available spaces and offers no tenure, said it is important to avoid “teacher bashing.” What’s needed to begin to chip away at the structural impediments to improved public education, he said, is more agility and a sense of urgency.
Also on the panel, which was moderated by the University of San Diego’s Scott Himelstein, was Richard Barrera, San Diego Unified’s school board president. Barrera applauded the beginnings of a fruitful dialogue and collaboration among all community groups and not just educators, and said everyone should be asking themselves what each person can do to “move this forward.”
What the film leaves viewers with, he said, is the notion that “as long as the teachers’ union does something different, then we’re all off the hook.” But this is the wrong message to take away, he said.
Business leader and Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs, in the audience, addressed the panel, saying that High Tech High spends fewer dollars per student and gets quite different results than other SDUSD schools. “Why not go and find out what’s working?” he said to Barrera.
Barrera replied that there are many schools that work well in the district. “We can learn from all of them,” he said.
Two great films, two very different messages. But they converge in the notion that the quality of America’s public education system is at the heart of this country’s future, and we can ill-afford to ignore the problems any longer.
Marsha Sutton can be reached at