'Superman' makes urgent case for fixing broken schools

The much-anticipated documentary “Waiting for 'Superman,' ” which opens in Washington-area theaters Friday, highlights the District's poorly performing public schools and its reformist Chancellor Michelle Rhee while making an urgent case for improving the nation's failing education system.

“Waiting for 'Superman' ” shadows five urban students, including Southeast D.C.'s Anthony Black, seeking to escape into charter schools through a lottery system.

The film concludes that exemplary teachers and principals can revitalize public schools, but that teachers unions block progress by making it nearly impossible to fire ineffective instructors.

The movie is directed by Davis Guggenheim, who is hoping that “Superman” will spark as much discussion as his global warming documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” and create public support for overhauling the education system.

“The movie shows the stakes are higher than we thought. Now, we have this sense of possibility that schools can be fixed, if we have a political will,” said Guggenheim, who grew up in the Wesley Heights neighborhood of the District.

The film gets its title from one reformer's childhood belief that Superman was on his way to save children trapped in poor, urban schools. The film was produced in association with Walden Media, which is owned by The Washington Examiner's parent company.

Tom Rankin, director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, said the film's unflinching assessments will create more avenues for reform. “The provocations and the resulting conversations have to happen to get to real and positive change,” he said.

Guggenheim included Rhee because “the things she was doing there were incredible, transformative, and it showed up in the scores and the progress the students made.”

Rhee's efforts have focused on firing ineffective teachers, closing chronically underperforming schools and relying heavily on test results to measure performance — all steps fought by teachers unions.

“I don't know” if the film will create change in the public school system, Rhee said, “but I feel like there's more momentum on this and a greater sense of possibility than I have ever seen in my career.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers ?– and the film's black hat — called the movie “inaccurate, inconsistent, and incomplete” in a letter.

“Guggenheim ignored what works,” said Weingarten, who prescribed, among other measures, “developing and supporting great teachers” and “insisting on shared responsibility and mutual accountability that hold everyone, not just teachers, responsible.”

Guggenheim said it was “easy to attack oil companies, but it was hard for me to uncover unions and even the Democratic Party as part of the problem,” he said. “But if I don't reveal these truths, who will, and what will change if no one does?”

The film's Web site instructs visitors to “make a difference, pledge to see the film” and donate to a school of their choice.

But Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at D.C. think tank American Enterprise Institute, said “the notion that a movie will produce policy change is just naive.”

Hess instead pointed to bills in state legislatures to overhaul teacher tenure and proposals to increase the number of charter schools.

“Reformers should stand outside theaters, collect e-mails and phone numbers, and start to engage them on specific things where they can call or e-mail their legislature,” Hess said.

Guggenheim acknowledged that the documentary alone was insufficient to prompt change in the public school system.

“A movie can feature kids, but it can't write a law,” he said, “There are limits to what a movie can actually do. But you can't underestimate the power of a movie as a gathering point to demand action.”

lgartner@washingtonexaminer.com

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