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09.17.10

Superman's Villain Fights Back

A hot new documentary about America's lousy public schools demonizes teachers' unions. Randi Weingarten defends herself to Lloyd Grove and argues why charter schools aren’t the magical fix the movie claims.

Every good story has a villain.

In Waiting for 'Superman', the much-touted documentary about the sorry state of public education in the United States and its catastrophic impact on our ability to compete in the global economy, the heavy is Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers.

“Look, I’m a big girl,” she tells me when I ask if she regrets granting the filmmakers an on-camera interview—most of which ended up on the cutting-room floor. “You realize when you’re honored enough to be elected to a public role—and the head of a teachers' union is a public role, both locally and nationally—people are going to create caricatures of you that serve their own needs rather than serve the truth. Ultimately that’s sort of what you come to accept.”

Waiting for 'Superman' doesn’t even open until September 24, but is already the “It” documentary of the year. Made with the dramatic force of a morality play by Davis Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning director of An Inconvenient Truth, it casts the 52-year-old Weingarten as an intransigent union boss who resists innovation, tolerates decline, and protects lousy teachers at the expense of innocent schoolchildren. “Something of a foaming satanic beast," in the words of Variety’s reviewer. “An aptly shrill opponent of change.”

The funny thing is, that’s precisely the opposite of her off-screen reputation. In contrast to the hardnosed leadership of the politically formidable National Education Association—which, at 3.2 million members, is more than twice the size of the AFT—Weingarten is widely seen as a relatively enlightened reformer. A schoolteacher and high-powered lawyer before becoming a labor leader, she embraces the necessity of teacher accountability and measurable standards for student performance, and she has worked with administrators and elected officials to improve the classroom experience for kids and educators—even as she defends the interests of her flock in the collective bargaining process.

“There are lots of incredibly good public schools around this country, and there are incredibly great teachers and there are more and more really interested, solution-driven contracts,” Weingarten says. “And I think the fact that none of that is represented in the film is a problem with the film. I don’t have a problem about myself. But I do have a problem about that.”

Guggenheim’s movie, by turns maddening and gut-wrenching, is a powerful indictment of America’s mediocre public education system, and also a call to arms. Up close and personal, it tracks the desperate efforts of five families around the country to save their kids from bad public schools, which will ill-equip them for successful lives and careers, and instead enroll them in excellent charter and magnet schools that will give them a fighting chance. In the end they are at the mercy of a lottery that parcels out precious places according to the cruel impartiality of the casino.

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The film’s title comes from an anecdote told by Geoffrey Canada, the charismatic leader of New York’s celebrated Harlem Children’s Zone charter school program. As a poor but ambitious kid growing up in the crime-ridden South Bronx, Canada liked to fantasize that Superman would save him; ultimately, of course, he had to save himself.

“The level of screaming and screeching in the public education debate is so intense that you’re always trying to modulate it and actually try to get real discourse going,” Weingarten says. “In many jurisdictions there’s real discussion and action of a reform agenda that being done with people, not to people. And that’s what doesn’t happen in the discussion of public education at 30,000 feet. In some ways the movie is symptomatic of that. But this is Hollywood.”

Weingarten, who acknowledges that she was emotionally affected by the movie, sometimes to the point of tears, goes on: “I don’t want to take anything away from the fact that these five kids and their parents are trying to find settings that will work for them. That’s a story that everyone has to be empathic about and feel an urgency about. But my urgency is about all kids, not just some kids—which means you have to have a whole system in place. You can’t just think that you solve this by having an iconic teacher in every classroom. You have to have well-prepared teachers in every classroom, you have to have supportive leaders, you have to have great curriculum, and you have to have conditions that meet the needs of kids and the people who serve them. That’s a lot to do at the same time.” Weingarten adds: “I do have a lot of zeal about this stuff.”

Her main complaint about Waiting for 'Superman' is that, in her view, it sacrifices facts and fairness on the altar of storytelling. For instance, while the movie suggests that charter schools are “the silver bullet,” Weingarten insists, “There is no silver bullet.”

She argues: “The movie seems to be saying that all you have to do is shake people up, and they will do a better job. But that presupposes that people don’t want to do a good job. Teachers want to do a good job. They want to make a difference in the lives of kids, so we need the time and the tools to do that.”

Weingarten says her membership is understandably jaded. “The trust issue is huge, because how many times have teachers been presented with the fad of the month, the fad of the day? The silver bullet today is merit pay, or it’s data, or whatever new fad, and all kids will suddenly learn to their God-given potential. Teachers are skeptical of this notion that there’s a silver bullet that will help all kids.”

Charter schools, meanwhile, are no panacea. “The fact is, only 17 percent of charter schools are better than public schools and 38 percent are much worse. The film could have looked at different schools and investigated why they worked or didn’t work, but that probably wouldn’t have made great theater. What makes great theater is the lottery.”

Still, Weingarten says the movie is a “net plus,” sparking a necessary policy debate about public education, and she has litigated her union’s cause at several screenings and panel discussions alongside her tormenter, Guggenheim.

“We are still combating the economic vicissitudes of the worst recession since the Great Depression, where people are more impoverished, more fearful, have more angst,” she says. “We understand how education must change to deal with the new economic realities. At a time when we are in the worst fiscal constraints in recent memory, and when people are very fearful that the bottom has fallen out of their lives, we have to help all kids prepare for life, college and career…It’s easy to scapegoat and to demonize and to vilify. The much harder road is to collaborate and work together. I think teachers and unions are being vilified right now.”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.