The Magazine

Bright Lights, Bad Schoolhouses

Teachers’ unions as big-screen villains.

Jul 26, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 42 • By SONNY BUNCH
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Facing thousands of worried members at the annual convention of the National Education Association on July 3, the head of the nation’s largest teachers’ union sounded a little whiny. 

Bright Lights, Bad Schoolhouses

“Today, our members face the most anti-educator, anti-union, anti-student environment that I have ever experienced,” said Dennis Van Roekel, the NEA’s president. Leaving aside the bizarre suggestion that there is burgeoning anti-student sentiment in America, Roekel’s concerns are well-founded: For the first time in living memory, poor-performing teachers and the unions that protect them are under real scrutiny. So much so that even documentarians—the most liberal enclave of the most liberal institution (the entertainment-industrial complex) in American society—are now taking aim at union excesses.

Theaters across the country have seen an explosion of films that cast a critical eye on public schools and the reasons for their failures. First up was The Cartel, a look at the impact teachers’ unions have had on schools in New Jersey. Bob Bowdon’s documentary betrays its limited budget​—it’s the roughest-looking of the new releases​—but successfully drives home the fact that throwing money at the problem of our public schools will solve nothing: New Jersey has one of the highest per capita rates of spending on education in the country. Governor Chris Christie has taken this lesson to heart; he is waging a fierce battle to improve New Jersey’s failing public schools while also tamping down runaway costs. 

Currently in theaters is The Lottery, an alternately heartbreaking and infuriating work. Madeleine Sackler follows a quartet of students as they enter a lottery to attend a charter school in New York City. Heartbreaking are the scenes of parents who want little more than the chance for their kids to get a decent education; infuriating are the scenes of union-organized protests against charter schools (including a guest appearance from ACORN rabble-rousers), local politicians firmly in the pocket of the city’s unions railing against charter schools, and statistics underscoring how hard it is to fire terrible teachers. 

Union leaders have said they are just as frustrated by lousy teachers as parents are and just as committed to getting underperforming educators out of the classroom. This would inspire laughter if it weren’t so maddening: Citing Department of Education statistics, The Lottery reports that in the 2006-07 school year only 10 of 55,000 tenured teachers were fired from New York City’s public schools at a cost of $250,000 per removal. It’s a problem we see across the nation: Whereas one in 57 doctors loses their license and one in 97 lawyers, only one in 2,500 tenured teachers is ever removed from the classroom.

That last statistic comes from Waiting for “Superman,” arguably the most important of the new releases. Directed by Davis Guggenheim—the Academy Award-winning director of An Inconvenient Truth—it was the Centerpiece Screening at Silverdocs, an important film festival for documentarians. Guggenheim unloads on teachers’ unions with both barrels in his film, lambasting them for protecting terrible teachers at the expense of students and for stymying efforts to improve the schoolhouses they have captured. 

Like The Lottery, Waiting for “Superman” follows a group of schoolchildren vying for spots in charter schools. But Guggenheim’s work is broader and more ambitious; he tackles school districts across the country, in both urban and suburban areas. Time and again, Guggenheim and the reformers he interviews come back to the troubling aspects of teacher tenure. Like its cousin in higher education, tenure is a guarantee of employment for life. Unlike in higher education, however, tenure is handed out to virtually every public school teacher after a short wait, typically two to three years. When layoffs occur, school districts are forced to operate on a “last hired, first fired” basis instead of deciding who to keep based on merit. The one-two combo of tenure and seniority has made it almost impossible to fire poor teachers.

Consider Chicago. Only 28.5 percent of Chicago Public School students met or exceeded expectations on the composite Prairie State Achievement Examination in the 11th grade. In science and math, those numbers were even more dismal; a mere 23.7 and 26.9 percent, respectively, met or exceeded the standards expected of them. But the teachers responsible for these outcomes are virtually untouchable. According to Newsweek, the percentage of Chicago teachers dismissed for poor performance between 2005 and 2008 was 0.1 percent. In a district where only one in four students is proficient in math and science, how is it possible that less than one in one thousand teachers is worthy of dismissal?

If Guggenheim’s film is to be believed, the changes required to fix this system aren’t terribly radical. He cites a study from the Hoover Institution’s Eric Hanushek which found that permanently removing the worst 5 to 10 percent of teachers from schools would vault U.S. students into the upper tier of global achievement as measured by standardized testing​—on par with Canada. Without changes to the cushy contracts teachers’ unions have negotiated, however, raising American children as well-educated as their Canadian counterparts is just a pipedream.

“It’s crazy the system that we have,” Guggenheim said after the screening of his film at Silverdocs. “The systems that adults have organized have often been in the way of change.” None of those systems is more opposed to change than the teachers’ unions. With a little luck, this spate of documentaries will help highlight that fact and lead parents across the country to demand change we can believe in.

Sonny Bunch is the senior communications associate at the Center for Union Facts and a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association.


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