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Weingarten, meanwhile, said the film was powerful but misleading. It had glorified charter schools and demonized teachers. Later, she told me that she agrees that quality teachers are important, but she stressed that more social services are needed to complement the work they do. At the union's annual convention in July, she denounced Superman as part of a broader scapegoating of teachers that she says has "horrified" her. She did, however, agree to write a chapter for the companion book that will accompany the film. In it, she makes the point that the AFT, the country's second largest teachers' union, has worked to make teacher evaluations more rigorous in more than 50 districts.
Weingarten walks a tightrope between alienating her base of more than 1.5 million members and losing credibility among the new generation of reformers. After the Los Angeles Times announced its database project, she pleaded with the paper not to publish the teachers' names and defended a teacher with subpar data. That was the old-school union line. And in the next breath, she conceded that parents have a right to know if their children's teachers were rated as satisfactory by their supervisors, provided the evaluations are more holistic than test-score data alone. This was the union of the future.
An Army of Regular Americans
One of Weingarten's most valid criticisms of the film is that Guggenheim did not update it to reflect the progress that has been made since he finished shooting. In the spring, she, other union officials and Rhee finally agreed to a groundbreaking new contract for all D.C. teachers. They are set to earn large raises and can make even more money, depending on their effectiveness. D.C. teachers are evaluated according to a comprehensive rubric that includes five classroom observations and data about how much their students' scores have improved compared with those of other kids performing at similar levels. Teachers rated as ineffective will be let go. In July, Rhee dismissed 127 teachers and placed 737 on notice that they must improve or face removal next year.
In the film, Sousa Middle School in Washington is portrayed as one of the abysmal schools that kids are trying to escape. But since Guggenheim visited, an aggressive new principal has transformed the place. In two years, the number of kids doing math at grade level has shot up 30 percentage points to 46%. Principal Dwan Jordon says there is no secret to the success. "It's just hard work. And an environment where everyone believes we can do it. There are no excuses." The Washington Post once called Sousa an "academic sinkhole." The other day, it featured Jordon in a glowing front-page profile.
In June, New York City closed its so-called rubber rooms, notorious warehouses for some 700 teachers and administrators accused of misconduct. The city still pays these employees who, until now, had to wait an average of three years to go through a byzantine disciplinary process at a cost of more than $30 million a year, but the rooms themselves no longer exist.
In August, the Obama Administration announced the winners of its Race to the Top competition a list that now includes 12 states, from New York to Hawaii, plus D.C. But in some of the states that did not get grants, critics are already calling for the repeal of reforms that had been passed to win favor with the Administration. Duncan is aware that the progress is tenuous. "We're at a time of amazing opportunity but also extraordinary risk," he has said. For next year's budget, he has already requested $1.35 billion to continue the competition.
Waiting for "Superman" is hoping to recruit an army of regular Americans to keep the momentum going. The movie's website features a letter-writing tool for people to urge their governors to adopt and implement the common standards. The site also lets people look up school ratings and find volunteer options and other data in one place. The idea is to give people something useful to do with the outrage generated by the film.
This January, Guggenheim flew to Seattle to screen the movie for Bill Gates, whom he interviewed for the film. The whole family, including Melinda, the children and Bill's father, gathered to watch. At that critical moment, Guggenheim couldn't get the DVD he had brought to work. He was forced to show them a lower-quality backup of the film with a "Not for Distribution" watermark running along the bottom of the screen. "It was a nightmare," he says. But Gates loved it. "I was really amazed," says Gates, "that he had both connected with the viewers and hadn't left out some of the confusing things about [education policy]." Soon afterward, the film was acquired by Paramount.
Meanwhile, back in Harlem, Canada still had low expectations. "I've been talking to America about these children," he says, "and no one seems to get very outraged." Then he watched the film. When he got to the lottery scenes at the end, in which mothers weep and children cross their fingers in hopes of a brighter future, he lost it. "The rawness of the emotions of the parents gets to me that unbelievable, desperate hope," Canada says. "I thought then, 'Davis has done it. I think he made people care about these kids.'"
Ripley is a Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation