The Detroit Free Press has published commentary from Earl C. Rickman III , President of NSBA and President of the Board of Education of Mount Clemens Community School District in Michigan.
There’s no ‘Superman,’ but there are school heroes
BY EARL C. RICKMAN III
Earl C. Rickman III is the president of the National School Boards Association and president of the Board of Education of Mount Clemens Community School District.
Everywhere I go these days, people ask if I have seen “Waiting for Superman,” the documentary that chronicles five families who have entered lotteries to seek admission to charter schools.
I have indeed seen the documentary and feel it is provoking conversations that are long overdue about public education.
However, the messaging associated with this project – “charters are good,” “traditional public schools are failing,” and “teachers unions are bad” – oversimplifies complicated issues and threatens to hinder thoughtful discussions about education reform.* The “us” versus “them” mentality promotes division rather than the collaboration necessary for our public schools to succeed.
Instead of helping people understand the many challenges schools face and what it takes to address them, director and narrator Davis Guggenheim presents misleading information and simplistic solutions that benefit no one, especially those in classrooms who work so hard to help our children succeed.
We shouldn’t use a handful of outliers to make sweeping claims about policy. While the stories highlighted in “Waiting for Superman” offer inspiring lessons about how strong principals and committed teachers can transform children’s lives and futures, research shows that only 17% of charters outperform their traditional counterparts.
It’s also unfair and misleading to use the lowest-performing public schools as typical examples. While there are struggling public schools, there are also many successful public schools and teachers – here in Mount Clemens, across Michigan and around the country – that are helping children from all backgrounds reach great academic heights.
We know all too well how urgently change is needed, but not from a corporate-modeled agenda of teacher bashing, union bashing, elected board governance bashing, test-based accountability, and highly selective charters run by private management companies.
Despite a lot of empty rhetoric about the importance of great teachers, the documentary does not contain a single positive image of a traditional public school or teacher. It never shows real teachers who are working in the trenches in traditional public schools every day and how they are offering hope for the students in their classrooms. The film simply disrespects and discredits traditional teachers. Not a single one of these dedicated teachers has a voice in the film.
And there is no suggestion of how parents are working in collaboration with school leaders to improve the public schools their children attend, no suggestion of community engagement, no suggestion of how effective board leadership can improve public education.
There is no discussion of funding inequities, poverty, race, testing or the long dismal history of top-down bureaucratic educational reform failures.
The film displays a heart tugging and undeniably powerful emotional impact. The stories of the children and families it highlights are truly compelling for all of us. But the film uses these stories to advance an agenda that continues to hurt public schools and the vast majority of communities that depend on them.
Am I saying that we shouldn’t criticize public education? No!
If there were not the perceptions that the current system is not getting the job done and not addressing the needs of all students, there would be no need or outcry for change by those who depend on public school districts to provide a quality educational experience for their children.
For 26 years as a member of the Mount Clemens Board of Education I have fought, argued and advocated to bring social justice to our classrooms, our schools, our districts and our unions. I’ve learned that there is no such thing as a “Superman”; rather, ordinary men and women must do extraordinary things for our children.
If children are our most essential investment, we must invest in their future and provide them with a quality public education. Instead, it is an annual ritual as we look at ways to cut education funding even when it will sacrifice student learning and achievement. We must make sure that we have the essential assets — great teachers, staff, curriculum, and key resources — to build an unwavering infrastructure for a solid education.
School leaders must nurture the ambition, creativity, curiosity and boldness of these young minds that come through our doors. These children will become lifelong learners and the leaders of tomorrow, and we must see that their dreams become reality through our work.
You can find real heroes in every traditional public school, but “Waiting for Superman” fails to recognize this, and that is the movie’s fatal flaw. Instead of bashing our hard-working teachers, school leaders, parents and community leaders, we should look for realistic steps we can take to improve achievement and make opportunities available to all children.