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'Waiting for Superman' Film Champions Charter Schools, But Hides That 80% of Them Are No Better Than Public Education

The much-talked about documentary on school reform tells a familiar story about unions and schools -- but misses the whole story.

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In part because of the outcry generated by the New Yorker piece among the city's elite—many of whom do not send their children to public schools and are ignorant of the system's inner workings—the Education Department and the UFT have phased out rubber rooms.

Brill's crusade continued in a May New York Times Magazine feature called "The Teachers' Unions' Last Stand," which praised the Obama administration's attempt to tie teacher evaluations to children's standardized test scores, a policy the UFT opposed until recently. In one section of the article, Brill visits the building on 118th Street in Harlem that houses both PS 149 and the Harlem Success Academy, a charter school known for its tough discipline, rigid test prep and high scores. He praises the charter school's longer day, uniforms and involved teachers, and criticizes the public school for showing students a film during the school day and providing its employees with a more generous pension plan.

Neither article contains a single scene set in a competently managed public school classroom, nor a single interview with a respected, effective public or charter school teacher who appreciates his or her union representation. (There are many such people. A 2007 poll of teachers conducted by the think tank Education Sector found that only 11 percent believed a union was "something you could do without." A March 2010 Gates Foundation/Scholastic poll of 40,000 teachers found that on issues such as evaluation, pay and benefits, most are roughly in line with their unions.) Brill portrays the UFT as almost the sole force preventing Mayor Michael Bloomberg and schools chancellor Joel Klein from transforming the city's public schools, ignoring issues like segregation and poverty, as well as evidence that the higher graduation rates and test scores the Education Department advertises are the result of lower standards, narrowed curriculums and massaged data.

Brill is working on a book about education reform, to be published by Simon and Schuster. His first book, Teamsters, was released in 1978 and told the story of internal corruption and reform within that union.

Despite their one-sidedness, the influential Brill pieces, followed by the much-hyped release of Waiting for Superman, present a public relations crisis for the two national teachers unions, the AFT and the larger NEA, which has 3.2 million members.

In Washington in August, I had coffee with a lanky 25-year-old Teach for America veteran named Dustin Thomas, who had ascended from teaching high school social studies to a district office job recruiting preschoolers for early intervention programs. Thomas, who founded the group Educators for Fenty, is exactly the sort of young, politically active education reformer teachers unions will need to engage to stay relevant. He grew up in Dallas, attended the University of Oklahoma and decided to pursue a career in education after a friend was killed in gun violence.

"The person who pulled the trigger could have used someone like my friend in his life," said Thomas, who sometimes sounds exactly like a committed union leader. "The amount of work that teachers put into bringing results for our kids is not represented in the picture of us," he complained. "The paycheck is not the motivation."

Yet Thomas became visibly uncomfortable when I brought up the Washington Teachers Union or teacher unionism in general. He avoided even saying the word "union," finally telling me, after a long pause, "I had some incredible veteran teachers around me. But we saw teachers in the school who were so far removed from making sure kids were learning, it was shocking. People are glad there's a process now."