"Superman's" adult heroine is Michelle Rhee, the 40-year-old schools superintendent in Washington, D.C., who, in the film, describes her district's schools as "crappy." Rhee is shown cleaning house: firing bad teachers and bad principals alike. At one point the union outmaneuvers a Rhee reform and an almost tearful Rhee rides into the night to a sadly dramatic score. But the film makes clear she won't succumb to the forces battling her.
Perhaps the film's most newsworthy moment is the brief screen time of Bill Gates, whose foundation spent $2 billion for a number of reforms that spurred a nationwide push toward smaller high schools. Then his researchers decided small schools weren't the surest way forward after all.
In the film, Gates extols the best charter schools for sending more than 90% of their students to colleges. But his words are either too imprecise or simply mistaken. The actual stat is that some of the best charters get at least 90% of their seniors accepted to college. For the most part, there is no tracking of how many of a charter's fifth graders, or even ninth graders, will graduate high school, let alone attend college.
What the best charters seem to do well is take students who were formerly below grade level and create an environment in which they can thrive academically. That's a substantial accomplishment, but one that doesn't necessarily translate readily to traditional schools for reasons more complex than union intransigence.
Right or wrong, Gates' words of today are likely to be the nation's path tomorrow, as he proved with his small schools initiative.
With his latest, Guggenheim has once again tapped into a crucial issue with a building consensus. He's found Republicans and Democrats, academics and the Obama administration saying remarkably similar things about how relentless effort along with high academic standards and expectations can finally crack the code for students held back by poverty and other social forces. And a fundamental component of their formula is breaking the perceived stranglehold of unions over work rules that frustrate reform and job protections that sustain bad teachers.
Teacher unions had better get ready to adapt — or else they'd better start making their own films.