Rhee gets star turn in education film 'Waiting for Superman' at Silverdocs

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 25, 2010; B01

Photographers and reporters took their assigned spots at the rope line along the red carpet in front of the AFI Silver Theatre on Wednesday evening. Frazzled PR people darted around, fiddling with their BlackBerrys and murmuring to each other.

"The talent is arriving!" one of them breathlessly announces.

A black Suburban pulls up to the curb. And out steps . . . D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, ready for her close-up.

After countless newspaper and magazine profiles, television time with everyone from Tom Sherwood to Tom Brokaw, and a presidential debate shout-out from Barack Obama, Rhee is having her Hollywood moment. It comes in the form of "Waiting for Superman," a new documentary about the troubled state of public education from the makers of "An Inconvenient Truth," the Academy Award-winning examination of the consequences of climate change.

"Superman" was screened as part of the annual AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival. The film, which will get its national release in September, is built around the stories of five children -- including one from the District -- stuck in failing public schools.

While chronicling their parents' struggles to place them in coveted public charter schools, where admission is determined by lottery, director Davis Guggenheim recounts the history of failed attempts to improve the nation's education system. He uses Rhee's turbulent tenure in the District as a case study in the obstacles reformers face.

But Guggenheim's version of recent D.C. history is unlikely to sit well with teachers. He depicts Rhee as the super-hero of "Superman," a combination of Wonder Woman and Xena fighting to bring the D.C. bureaucracy and Washington Teachers' Union to heel.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, is cast as the antagonist, appearing vaguely sinister in that grainy political-attack-ad style while rallying rank-and-file audiences against the forces of reform. The film includes scenes of a teacher reading a newspaper as his class languishes in front of him and of educators asleep in New York's infamous "rubber room," since shut down, where they would wait, sometimes for years, at full salary for disciplinary proceedings to play out. Tenure is portrayed as a guarantee of lifetime employment rather than a due-process mechanism.

"I did feel it was biased. I know it's an inaccurate picture, at least from my perspective," said Melanie Goldstein, a veteran Montgomery County teacher.

Weingarten, who joined Rhee and Guggenheim on the red carpet, had already seen the film and knew what was coming.

"You want us to smile?" she asked gamely as the shutters went off.

Rhee seemed slightly sheepish about the showbiz trappings but at a panel discussion later was clearly pleased with the film. Like Guggenheim, she would like to see "Superman" become the "Inconvenient Truth" of school reform, galvanizing and mobilizing public opinion. She also said the film, which ends with the children and parents learning their fates in the long-odds lotteries, moved her.

"I have a reputation for not being warm and fuzzy," she said. "But that movie made me cry."

An odd disconnect also runs through the film, given what has happened in recent months in the District's education world. The D.C. story effectively ends with Rhee and Weingarten in a standoff over pay and job security. Since the film wrapped last year, the District and the union have forged a contract that codifies and expands Rhee's power to winnow ineffective teachers from the system. Weingarten has won praise from many experts for leading teachers into territory they've traditionally resisted, such as performance pay.

Rhee even suggested in a recent New York Daily News op-ed -- much to the chagrin of New York teachers' union leaders -- that Weingarten take over contract talks in that city.

But facing a heavily pro-Rhee audience at the post-screening discussion, Weingarten said she was disappointed that Guggenheim seemed to cast the choices for families in the film as good charters or nothing and ignored numerous public school success stories across the nation. She also said she felt as if she constantly had to present "my credentials as an education reformer" and answer the question, "When did you stop beating your wife?" She said that her membership would be "demoralized" by the depiction of most teachers in the film. Teachers, she said, "bleed for kids all the time."

"They are as frustrated as the people in this room," she said. "They want someone like [Guggenheim] to help them to do what's right by kids."

Guggenheim said it was never his intention to demonize teachers or unions but to make a film that was "tough on adults."

"There's no doubt in my mind that Randi goes to work every morning wanting to make the best schools," he said, just as Rhee does.

Rhee, for her part, said that effective teachers would not be offended by what they saw.

"The people who are the most frustrated by ineffective teaching are the effective teachers," she said. "They are the ones literally driven crazy every day with the idea that because their colleague next door did not do the job they were supposed to do, they have to catch kids up."

Cue applause.

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