The edu-propaganda film “Waiting for ‘Superman'” promulgated the myth that charter schools were the equivalent to Superman, that powerful guy who flies through the sky to save the city from destruction time and time again. Geoffrey Canada says in the film that he cried when he learned that Superman was not real, because help was not on the way. But the film proceeds to construct a fairy tale in which children are saved by leaving public schools, Catholic schools, and even suburban schools and enrolling in a charter school, if they were lucky enough to win the lottery. More than five years have passed since the release of that film in September 2010, and we now know that charter schools are a mixed bag. Many get lower test scores than district public schools; those that get higher test scores, on closer inspection, have weeded out the kids likely to have low scores. Yet politicians continue to promote them as a sure cure for the neediest children.
Peter Greene here explains the fascination with Superman. No matter how many times sensible people and experienced educators warn that improving education is never quick or easy, that there is no secret sauce, no magic bullet, no miracles, the charter promoters are still selling their pie-in-the-sky.
The fundamental Superman idea is that some external force, some deus ex machina, will descend from the skies (or corporate headquarters) and perform miraculous feats. In the case of school reform, the belief in Superman is expressed through such mechanisms as a state takeover, a turnaround strategy in which everyone gets fired and replaced, a charter takeover, an Achievement School District. The very act of bringing in new management is supposed to have a transformative effect. Although there is no research, experience, or evidence, our leaders refuse to abandon their belief in Superman, the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny, and Santa Claus.
The emergency management system we see in Michigan is just one way of expressing the Superman Theory of Change– there are Supermen among us, and they could save the lesser beings, if only we stopped holding them back. Superman could bring us excellence, but the enemy of excellence is bureaucracy and regulation and rules and, most of all, democracy.
Counting on Superman has led to a variety of initiatives. The various attempts to break tenure (like Vergara and Reed before it) have come from the belief that when Superman takes over a school district, he must (like a CEO) be free to hire and fire based on what he alone can see with his super vision. (And schools would work so much better if every classroom was taught by another Superman).
The need to break unions is part of the same trend. Unions tie Superman down, forcing him to follow a bunch of stupid rules every time he wants to strap on his cape and take to the skies.
Likewise, government regulations get in Superman’s way, keeping him earthbound in a web of red tape. For a Superman believer like Jeb! Bush, it makes perfect sense to say that Flint’s crisis was caused by too much regulation– if the Supermen who emergency manage Flint and Detroit hadn’t had to deal with local and federal authorities at all, they would have avoided this whole mess.
Superman also needs to be un-hampered by “politics.” Reed Hastings (Netflix) famously supported the idea of doing away with elected school boards entirely, because they are too unstable, too susceptible to the will and whims of the public. This distaste for politics gives, in hindsight, a new understanding to the common complaint from reformsters a few years ago, who kept bemoaning how ed reform ideas like Common Core were being tripped up by “politics,” meaning, we can now see, that people were trying to keep Superman from exerting his full powers.
Yes, the greatest obstacle to Superman is democracy. People get in the way. So it becomes necessary to have the state take control, to have an emergency manager with dictatorial powers, to create a commission appointed by the governor to override local school boards, to have a mayor in charge of the schools.
Look how well it has worked in Detroit. And now Governor Rauner of Illinois wants to take control of Chicago public schools. But politics and democracy get in the way.