Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he was optimistic the Republican election victories wouldn’t derail the administration’s plans, but conceded: “There’s no guarantee our agenda will continue to move.”

The controversial documentary film Waiting for ‘Superman’ has shined a national spotlight on the need for school reform, while sparking intense debate over how best to achieve this goal.

The film portrays teachers’ unions as the primary obstacle to reform, and it espouses fixes—such as using test scores to measure teacher quality, and merit pay to encourage better teaching—that are contentious issues. Critics of the film say it provides a shallow view of the problems plaguing public education while ignoring other challenges altogether.

Paul Heckman, associate dean of the School of Education at the University of California, Davis, said teachers have come to represent both the unit of change and the unit of blame in education.

“Children are educated and learn over a period of time, but we have this notion that children are to make a year’s growth for every year they’re in school,” Heckman said. “This is … a problem, because children do not develop in nine-month chunks except during gestation.”

It’s much easier to put the blame on teachers, Heckman said, than it is to suggest that a school’s entire structure plays a role in student success. That’s not to say unions are blameless, he said—but reformers should spend more time re-evaluating education as a whole, and how schools can better support and encourage high-quality teaching.

“Teachers work alone, and they have infrequent opportunities during the workday to come together, talk about what they’re doing, and find out that other people are struggling or succeeding,” Heckman said. “They don’t [have a chance to] share what they’re doing, or challenge what they’re doing.”

Heckman sees stagnant results by U.S. students on international exams as a systemic failure, suggesting that U.S. schools aren’t doing a good enough job of keeping up with the times.

In most schools, he explained, teachers do 80 percent of the talking; adults ask the questions, instead of students asking and inquiring.

“The 21st century is calling for creativity and problem-solving. … Those are not the skills that are being urged on children, nor do we urge their engagement. I’m never surprised when we say that a lot of these kids aren’t doing well,” Heckman said.

It’s difficult enough that school-reform advocates have a hard time agreeing on what needs to be done to improve U.S. education. But the results of the midterm elections in November cloud the prospects for education reform even further. Observers say the big Republican gains in Congress will serve as a roadblock to Democrat-led reform efforts, including a likely decrease in big-ticket spending on programs such as Race to the Top as the GOP seeks greater fiscal restraint.