Wishing and Hoping: There Ain’t No Superman

I actually ventured out of the house Saturday night to see the flick “Waiting for Superman.” That’s the movie that supposedly is going to do for education in this country what “An Inconvenient Truth” did for the environment. Well, that’s setting the bar about as low as you can. But it is a compelling and informative movie nonetheless.

And here’s the inconvenient truth. Our failure to provide the majority of our young people with an excellent education — one that allows them to prepare and compete for jobs in the U.S. and in the global economy and to function as consumers and citizens — is THE most serious issue facing our nation.

We’ve been wishing and hoping for a solution to the education mess now for decades — and there ain’t no Superman. But perhaps the movie “Waiting for Superman” will get people talking about the issue and working together on solutions.

There has been plenty written about the film, including this NYT op-ed by Gail Collins, “Waiting for Someone.” Here’s an excerpt:

Let’s talk for a minute about education.

Already, I can see readers racing for the doors. This is one of the hardest subjects in the world to write about. Many, many people would rather discuss … anything else. Sports. Crazy Tea Party candidates. Crop reports.

So kudos to the new documentary “Waiting for Superman” for ratcheting up the interest level. It follows the fortunes of five achingly adorable children and their hopeful, dedicated, worried parents in Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., as they try to gain entrance to high-performing charter schools. Not everybody gets in, and by the time you leave the theater you are so sad and angry you just want to find something to burn down.

Here’s my take on some of the points raised in the film by Davis Guggenheim.

  • When we are talking about the crisis involving education — and we’re really talking about the future of our young people and our nation’s economic prosperity — there are no easy or quick fixes. Clearly. We’ve spent decades following one reform after another and spending billions of dollars.  No matter how you look at it — dropout rates, test scores, math and science abilities compared to students in other countries — the results have been abysmal.
  • Great teachers make all the difference. Clearly. The question is how do you train, hire, retain and compensate great teachers?
  • And not everyone is a great teacher. There are bad teachers — just like there are bad doctors, lawyers and pro football quarterbacks. The question shouldn’t be how do you get rid of bad teachers. Rather it should be how to you help classroom teachers succeed. Teaching is difficult — and in many schools there is no support, training and mentoring available.
  • Saying that, not everybody is going to succeed as a classroom teacher, no matter how much support and training. That’s true in business, government, you name it. The problem with ineffective teachers though is that they do real damage to young people who are depending on them. You can be a douche bag for years in business and government jobs and, well, it may not really matter? Woot.
  • Guggenheim doesn’t appear to me to have a political or social axe to grind. Still, he points the finger of blame for this mess squarely at the powerful teachers’ unions.
  • Yep. Unions work hard to maintain the status quo. That’s true in education. It’s true in other industries as well. And the teachers’ unions protect bad teachers. No question. But I have a hard time swallowing the notion that if teachers’ unions went away this crisis would go away as well. Full disclosure: I was (maybe still am) a member of the American Association of University Professors during my faculty days at Kent State.
  • And I remember attending a meeting of Leadership Akron 15 or so years ago to learn more about charter schools, then just getting started in the area and elsewhere. The head of the charter school — a businessman — made a number of points, but one stood out for me. He said there was no point paying one teacher $40,000 a year when you could hire two teachers for $20,000 each. Ah, union cards anyone?
  • Here’s from the Collins op-ed:

Then there’s the matter of teachers’ unions. Guggenheim is the man who got us worried about global warming in “An Inconvenient Truth.” In his new film, the American Federation of Teachers, a union, and its president, Randi Weingarten, seem to be playing the role of carbon emissions. The movie’s heroes are people like the union-fighting District of Columbia schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, and Geoffrey Canada, the chief of the much-praised, union-free Harlem Children’s Zone.

“I want to be able to get rid of teachers that we know aren’t able to teach kids,” says Canada.

That’s unarguable, and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program has turned out to be a terrific engine for forcing politicians and unions and education experts to create better ways to get rid of inept or lazy teachers. But there’s no evidence that teachers’ unions are holding our schools back. Finland, which is currently cleaning our clock in education scores, has teachers who are almost totally unionized. The states with the best student performance on standardized tests tend to be the ones with the strongest teachers’ unions.

  • Michelle Rhee, late of the DC public schools, is featured in the film for her attempts to reform what appears to be one of the worse school systems in the nation. One of her proposals was to have teachers voluntarily give up tenure for the opportunity to be judged on performance and paid as much as $120,000 a year. Most people in business like the idea of merit pay. And maybe it will work in education as well — although I believe the standards for measuring success and performance are dicey at best. But here’s the rub. Outside of DC — which must get money from foundations and the federal government — how many voters are going to pass school levies that would pay K-12 teachers as much as $120,000 a year — great teacher or not? Not many. In fact, the school system where my children went and graduated — one of the best in Ohio — is facing stiff and well-funded opposition to a tax levy on Tuesday. Why? Opponents believe that the teachers are over-paid. They average about $60,000 a year. Merit pay anyone?
  • The young children profiled in the movie — those trying to get into better schools via a lottery — all had one thing in common: supportive and involved parents or grandparents. That ain’t always the case. And many of the students in our public schools are disruptive, violent and not all that thrilled or committed to being there in the first place. Sorry. Another inconvenient truth.
  • And there are great success stories out there involving education reformers and/or charter or private schools. The movie highlights several of them and they appear to be models worth replicating and bringing to scale if possible.  But even that is no guarantee. Here’s from the Collins op-ed:

But plot-wise, the movie seems to suggest that what’s needed is more charter schools, which get taxpayer dollars but are run outside the regular system, unencumbered by central bureaucracy or, in most cases, unions. However, about halfway through, the narrator casually mentions that only about a fifth of American charter schools “produce amazing results.”

In fact, a study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that only 17 percent did a better job than the comparable local public school, while more than a third did “significantly worse.” I’m still haunted by a debate I stumbled across in the Texas Legislature a decade ago in which conservatives repelled any attempt to impose accountability standards on the state’s charter schools, even after only 37 percent of the charter students passed state academic achievement tests, compared with 80 percent of the public schoolchildren. There’s something about an unfettered school that lifts the hearts of the Born Free crowd.

Ideally,  “Waiting for Superman” can get us as a nation to recognize we really are facing a crisis and that we must do something to solve it and fast.

We can’t afford another couple decades of waiting and hoping.

But there ain’t no Superman.

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One response to “Wishing and Hoping: There Ain’t No Superman

  1. Thanks for sharing your comments on Waiting for Superman. I’m an employee of SEED, one of the organizations featured in the film, and we’re excited about the release of Waiting for Superman. Follow us on Twitter or become our fan on Facebook if you’re interested in learning more about education reform, the film, and SEED.

    Come visit us at http://www.seedfoundation.com!

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