Waiting For Superman [film review]

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Waiting For Superman
by Anthony Gayle

“Waiting for ‘Superman’” is another documentary detailing the sad state of our educational system. It follows several students as they try to get into decent schools through educational lotteries. The film features interviews with Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee. Anyone who’s familiar with either of them is already quite aware of their pro-corporate, anti-union positions. For those who watch the documentary, I implore you to approach it with a critical eye and ask yourself if any of the following issues are adequately addressed in the film. Do you frequently hear from the teachers in the trenches?

If students are struggling, then wouldn’t it make sense to focus on the struggling students and their teachers? I don’t want to hear from retired or former teachers. I don’t want to hear from a Principal, a Chancellor or a Superintendent. I don’t want to hear from a politician. I don’t want to hear from a teacher in a terrible school who only teaches advanced electives and Advanced Placement courses. I don’t want to hear from the people who occasionally “work with” troubled students. I want to hear from the Algebra I and English I teachers. I want to hear from the teacher whose job it is to come to a dilapidated classroom with 28 chairs and 35 functionally illiterate students. I want to hear from the students in that classroom and I want to see extensive footage of them and their teacher inside the classroom. I want to hear from the parents of those underperforming students. Too often we are given the opinions of those who have never spent any real time in the trenches. Too often people believe that they are experts in education simply because they can speak and are given the platform to do so. This is reflected in the people who are selected as the faces of educational reform.

Geoffrey Canada, President and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, has not spent one day as a Public School teacher. I don’t say that to take away from his significant achievements, but to highlight his limited view of what it means to be a public school teacher and the pressures we face. Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of D.C. Public schools, cites a few years of “missionary work” for Teach For America (TFA) as justification for her “Donald Trump” approach to firing teachers. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has not spent one day as a public school teacher. Why are these the people we trust to reform public school education? I’m not trying to suggest that you have to have lots of experience as public school teacher to contribute to the effort, but it would help to have some experience. I wouldn’t want a General who’s never been a soldier. I don’t want a leader who’s never had to follow.

If you listen to “educational reformers” like Rhee and Canada, you’ll believe the reason why schools are failing is because of a glut of incompetent teachers and the teachers’ unions that protect them. They go after the teachers and the unions because they are a convenient target. In fact, they are the only viable targets. You can’t blame the students no matter how terrible their behavior is because they are seen as victims of their own bad behavior rather than participants in it. You can’t blame the parents because you can't require them to parent their children. After all, they don’t even have to show up to a conference when their child misbehaves. The administrators are often little more than the puppets of the local or state school boards. This only leaves the teachers. And so, we blame them.

This becomes evident when the documentary turns its attention to the infamous “rubber room” in New York City. It’s a place where some incompetent teachers (along with others) sit and effectively do nothing but collect a paycheck while they go through something called “due process.” The idea of due process doesn’t seem to rankle as many people when it’s a police officer or a fire fighter taken off duty during an investigation. When it’s a teacher, however, he or she serves as a basis for everything that’s wrong with education. The teacher in the “rubber room” is akin to the welfare queen or home loan defaulter who is blamed for bankrupting the country. I get the idea there: we would all be rich right now were it not for someone collecting food stamps or being unable to pay a ballooning interest payment on a loan that is more than twice the actual value of the home. Similarly, if we didn’t have those incompetent teachers, all children would be achieving their full potential.

I will be the first to say that there are incompetent teachers. I would welcome anyone to name a profession where there aren’t unethical and incompetent members. Having said that, I would put the teaching profession up against all others when it comes to the ratio of “good to bad” members. It’s clear to me that the debate on education is still not where it needs to be. I often use the following example to help others understand where the majority of our focus should lie. If you were to empty the worst school you could find, then allow every teacher back in (good, bad and incompetent), I would gladly allow my child to go to that school. If you then allow only the students into the school that ANY teacher in ANY core subject area would attest to as a student that either wants to learn or, at the very least, will not interfere with those who do want to learn, then I would gladly let my child go to that school.

Now allow every other child back into the school. There’s no way I would let my child go to that school. Are you beginning to see the problem? The problem is we have students who are not ready or willing to learn. The reason for this is we have parents who are not ready or willing to parent them. This is where our attention should be directed. Am I pointing the finger? Yes! The difference between me and some other critics is that I’ve actually taught in underperforming schools this century. I've seen what and who works.

This film would have you believe that the kids, in their doe-eyed innocence, would be learning but for the incompetent teachers and the corrupt unions. So what are their solutions? They [Rhee and Canada] believe the answer is a greater ability to quickly fire “bad” teachers. “And replace them with whom?” you might ask. Michelle Rhee would use inexperienced TFA missionaries (like herself) who are looking for a nice addition to their resumes before they quickly move on to a job that allows them to stop at Starbucks before making their way to an office in a Warehouse loft. The schools I taught in were already severely understaffed, particularly in critical and state-tested areas.

Why were these schools so understaffed? Perhaps because teachers, who happen to be human beings, might prefer to work in an environment where they are respected and valued (or at least not disrespected). The turnover rate at my school was also extremely high (I left myself). If you constantly disrespect your teachers and try to replace them with temporary workers from the “Peace Corps of the educational world” (TFA) then you shouldn’t be surprised that both morale and retention is low. How often do you see a Rookie organization go on to win a championship? Well, this is exactly what you’re dealing with when you have to replace 20-25% of your teaching staff every year.

The second solution offered in the film is a strong endorsement of charter schools. Charter schools are essentially privately-run, publicly-funded schools. The research suggests that charter schools don’t perform any better than their public school counterparts. In fact, the movie mentions quickly that only 1 in 5 charter schools is outstanding. If you aren’t watching and listening closely, you will miss it. The overwhelming message here is that charter schools are good. Yes, you do have charter schools that do a tremendous job with students. But the exact same thing can be said with public schools.

So why not simply model all public schools after the best public schools? In any case, let’s take the example of the charter school that does well. If they were truly the answer, then why not simply replicate them everywhere right now? Part of the problem with the film is that it doesn’t really delve into the topic about what makes a school great? Clearly, you need great teachers. So how does a teacher become great? Apparently, nobody on film seems to know. Still, the Federal Government will not be deterred by such “unknowns”. President Obama has requested 200 million in his fiscal 2011 budget to help create 21 projects similar to the Harlem Children’s Zone across the country. If it does actually come to pass, we all know it will be greatly underfunded like every other social program. But more importantly, it will not solve the real problem. It does nothing to actually fix the public schools.

Let me help to explain with an admittedly over-simplified example. I had a class with 30 kids. In that class, almost everyone was extremely underprepared from day one. In my case, the typical Algebra student was operating below a 4th grade level when they first entered my class. Most of my students could not pass an assessment I would give to 4th graders. In fact, I've had third graders who knew things my high school students did not (times tables, basic fractions, etc.). Whenever you have 30+ students, many of whom are prone to emotional outbursts and violence, you will be spending a lot of your time on classroom management. There’s no way you can possibly give every kid the kind of intensive attention he or she requires. They have to receive attention and guidance outside of the classroom. They should be taking several related courses that run concurrently to make up their deficiencies. The conscientious parent understands that their child may not be receiving the kind of attention he or she needs (and the parent is unable to provide) and rightfully searches for alternatives. They are the ones who apply to these charter schools and take their chances. What about the parent(s) of the children who don’t give a damn?

If you can’t even get them to attend a parent/teacher conference, then what makes you think they will be the ones applying to that new, wonderful charter school? The end result is you have public schools that are still terrible and some charter schools that either benefit from a stricter selection process i.e. they selectively choose students and/or make demands of the parents that they must agree to in writing or, if they don’t have a selection process, they benefit from a self-selection process in which parents who appreciate the value of an education tend to apply. In any case, you are not fixing the public schools; you are turning them into a filter that holds certain kinds of students. We have to understand that once you have students whose parents require that they attend school and learn, then having teachers who have an extended work day, teach Saturday school, and carry a cell phone so they can be reached 24 hours a day are all excellent ways to boost student achievement. But until you have the parents in place, all the teacher training in content areas and mass firings will not fundamentally improve student performance.

Michelle Rhee, who I liken to the Sarah Palin of education (all style and tough talk but no substance), believes that you can run a school system like a business. She believes her 2 or 3 years of limited experience with TFA qualifies her to lead a school system of approximately 70000 students. For her, the business model is quite simple: If your students don’t perform well on a test, then you should be fired and replaced with someone who’s most likely less experienced and relatively cheap (that’s always good).

Still, we can’t argue with her results, right? NAEP results show a six point gain for fourth graders under Rhee’s tenure. It also shows a four point gain for eighth graders during the same time. Well, if you actually look at subgroup scores, there were more significant gains for the very worst performing group (black children) before she took over. Let’s be honest for one moment, shall we? Black children, as a whole, consistently score at the bottom for almost every positive educational indicator. We rank 17th and 24th in science and math respectively (Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). Guess what happens if you remove black students from the data? The U.S. shoots up dramatically in its standings. Chris Bergfalk, a DCPS teacher, makes a similar observation on “More Room on the Outside.”

He notes that, between 2003 and 2007, 85% of students NAEP tested in Washington D.C. were black. In 2009, that number dropped to 76%. The difference in the percentage tested in Charter schools is even greater (14 percentage points). If we excise a significant portion of the worst performing group, is it possible that we would see an increase in student achievement? More importantly, is anyone curious about why this is happening? Is it possible that Michelle Rhee is simply riding the wave of gentrification that’s sweeping over parts of D.C.? We don’t get an honest discussion around this question in the documentary or practically anywhere else for that matter.

The bottom line is I don’t expect anything to improve because we focus too much attention on the secondary teachers and not enough on engaging the primary teachers (the parents). We have individuals advocating for corporate funding and influence to increase their own prestige and help out a few kids in the process at the expense of others. We have politicians who are not targeting resources to where they need to go: young kids and the families they come from.

We are getting a problematic and piecemeal approach to a massive problem. Their approach is tantamount to buying more life boats for the Titanic. Can I be mad at anyone who makes their way to a lifeboat by any means necessary? No! I would do the same thing myself, but I can’t pretend that charter schools will save or reform the public schools any more than more lifeboats would have saved the Titanic. What we need is course correction before it’s too late (and “too late” is fast approaching). Instead, we have been given more captains for a sinking ship.

Teachers are an important part of the educational process. I am not against holding them accountable or even getting rid of those who are incompetent, but to promote individuals who largely blame them for the problems we face only tells me they really don’t have a clue about what’s going on or, if they do, they are powerless to change it. I think it would be a great experiment if we could take the best school in a city and the worst school in the city and switch the staffs. If it’s simply a matter of content knowledge and teacher training, then it would stand to reason that the staff of the highest performing school would instantly transform the worst school into a highly functioning school.

I would love to see this done if, for no other reason, we can finally move past this superficial debate about incompetent teachers and unions and move into a more substantive one about how to get the parents involved. Until that happens, we are going to see the continued deterioration of the public schools regardless of what minimal gains get reported. We are going to see the public schools becoming little more than holding pens for the very worst students until it’s time for them to go to a more permanent holding pen while a lucky few try to escape any way they can.