The fuss about “Waiting for ‘Superman’”

Let’s face it:  The American education system as it stands is a complete mess.  As a nation we are lagging behind America’s key economic competitors when it comes to educating our kids in math and science, and we are woefully in the middle of the pack when compared to all developed nations according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Our schools are struggling.  And it’s getting worse despite what many consider to be our “best efforts” to fix it.  To date, we’ve been long on problems, yet woefully short on answers.

This is the point the controversial documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman’” is trying to make, and filmmaker Davis Guggenheim has created a firestorm in the process.

The premise of the film, obviously, is that public education in America is failing.  Guggenheim lives in Los Angeles, and is a staunch supporter of public education.  However, the film opens up with Guggenheim demonstrating his morning drive to drop his own kids off at a private school, passing several different public schools along the way.  And this bothers him.  He chides his own hypocrisy as an advocate of public education, but what choice does he have?  The schools in his neighborhood are considered subpar.  And if he sticks to his guns and sends his kids to those failing public schools, he risks his own children falling behind.

Guggenheim is very clear about his struggle with his decision.  He has the resources to send his kids to a private school and provide them with a big advantage.  But most parents don’t have that option.  Most parents are stuck sending their kids to public schools that just aren’t making the grade.

The controversy of the film comes from the fact that Guggenheim and his collaborators—particularly the educators whom the film revolves around—challenge the teachers’ unions head on.  He points the finger squarely at underperforming or failing teachers and the tenure system that makes it impossible to weed them out.

With a good teacher, statistics say, a class can progress up to one-and-a-half years ahead of pace and have a solid grasp of the concepts being taught.  Poor teachers, however, typically result in their students lagging a year or more behind the pace.  This is why, the argument goes, it is so important to be able to remove poor and underperforming teachers from our classrooms.

The concept of tenure, Guggenheim points out, comes from our colleges and universities.  It was originally a way to protect university professors from being fired arbitrarily and for political reasons by university administrations.  But it was very difficult to achieve tenure, often taking at least 10 years or more and the meeting of a whole list of stringent criteria.  Tenure was something that professors sweated over for years and had to work extremely hard to achieve.  It was not something taken lightly.

Thanks to the unions, though, public school teachers can achieve tenure in as little as two years.  Because of the tenure system, even when a bad teacher is identified it’s next to impossible to get rid of them.  And the unions aren’t willing to give up that tenure system any time soon.

That point was made astonishingly clear when Washington D.C.  School Chancellor Michelle Rhee proposed a radical new pay scale.  It is often lamented that teachers—especially the good ones—are woefully underpaid, and Rhee wanted to do something about it.  When it came time to negotiate a new contract with the teachers’ union, she put two proposals on the table:  The first would do away with teacher tenure, but through a merit pay system allow teachers to earn up to $130,000 per year in salary.  The second would keep the tenure system with some minor changes, and give teachers a modest raise from the average of just over $56,000 annually to $73,000 per year.

The union refused to even put Rhee’s proposal to a vote.

Critics have also accused Guggenheim of propping up charter schools as the answer to all of our educational woes.  They have accused him of cherry picking a handful of outstanding, high performing charter schools and holding them up as the single model for a successful education system.  But that’s not the understanding that I left the theater with.

Instead, what he is saying is that public education can work, and through these charter schools, we know what techniques and what programs work best.  One out of every five charter school is an abject failure, he points out.  Not all charter schools are created equally and up to the task of providing a top quality education for our kids.

He’s simply pointing out that through the crucible charter schools have provided us, we now have a very good idea of how to improve our system overall.  What he is encouraging is that we adopt what has been proven to work in the good charter schools and implement them throughout our public school systems.

Students and their parents should not be left to the mercies of a random lottery system to determine whether or not their child gets awarded one of the painfully few available slots in the painfully few coveted charter schools in their area.  A child’s future should not be left completely to the chance falling of a numbered ball or the random selection of a name by a computer or drawn out of a hat.  We can do better, the filmmaker insists.  We MUST do better.

Guggenheim has also been criticized by teachers and the unions for the students he chose to highlight in the film.  All five are highly motivated students with a very strong family support system.  But not all parents are as heavily involved in the educational endeavors as Bianca’s mother Nakia, or Francisco’s mother, Maria, both in New York City.  Most 5th graders don’t have such a clear determination to accomplish specific life goals as Daisy in Los Angeles, or appreciate what a good school can do for them as Anthony from  Washington, D.C. does.  Most 8th graders don’t yearn for the educational opportunities that a charter high school can provide for them like Emily in Redwood City does.

And they have a point.  Not all schools are created equally.  Not all students are created equally.  Not all parents are as equally involved in the education of their children.  But it’s also true that not all teachers are created equally, and yet the public school system is virtually powerless to do anything about it.  And this, the film says, is the primary problem.

Take, for example, Francisco, the New York City 2nd grader.  His teacher has identified Francisco as deficient in reading and reading comprehension.  Yet his mother, Maria, works tirelessly to help him and has identified no such problem.  She has taken her son to three different specialized programs at local universities to have her son tested, and each time they have failed to identify any specific problem.  Francisco, they say, is doing just fine.  Yet his school and his teacher insist that he’s lagging behind.

Countless efforts to contact the school and his teacher, Mr. Saxon, go agonizingly unanswered.  Maria wants a face to face meeting with Mr. Saxon to discuss the “trouble” her son is having in his class, but has been stonewalled.

The problem, the film not so subtly implies, is with deficient teachers and the students’ inability to escape them.  The argument is that if we can get rid of the bad teachers, replace them with more competent candidates, while implementing some of the charter school reforms that have been proven to work and have produced some staggering results, then the problem will have been solved, and America will reclaim its rightful place at the top of the educational rankings.

Sounds simple.  But there’s a flaw in that logic that needs to be reconciled.

While we may think it’s easy to identify underperforming teachers (and in some cases it undoubtedly is), the unions and the teachers themselves argue otherwise.  They question the methodologies used in evaluating teachers.  How do we adequately determine who is effective and who is not, particularly given the differing circumstances from classroom to classroom, school to school, school district to school district, and even state to state?  Is it fair to evaluate a teacher strictly by the scores achieved by his or her students on a standardized test?  Is it fair to evaluate a teacher based solely on a 20 minute in classroom evaluation by the principal?

How do we adequately evaluate teachers, and just as importantly, who evaluates them?  Should they be evaluated based on a set of well defined national standards?  Or should those decisions be left to the local school boards or individual state departments of education, potentially creating a widely varying range of quality standards based on arbitrary local politics?

By the same token, do standardized tests adequately measure the progress of a group of students?

Failing teachers may indeed be the crux of our educational shortcomings as Guggenheim asserts.  But until a system is developed and put into place that fairly evaluates a teacher’s ability to reach his or her students that can at least partially account for the varying socioeconomic circumstances of the school and its students, then the unions will never allow their coveted tenure system to be altered.  And until we can eliminate the grossly underperforming teachers who are holding their students back, we will never be able to bring our educational standards back to where they need to be.

At any rate, see the movie if you haven’t already.  It is scheduled for release on DVD on February 15th, and it is well worth your time.

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