A Welcome and a Definition

Culture Vulture: "A person with a strong, sometimes obsessive, interest in the arts." Culture Vultures spend a lot of time observing the world. This is where those observations come out.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Waiting for Superman

I know I promised a couple posts on my favorite geniuses, but I wanted to pause and talk about a movie that came out this weekend. Tonight I attended a preview of Waiting for Superman, the documentary that goes in depth about the US public school system. This movie has already generated a lot of buzz because of its frank talk about schools. As someone who teaches in community colleges and wants to teach high school soon, I was very interested in seeing it.

The movie starts off by following various families (mostly living in urban areas, one in the suburbs) looking out to try to get a good education for their children. One student, Daisy, just wants to go to college and become either a doctor or a vet. The movie outlines the problems facing the various students' districts and their schools. The movie makes a very valid wide point that I think many people are not aware: not all high school diplomas are created equally. The education a student gets in School A might be very different from School B 10 miles down the road.

Some of the points the movie makes are very valid; others seemed a little unfair to me. The movie spends a significant amount of time discussing the ins and outs of the teacher unions, and definitely does not paint them in a favorable light. The idea of teacher tenure also comes under fire, basically saying all it does is protect bad teachers. I tend to feel like too much emphasis lately seems to be placed on these "bad teachers," that somehow getting rid of them would fix everything. This seems like more myth than fact to me and I think it is for most teachers. While I'm sure there are some truly bad teachers out there, I doubt it's as widespread as the movie purports.

The movie particularly talks about the Washington DC school system, considered the worst in the nation. The movie talks a lot about the efforts of Michelle Rhee, the now former Chancellor of the DC school system. Many of her efforts for big changes get blocked, despite all the issues of the DC schools. (Rhee has recently resigned, her 3 year term being the longest one served by any recent Chancellor). Her number 1 enemy portrayed in the doc? Teacher unions.

One solution the movie emphasizes is charter schools. The movie says that charters are trying to fix many of these issues; however, there's a catch. When a charter school gets more applicants than spaces (which happens every year), a lottery is held for the students to decide who gets admitted to the charters. In the most heartbreaking scene, each of the students profiled sits in a large auditorium/ gymnasium waiting for their number to be called. This is their only break of getting out of their current situation. While I am amazed this goes on at all, I have to say the slanted nature of this troubled me. I am a product of a magnet program (which the doc touched on but dismissed), a program that is based on merit alone. Portraying the fact that the ONLY way to get a good education outside of a private school is left to a crap shoot seemed unfair and one-sided.

Despite my misgivings, I would definitely recommend seeing it. I do think this movie will be creating further buzz, and I think it anyone with a stake in the education system should have some knowledge about it.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing! I think it's important to point out the reason the documentary is entitled "Waiting for Superman"... the title refers to the idea that, rather than actually working out our difficulties through hard work and careful, deliberate travail, we feel overwhelmed by the vastness of our mess, and expect some omnipotent hero to save us from the mess we've created for ourselves... this is indeed the hope of those who feel helpless with what they see as the abysmal US public school system.

    It's true that there are serious problems in our public schools, and nowhere worse than in Washington, DC. It is also true that the current contractual arrangement between many local teacher unions and the school district they work within rewards longevity above performance. Nobody resents this more than young, good teachers who find that they are being disparaged in favor of those who have been doing a very bad job for a long time.

    But to suggest that the situation with tenure and longevity reward rather than performance means that teachers' unions are evil and must be eliminated is ridiculous. That suggestion is the biggest "throw the baby out with the bathwater" application in my recent memory. Is that to say that because there are bad cops, that police unions are bad? Or that the fact that there are bad doctors who commit malpractice over and over and are protected by the medical groups with which they're associated makes the AMA evil?

    And if charter schools are so great, yet THOSE teachers belong to the same local unions as their mainstream school counterparts, then how are the unions the problem? (I'm all in favor of charter schools for non-mainstream kids, because truth is, traditional schools don't work well for them).

    I agree-- it's troubling that student test scores are continuing to decline. It's bothersome that US school children are not being educated as well as their cohorts abroad (look at Denmark, for example)... but to suggest that the blame falls squarely upon their teachers, who for the most part are wonderfully skilled, passionate people who work much harder than anyone in the private sector with a similar skill set for MUCH less compensation (which would be even WORSE without their unions fighting for them), is both wrong and simply unfair. Teaching and learning are not at all the same thing, and there are components to learning that teachers have little or no control over. So to judge teacher performance on the basis of student performance is not a bit fair, until we control the other factors (personal motivation, parental guidance and support, peer influences, poverty, etc.)