Sunday, November 21, 2010

Waiting for Superman

This past Friday I was able to go see the documentary "Waiting for Superman" by director Davis Guggenheim who also directed "An Inconvenient Truth." The story was inspired by an earlier documentary by Guggenheim, "The First Year," which is about 5 teachers who are in their first year of teaching in Los Angles public school systems. It had been 10 years since that documentary and as Guggenheim begins to look at schools for his children to attend he realizes just how much of a problem there is in the public school system in America.

"Waiting for Superman" follows several students from around the country in their struggle through the education system. All of the students come from families that are lower economic status, yet there is a huge desire from the students and their families for a quality education.

Also included are interviews with educational reformists such as Geoffrey Canada who has spent his whole life trying to increase graduation rates and decrease drop out rates of students across the country. This desire has lead Canada to establishing Charter Schools in New York City, to give parents a choice in their son or daughters education.

These charter schools are an alternative to public education. They are funded by the government so therefore they have to be open to the public for enrollment. Since there is limited spots available at the school they have to randomly admit people who have applied. This creates a lottery system, which is often devastating to the families and students when they don't get accepted.

It is heartbreaking to see these young students who have such a desire to learn, but are held back by a failing educational system. These families can not afford a private education so their only chance is the lottery for the charter schools. One lottery had a little over a hundred spots available and over 600 students who applied. Of the students featured in the film, only one was chosen, although one was put on a waiting list and later a spot opened for him.

While charter schools provide a small solution to problems, there needs to be a larger scale solution. The film features controversial Chancellor of D.C. Schools Michelle Rhee who proposed and carried out many changes to the DC schools, many of which went against teachers unions.

The stance against Teacher's Unions was one thing I found surprising with the documentary. However, the film presents many valid arguments in how the unions fuel our schools failures. For instance tenure makes it nearly impossible to remove and replace teachers who are not fulfilling their duties. Instead of removing the teachers, school districts do the "Dance of the Lemons" in which they move their poor performing teachers to another school in the district and accept another school's bad teachers in hopes of getting better teachers in the end. The reality is that moving a bad teacher to another school doesn't make that teacher better, and it only puts more students further behind.

What was most appalling was the "Rubber Room" in New York State. This is a place where teachers who are going through hearings to be removed from teaching are sent during the day. The teachers there are still paid their full salary to basically sit around, read newspapers, play cards and chat with each other. The hearings can take years to complete too. How much money are we wasting on these teachers that could be spent on the students instead?

I certainly understand the positives of being part of a Union, such as collective bargaining. I even totally understand tenure, that it means a teacher is granted due process before they are just fully removed from their job. It was established to make sure teachers aren't removed for not getting along with someone above them or having different political views. However I feel that tenure is being abused by the unions.

I like what Michelle Rhee did in Washington D.C. She allowed teachers to stay at their current employment rate if they continued with tenure. They would get minimum raises over the year. However, she offered teachers the choice to make more money based off of merit pay (based on how well the students do). These teachers would make much more (some over six figures) but would also forfeit their ability to obtain tenure.

Which brings me to my final question that I got from this film. Why shouldn't teachers be held accountable for how they teach? What makes our profession more privileged than others? I mean a surgeon is held accountable for how he performs on a job. If a surgeon went to work and performed his duties, but they weren't effective (i.e. he performed the surgeries but didn't cure the patients) chances are he would be fired. The surgeon is only wasting the hospitals money and is giving the patients a false hope. That is exactly what ineffective teachers are doing as well. They are selling parents and students an education and then not following through which is costing the government and tax payers money. We need to step up as a nation an insure we are giving our children, and our future, the best education they can get.

Its time to reform our education system. If this means as teachers we have to give up some of the perks we get such as tenure than so be it. The profession of teaching should be for those who want to create a better tomorrow. For those who want to make a difference in our students lives. Teaching is not for those who want to do the minimum to get a pay check. The idea of removing tenure is only a threat to those teachers. Teachers, especially physical educators, are always trying to validate what they do as a profession. The problem is we are held back by those who don't perform. If we have a way to weed out the bad teachers, it will be a major step in proving that teaching is truly a profession.

Visit the Official Website for "Waiting for Superman"

Total: 4 hours