Balancing "Superman"

I watched Waiting for Superman this weekend (read America's Raymond A. Schroth's review here), and found the film a thought provokingWeingarten couple hours in which the director Davis Guggenheim examines the darker side of American public education, a system where so many children are failed by schools that simply do not work. Superman follows a few individual children through mostly inner city schools and their families' attempts to win lotteries for them to attend much more successful charter schools. The odds are stacked against the children, both because the graduation and literacy rates of their cohorts are astonishingly low, and because the number of available spaces at the charter schools is dwarfed by the number of families applying.

Guggenheim offers several reasons why schools are failing, including an outmoded notion of what schools are charged with doing, preparing students for both work and college, rather than educating all for post-secondary education; lazy teachers who take advantage of generous tenure agreements in their contracts; lowered expectations for poor and working class children; and the overwhelming sense that reform is out of grasp when examining raw data that causes many to simply throw up their hands in despair. What do all these problems have in common, according to Guggenheim? The nefarious teachers unions that seek only to protect the interests of their members at any cost, including the education of children.

Surely, there is plenty of blame to go around for our failing schools, and unions must own up to their contribution. But Guggenheim seems to lump too much of it on the unions and their leadership. So it was interesting to read an article from Saturday's New York Times, profiling one particular villain from Superman, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten. In the film, Weingarten is portrayed as the ultimate enemy, opposed to all good faith reform as she blindly supports all her teachers, even the slothful, shiftless ones who read newspapers during classes and who refuse to teach. The Times presents a much more nuanced picture, highlighting examples where Weingarten bucked her membership and endorsed reform-oriented contracts, including the one with education reform's hero, outgoing D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. Independent education-reform watchdogs are quoted in the article offering praise to Weingarten for her willingness to adapt to the current climate.

Does this single article get the teachers unions off the hook? Of course not. My own experience, and those anecdotes related to me by the many educators in my family, tells me that unions do protect bad teachers. Yet no one wants them removed more than good teachers, whose own jobs become that much more difficult when working alongside indolent and ineffective educators. But Superman does a disservice to reform by casting teachers unions as wholly scary and obstructionist, as they will continue to be major players in the reform movement. When there are beacons of hope shining from the unions, no matter how infrequent those may seem, they should be celebrated and lauded, rather than ignored and sent to the cutting room floor. Superman brings the conversation of education reform to a much wider audience, but we will be wise to stop a lynch-mob mentality against unions in its tracks, and instead seek out a more balanced picture, one that highlights the reformers on all sides who want only the best for America's schools and children.

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Margaret Riordan
7 years 1 month ago
I am not from the US, so don't know the situation, but quite some years back I read a book that laid much of the blame for failing schools on the way funding occurred. The way I read it, much of the funding for education came from local taxes, so if you lived in a poor area, there was much less money available to run the schools. I have no idea if this is still how schools are funded.
Vince Killoran
7 years 1 month ago
Margaret's comment reminds that, In the 1980s, it was class size and, for William Bennett & Co., the values embedded in the curriculum; then the focus fell on the home and family commitment to education(a replay of the late 1960s debate); by the 1990s it became funding; now it's teacher quality. What next?

The truth is that this is a complex issue and one that WAITING  simplifies by demonizing teachers' unions and lauding Ivy League policy wonks who frequently bring a one-dimensional and elitist approach to the issue.
sarah gregory
7 years 1 month ago
I saw the film today, and found it to be generally good, although an oversimplification on many sides. (For example, getting rid of the 20% of ''lowest-performing teachers'' and replacing them with teachers who perform at an average level will NOT bring our public schools to the level of Finland, where high school graduates are fluent in Finnish, Swedish, and English, and many have studied a fourth language. It's not that simple.)

What I'm curious about, though, is why a Catholic magazine publishing in New York City didn't address the situation of Bianca, the little girl in kindergarten at one of our Catholic schools, who was barred from kindergarten graduation ceremonies because her mother lost hours at work and couldn't pay the full tuition bill?

I don't know how to fix public education. I don't claim to know how to address the challenges of our Catholic schools either, although I know there are some people doing very good work (including within New York City) to do just that.

I do know, though, that if what the movie reported is accurate, that one little bit IS our problem, if we are Catholic. It's also one we can and must solve, and hopefully has been solved already.

Has the child received an apology? And is she back in her school? 
sarah gregory
7 years 1 month ago
Walter, I'm sorry, but I don't buy that. It's all too easy to blame "the unions" or "the NEA", or "politicians", but I'm of the opinion that some problems are best addressed at the level where they occur. I could just as easily rant about how our churches are in disarray because the bishops or Pope aren't exhibiting leadership in certain areas, but that's a convenient way of avoiding my own responsibility here.

I am a Catholic school parent, and the product of Catholic schools myself. In both of the schools my son has attended (we changed states a year or so back), the schools have stated policies stating that the school will provide a Catholic education to all children whose families desire that they receive it, subject to acceptance to the school and satisfactory academic and behavioral progress. Admissions is need-blind. 

Yes, it means that some of us are hit up for fundraisers constantly, and that serving on the Finance Committee for a few years was a rough proposition, too. But that's why our kids are in Catholic school - not because of what politicians or unions do or are, but because of WHO WE ARE. I could send my kid to a private academy, but he's in an urban parochial school instead. It is all about what we value.

If what happened to this kid in this movie is portrayed accurately, I'm so sorry - we have to be better than that.
Vince Killoran
7 years 1 month ago
Walter needs to actually visit the websites of the NEA and AFT, read their literature, and see how they work on the local and national level.  Relying on old "talking points" just won't cut it anymore.

I would argue that vouchers denigrate one of the parts of our civic life left in the USA today. 
Edward Visel
7 years 1 month ago
While the economics of vouchers is questionable (depending on implementation, they may take already scarce money from public schools), the original post as well as the comments seem to be ignoring the larger problem that teachers' unions have created: tenure.

While tenure is not inherently bad, as one of my professors told me, it makes you "work really hard for four or five years." After that, they're stuck. At my [public] high school, I saw quite a lot of teachers who were not good, but who faced no repercussions for their inadequate performance. As my dad, who spent a decade on our school board said, it's near impossible to let a tenured teacher go, even if they're awful. Worse, they're often the best-paid, because they've been there so long (with burnout as the cause of ineptitude). Quite simply, they have no incentive to be a better teacher.

Eliminating tenure and enstating performance-based pay would re-incentivize good teaching, and quickly clean up our schools without lots of regulation and new money. And that's something highly invested teachers like my brother (who had his 5th graders write an opera) would welcome.

There is still a place for unions in contract negotiation, but they need to reconsider their purpose: to create better teachers, rather than to protect all teachers, at the expense of students. A thourough cleanup is necessary, to eliminate situations like that now at my high school, where the head of the local chapter's husband is on the school board.

We've got problems. It's time for some systemic reform.
Vince Killoran
7 years 1 month ago
I know I've commented on this post a couple of times already so I'll bow out after this one:

I think the elimination of tenure is a bad idea. I've worked  both as a secondary school teacher and now as a college professor and I've seen the effect of tenure's absence on the ability of teachers to do their job effectively-the fear of firing is powerful when faced with administrators who do not always act with the institution's best interests. Back in the 1990s conservative scholars fell in behind tenure when they realized what it might mean to their own academic freedom on some campuses. So too for scientist who must watch to see that their basic research is not compromised by large grants from corporations.

One other quick example: at my college we are faced with a challenge to turn back efforts to accept a large donation that would place demands on some instructors teaching select courses to assign certain books with dubious value. These books would alter the structure of the coureses and are "political" in nature.  It is very difficult to get non-tenured or tenure-track colleagues to speak out since they would be putting their job security on the line. This is despite their conviction that the collge's decision is a very bad one.

In terms of primary and secondary education, I do know that both the AFT and NEA have backed serious efforts to "mend it, not end it" but they've been thwarted by school boards and administrators who see the anti-tenure drive as a pure power grab.

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