Thursday, March 3, 2011

In Defense of Teachers

Waiting for Superman (2010)
Directed by Davis Guggenheim
Written by Davis Guggenheim and Billy Kimball
Starring Geoffrey Canada, The Black Family, The Hill Family, and The Esparza Family

I don't as a rule like to blog about things that displease me, but with all the attacks on teachers from state legislators and t.v. pundits, I feel compelled to review Waiting for "Superman"and not in a favorable light.  This documentary has been praised as "one of the year's best films" and "shocking and moving" and a film "impossible not to be inspired" by.  But what it really is is a thinly veiled attack on teachers and teachers' unions.

Sure the film acknowledges there are plenty of good teachers.  But it blames the public schools and the teachers' unions for the country's failing educational system.  Granted there are always going to be bad teachers, and they are protected by their unions and the tenure granted through them.  After only two years teachers are granted tenure, and it is nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher with tenure.  What is the alternative?  Tenure after, say, ten years.  The outcome there is not difficult to predict.  A teacher with ten years in would be laid off in favor of a teacher right out of college.  Win win for the state, and I can hear the excuse:  we need someone with fresh ideas.  It's not about the tenure; so and so has gotten stale.  In a perfect world, no bad teachers would be allowed to teach and raises would be granted based on merit, but this isn't a perfect world.  Unions are absolutely essential to protect the good teachers.

The hero in Waiting for Superman is the charter school.  I know nothing about charter schools, but what I've learned from this film.  Apparently, they were started by dynamic teachers and their innovative teaching methods.  One public school teacher, whose methods inspired a couple of younger teachers to open a charter school, is shown teaching children math with rap songs.  Contrasting the rapping teacher the film also shows us a teacher who reads magazines at his desk, while his students play craps in the back of the classroom.  Now, clearly this guy is not a gifted teacher, but, as Waiting for Superman itself points out, many kids in the intercity are entering high school unable to read above a third-grade level and that the time to reach them was while they were still in elementary school.   Rare is the teacher who can teach these illiterate kids once they enter high school.

Enter the charter school.  Waiting for Superman follows the stories of five students, the common thread being that each child and his parents are determined to get into a better school and get a good education.  Not all of them get their wish granted, as the charter schools have only a few open spaces for new students.  So 300 families show up for the lottery for say 30 open spaces.  The 300 most dedicated families, the families who really care about their kids' educations.  But the public schools have thousands of students in each district they must accommodate, and not all students and their families are dedicated to learning.  So, even if charter schools do an outstanding job teaching their students, they're already rejecting 90% of their applicants, and the 10% accepted are hell bent on getting a good education.  Charter schools clearly aren't the solution for the millions of kids across the country who need educating.

Waiting for Superman points out that the educational system in the United States in the sixties and seventies was second to none.  But since then schools--not just intercity, but suburban as well--have dropped the ball.  Though it is a documentary filmmaker's right to look at whatever issue she wants, I take exception to this film's focus.  There are many factors that may have contributed to the decline in American education:  declining economic conditions in the last 30 years, parents who just don't care, parents demanding higher grades for less work (grade inflation, anyone?), parents working longer hours and having less time to oversee their children's homework, children being overburdened with extracurricular activities, video games replacing reading for pleasure, easy access to drugs and guns, and the drying up of public funds thanks in part to the Regan and Bush tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.

The problem with our educational system is multi-layered and complex with no easy answer.  But waging war against the teachers and their unions is not part of the solution.  We trust them with our children's future, so let's not begrudge them their hard-earned salaries and benefits.  Let's show them we know their worth with a decent wage, job security, and old-age pension.

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