Friday, October 22, 2010

Waiting for Superman: Teaching point

Waiting for Superman (2010) • View trailer for Waiting for Superman
4 stars (out of five) • Rated PG, for no particular reason
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in the The Davis Enterprise, 10.22.10

If you don't leave the theater feeling outraged  and despondent  then you've not been paying attention.

Documentarian Davis Guggenheim, who helped transform global warming from a dry scientific theory into a hot-button political football with An Inconvenient Truth, has returned to indict another of-the-moment calamity destined to become a similar wedge issue: the absolutely deplorable condition of America's public school system.

Francisco, a Bronx first-grader, has trouble reading; his
mother, wanting to help, repeatedly sends messages to
her son's teacher. Her notes and calls are ignored, and so
she eventually decides to trust her son's fate to a lottery,
hoping she can get him into a charter school.
As he did with his previous film, Guggenheim skillfully blends discouraging statistics and damning news events to build a persuasive case: Despite their claims to the contrary, hidebound adults looking out only for themselves are defending the indefensible, and in so doing shortchanging children from California to Maine.

Make no mistake: This behavior will come back to haunt us, and rather rapidly. Several of our largest high-tech Silicon Valley companies  we're talking Microsoft-level giants  already are forced to hire outside this country in order to get enough employees, because our schools aren't graduating enough sufficiently skilled students.

That's flat-out scary.

For his new film, Guggenheim has an additional weapon that's a bit more charismatic than Al Gore. The can't-miss formula is borrowed from the marvelous documentary Spellbound and several nonfiction films that have followed since: We're introduced to a handful of kids, whom we follow during the course of roughly a year, as they  and their parents  attempt to maximize their efforts to land in a reputable school that will provide a better-than-average opportunity for learning. They are:

  • Anthony, a Washington, D.C., fifth-grader who lost his father to drugs, and already is savvy enough to perceive that he needs some sort of miracle to avoid the same fate;
  • Bianca, a Harlem kindergartner whose single mother struggles to play $500 monthly tuition bills at the Catholic school directly across the street;
  • Daisy, a Los Angeles fifth-grader who dreams of college, and of becoming "a doctor, a nurse or a veterinarian," even though her parents didn't finish high school;
  • Francisco, a Bronx first-grader whose school cannot provide the additional reading help he needs; and
  • Emily, a Silicon Valley eighth-grader who has unwillingly been put on a noncollegiate "track" by her school.

No doubt Guggenheim includes Emily to demonstrate that this isn't solely an inner-city problem; children from comfortable middle-class families also can be ill-treated by schools that appear "good" from the outside.

All these kids are charmers. Daisy's unbridled optimism is precocious beyond words; Anthony's downcast pragmatism is heartbreaking, as is the fact that he keeps a photo of his dead father close to hand.

Eventually, for differing reasons, all five children wind up in auditoriums, their hopes pinned on the outcomes of lotteries that will determine who gets into better-performing charter or magnet schools.

The usual option  local neighborhood public schools, such a mainstay for so many years in this country  are discussed with nothing but contempt by most of the on-camera parents.

The core of this film is summarized by a trenchant quote from Newsweek senior editor Jonathan Alter:

"It's very, very important to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time. Teachers are great, a national treasure. Teachers' unions are, generally speaking, a menace and an impediment to reform."

This point is hard to argue, particularly after watching labor leader Randi Weingarten  head of the United Federation of Teachers through 2009, and currently head of the American Federation of Teachers  stand on a stage at a members' rally and foam at the mouth over the "great menace" that any effort at reform presents to her rank and file.

She looks and sounds just like any other self-serving political clown, and her lip-service claims to be thinking of America's children are blatant lies. She refuses to consider any suggestion that involves teachers  even the documentably atrocious ones  losing their jobs.

Mind you, Guggenheim's film treats her gently, under the circumstances. She hangs herself with her own behavior.

We spend considerable screen time with Michelle Rhee, the feisty outsider who became chancellor of the embattled Washington, D.C., school system, one of the worst in the country. She had plenty of great ideas, starting with the dismissal of bad teachers and administrators: acts that made her a pariah to the teachers' unions.

Rhee then floated the novel concept of promising higher salaries for superior teachers, in exchange for doing away with tenure. This enticing proposal obviously frightened the union leaders so much that they refused to allow members to vote on it.

As this film repeatedly illustrates, teachers' unions in this country have grown to stand on two principles, both of which are patently ludicrous:

  • All teachers are equal, which is to say that "performance skill" isn't a talking point, and therefore never a means toward better (or poorer) salaries; and
  • No tenured teacher can be fired. Ever. And tenure is laughably easy to achieve. Show up for class for two years in California, and you become a tenured teacher.

This has led, over time, to grotesque charades such as the "rubber room" in New York City, where teachers under investigation  for anything ranging from inattentive classroom behavior (read: failure to teach) to inappropriate behavior toward students (read: verbal and physical abuse)  are forced to sit and do absolutely nothing for years, drawing full salary, while their cases slowly wind their way toward ... their probably being sent back to work.

Or the "dance of the lemons," an annual process given similarly cynical names in different states, when school principals pass their most poorly performing (but tenured) teachers to other schools, because they can't fire them; the intent is that the new "lemons" coming in will be better than the ones just shipped out.

It's like a horrible, real-world version of the card game hearts, where one hopes that the bad three cards coming from your right aren't as awful as the bad three cards you just passed to the left.

(Lest you imagine that Guggenheim builds his case with "atypical" examples, think again. This film doesn't even mention a series of investigative articles done by The Los Angeles Times in the spring of 2009, detailing numerous examples where hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent over the course of many years, in what frequently become fruitless efforts to terminate teachers blatantly guilty of egregious behavior. Many remain in the classroom while under investigation. Others report to rubber rooms, drawing full salaries.)

Guggenheim's film gets its title from a comment made by Geoffrey Canada, who remembers being told, as a child, that Superman didn't actually exist, and therefore nobody had the power to rescue him from the ghetto. Canada therefore rescued himself, growing up to become one of our education system's stellar heroes, by creating the Harlem Children's Zone and proving that good schools can make a major impact, even in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Needless to say, the Harlem Children's Zone bypasses unions and tenured teachers, as do the KIPP schools founded by David Levin and Mike Feinberg.

That's the most frustrating part of this film: It shows us the answer.

This is a solvable problem.

But only if certain things change.

Guggenheim, Canada, Rhee and other education reform advocates have been dismissed by UFT and AFT leaders for their "selective" views and "lucky" results. That's absolute rubbish.

Yes, the situation is a bit more complicated than this film depicts: Even good teachers can be undone by a classroom filled with kids whose parents fail to do their part at home. Education is a 24/7 activity, and parents must be just as involved as teachers.

And yes, the "no child left behind" edicts are a joke, and they made a bad system even worse; a well-rounded education never, ever results from teaching solely to test results. Good teachers are hamstrung by such regulations ... which are enforced arbitrarily from one state to the next anyway.

But another damning statistic in this film is difficult to ignore: Eliminate only our worst teachers  those who are blatantly, obviously awful (and make no mistake; everybody knows who they are)  and change nothing else, and the results still would be enormous.

So the only remaining mystery comes down to a very simple truth: Parents with school-age children outnumber teachers - and teachers' unions - in this country by a significant margin.

So why do the latter retain control?

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