‘Waiting For Superman’

This afternoon I had the pleasure of viewing the new documentary “Waiting For Superman.” The title refers to a comment made by Geoffrey Canada that he cried when his Mother told him Superman was not real.

“…she thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real. I was crying because no one was coming with enough power to save us.”

Much like the film “The Lottery,” parents seek to get their kids out of failing schools and into better Charter schools. “Waiting For Superman” however spends a lot of time trying to figure out what’s wrong with failing schools and what can be done about it. Not every child can attend a charter school, and not all charter schools are good, so bad public schools need to be fixed.

The central conclusion of the film is that you can’t have great schools without great teachers. The film says we need to do all we can to develop more great teachers, reward them, and get poor performing teachers out of the schools. The film shows some examples of just how hard it can be in certain places to get poor performing teachers out of the classroom.

New York has what they call “rubber rooms” where teachers who have been accused of wrongdoing sit, sometimes for years, waiting for their situation to be resolved. In Milwaukee, poor performing teachers are shifted from school to school in what they call the “lemon dance.” In both of those cities, as well as many others, it’s almost impossible to fire poor performing teachers. Georgia of course is a right to work State so no union protections exist for teachers. How this impacts things here in Georgia I’m not very sure at this point.

“Waiting For Superman” has drawn criticism for appearing to blame teachers for all the problems in education. I don’t think the film blames teachers but rather demonstrates how crucial teachers are to a successful education. Firing poor performing teachers is a controversial subject and a fight that will continue as the debate over education reform continues.

One final comment. DC School Chancellor Michelle Rhee is featured in the film (as well as in the trailer below). Yesterday she resigned her position after the DC Mayor who had appointed and supported her lost reelection.

“Waiting For Superman” is in theaters now. We in the Atlanta area can see it at the Tara on Cheshire Bridge Road. I’d urge anyone interested in how to make our schools better to see this film.

15 comments

  1. Steve says:

    Georgia of course is a right to work State so no union protections exist for teachers. How this impacts things here in Georgia I’m not very sure at this point.

    Ding ding ding! Whenever libertarian magazines run pieces about public education, they’re almost ALWAYS set in union strongholds. They virtually never come to the deep south, where public schoolteachers are year-to-year contractors with no leverage, and explain why matters are even worse here.

    In places where most parents are active and engaged, the kids are going to be fine. In places where most parents don’t care… the school is going to suck no matter what kind of genius scheme you come up with for managing it. We all basically know and understand this. When you take a discussion of how to run schools, and break the discussion down to its core… it’s really just parents looking for whatever approach will surround their kids with more of the “good parent” kids.

    The voucher and charter crowd, mostly made up of these “good parents”, wants a way to get their kids together… with the “bad parent” kids left behind with each other.

    The parents who argue for public schools are probably “good parents” themselves (or else they wouldn’t bother arguing at all). But for whatever reason (e.g. money, geography) they don’t think they’ll have access to the good schools. So they fight to prevent other “good parents” from fleeing and making leaving their school even worse off.

    There are always going to be good parents and bad parents. You have to find a place to stick the “bad parent” kids. You can spread them around, and arguably reduce the potential of all schools… or you can squeeze them together concentration-camp-style, give up on them, and airlift the “good parent” kids to higher ground.

    Neither of those answers are really all that good. But when you peel back the B.S., those are really the two different visions that people are arguing over.

    • BoogDoc7 says:

      I mostly agree with you; however, there was also a study done that states that if you can drop the worst 10% of teachers, you see a marked increase in student performance.

      It’s not that I don’t care about the other kids; it’s that I am only responsible for my own. I will fight for the best education for my son, and that means keeping him away from certain elements.

      Good teachers, by the way, have a LOT of leverage in this state – which pays them decently. A good employee usually does, and smart administration knows that they need to keep as many good teachers as they can get.

    • Max Power says:

      Excellent post Steve and I agree which is why I think what we really need is public school choice. Break the connection between locality and schools and basically convert every school in the state into a charter school. Then allow Georgia residents to send their kids to any school in the state. You would get all the benefits of competition without the problem of public dollars being siphoned off to private schools.

  2. Steve says:

    It’s not that I don’t care about the other kids; it’s that I am only responsible for my own. I will fight for the best education for my son, and that means keeping him away from certain elements.

    Fair enough. I don’t really mean to argue against charter schools, I’m just saying let’s be honest about the picture. Charter schools have picked up traction where the school voucher argument failed, because the proposed vouchers weren’t enough for poor or minority parents to get their kids into private schools. Poor people and minorities CAN get into a public charter school, though… so it’s a much more popular idea across the board.

    But the appeal behind them is still the same basic idea: Me and my fellow engaged parents will get our kids into a school together, while the bad parents will stay behind. If you’re going to have different socioeconomic levels in society (and I suspect we always will)… then it probably is better to empower the poor and minorities to likewise self-segregate.

    My only concern is what to do for the kids left behind? They didn’t get to choose their parents. Charter schools perhaps represent a “better” form of segregation, but it’s still basically segregation… which historically goes badly for the group on the bottom.

    Good teachers, by the way, have a LOT of leverage in this state

    Fair enough, once again (we’ll have to agree to disagree on the “decent pay” point). But good teachers having leverage isn’t really a problem, is it? The issue as I understand it unionized states is bad teachers having leverage. Since Georgia teachers are contractors working year-to-year, the crappy ones aren’t hard to cut.

    For that matter, I’m not completely sure what the point of a charter school is in a right-to-work state. The main argument in their favor is ability to fire bad teachers, which we already have in Georgia anyway. What else do they bring to the table in the deep south? (not necessarily arguing at this point, just genuinely curious)

    • Dem in the Burbs says:

      A couple of responses. Charter schools have many “points” rather than simply the ability to fire teachers. Charter schools are accountable to goals established in their performance-based contracts (charters) and can be closed for failing to meet those goals. They also are free from many of the state and federal regulations and laws that often hinder and burden other public schools. Charter schools also can use innovative teaching methods and approaches that other public schools can’t (such as longer school days, more days of school, their educational philosophy and approach, etc.). While the ability to terminate poor performing teachers is one characteristic of a charter school, it is by no means the only unique characteristic.

      • Steve says:

        Interesting. I can’t speak to federal regulations, but as for the state-level stuff… if what you’re saying is true, wouldn’t it be just as well to simply relax those regulations for all schools? The picture you’re painting looks like: “You can opt-out of state regulations, by giving up your county-level control to the state”. It still sounds like a wash to me.

        With all due respect though, I don’t completely trust your information. In your post immediately below this one, you talk about the “political strength of teachers’ unions in this state”, which makes me slap my palm over my face. Georgia public schoolteachers are not unionized. I’m used to hearing from Republicans who are ignorant about this… but a Democrat? Groan…

  3. Dem in the Burbs says:

    Everyone should see this movie, which will open your eyes to public education and the problems we are facing. I am an ardent Democrat and an equally strong supporter of charter schools. One point that resonated from the movie is that all levels of government (local, state, and federal) have poured more money into education over the last 30 years, but student test scores have not risen and we have fallen behind other countries. Money – or lack of it – is not the problem facing schools today (there are many schools in Georgia that outperform neighboring schools even with funding disparities). The problems are some teachers who are not interested in teaching, teachers who have to play the role of parents and disciplinarian, students who are not interested in or motivated to learn, and lack of community support for schools.

    Buzz, I do not think the issue (problem) with unions in Georgia is that this state is a right to work state. I think the difficulty is the political strength of teachers’ unions in this state, which both Governor Barnes and Governor Perdue have witnessed when trying to address teacher tenure and merit-based pay.

  4. ACCmoderate says:

    Good teachers, for the most part, can help to offset the effects of uninterested or uninvolved parents. The key to unlocking a child’s potential to learn is making a child interested in the subject at hand.

    If you have a kid with parents who don’t care sitting in a classroom with a teacher that doesn’t care, what motivation does he/she have? If the teacher is motivated and capable, he/she can make learning possible regardless of the child’s home situation.

    Michelle Rhee showed the tremendous political cost of firing teachers. Getting rid of bad teachers, especially in areas dominated by teacher’s unions, isn’t going to be popular… but its necessary.

    The harder task is coming up with ways to encourage this current generation of college students and recent graduates to get into the field of education. An idea I heard President Obama and a number of other politicians kick around over the years has been complete student loan absolution for graduates who decide to go into public education for a certain period of time.

    Public education in this country stinks. It’s time we do something about it.

  5. John Konop says:

    If you compare the top 20% in America against the world we are doing well. Part of the problem is the push to put every kid on a 4 year college track. Pounding square pegs into round holes is never very productive.

    As far as teachers it is very difficult especially in the math and science area when you are competing with 6 figure salaries and or interesting research work at Universities. That is why we must coordinate the talent at colleges better with students in high schools for high level math and science classes.

    Also the loan forgiveness idea might work but the community must be willing to pay the bill. And finally the get tough approach to weeding out teachers must be accepted as SOP.

  6. The Republican response to Gov. Barnes education reform plan back in the day, particularly how they stood up for tenure was an early preview of what they are doing now at the national level…namely being against things they used to be for and vice versa if they perceive it to be to their political advantage, even if it’s one of their core principles.

    Barnes’s education reform plan did many of the things that this movie that you guys now love recommends – but back then opposition to Barnes (and teacher votes) was a path to the first Republican governor in history for the state. So it was pandering 1, principles 0.

    The same thing can be said for a lot of things happening at the national level: Mandate (Republican idea), Death panels (Republican proposal originally) etc. We just had an early sneak preview of how this stuff plays out in Georgia. I’d hope a documentary can get you guys back to supporting your core principles over short term political gain, but I doubt it.

  7. Firing poor performing teachers is a controversial subject and a fight that will continue as the debate over education reform continues.

    I don’t think that is the case. I think that evaluation of teachers to determine who is “poor performing” is the controversial part. Right now it is based on testing that doesn’t usually take into account the students’ starting point, the school system’s resources or the effectiveness of the school administration.

    Because when I was teaching a 7th grade science class with an average 4th grade reading level, there were some students who, despite the best efforts of all involved, did not get up to the 7th grade level in the timeframe allowed. And if the test doesn’t take into account the level the student started at (it didn’t), I’m going to appear, statistically, as a poor performing teacher.

    Bringing a 7th grade student from a 4th grade reading level to a 6th grade reading level in six months in a science class is still considered poor performance for the 7th grade test. That is the controversial part.

    Identifying poor performing teachers accurately requires proactive school administrations, and that requires a proactive Superintendent and Board of Education, and that also requires a proactive State Department of Education – because performance cannot be accurately gagued on just one testing metric or one person’s opinion. You have to have a functioning system. That’s why, if poor teachers are a problem for your system, you look at the way the system does things, because it means someone outside the classroom isn’t doing their job.

    • Lady Thinker says:

      Because of NCLB and another 12 or more state and federal laws, I see why Georgia is so far behind in the ratings. In talking with people working in the system, I have learned that they work a 40 hour paid workweek with 20 more unpaid hours each week doing things like:

      1) Writing three lessons plans per day and three quiz and tests for each class for the three groups in classes, the gifted kids, the average kids, and the special needs kids. (150-200 students)

      2) Reading the counseling notes on all students on at least a weekly basis for changes to their educational requirements and how to work in those needs into three daily lesson plans.

      3) Call every parent having custody of said child at least every other week to keep them aware of how their child is doing and to establish a relationship with that parent so that when or if the child screws up, getting parental compliance in solving the problem. They aren’t allowed to talk to the non-custodial parent and never to step-parents.

      4) If there is a teacher-student conflict, try to resolve the conflict in the CHILD’s favor against the teacher unless it involves violence then see if the teacher somehow upset the child that caused the violent outburst.

      5) At one school, if the student thinks a teacher teaching an elective course is too hard, they can drop the class and take PE. In schools where students can’t drop, then teachers have to adjust the “hardness factor” without jeopardizing the three lesson plans for the three groups of kids. This is the hardest thing most teachers have to figure out other than trying to find the time to do all of this stuff in less than 40 to 60 hours per week.

      6) Document student behavior of those on probation through juvenile or the adult courts to show compliance with probation requirements and never let other students know they could be sitting next to a child on probation.

      7) Keep Outlook open the entire day while teaching and check for new messages every five minutes AND responding to anyone that asks for information as well as answer the phone every time it rings. Try not to let the call go to voice mail but return calls to parents between classes because of privacy issues.

      There are many more requirements and some teachers fall short because some schools assumed all teachers knows the requirements and obviously many of them don’t. I don’t know how these teachers do it and yet people who have no idea what is required under state and federal laws including NCLB, feel free to trash teachers. I don’t get it.

  8. John Konop says:

    Another big problem is being bottom line in a school district will yield results but will also upset people. And like in DC without the support of the people in power they will kick the person out.

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