How “Waiting for Superman” can lead to Education Reform…

I wanted to hate Waiting for Superman, I really did. In fact, I got caught up in what I was reading and expected to see 102 minutes of bashing teachers. I watched the episode of Oprah devoted to it, I’ve read the articles in Time and other magazines and newspapers and I’ve devoured what I could online, and you know what? I didn’t see teacher bashing in this film. Instead, what I saw was a film that should, if nothing else, get the much needed conversation going.

You don’t have to be Diane Ravitch or Michelle Rhee or Arne Duncan or Joel Stein to know that there are serious problems with our educational system. And you also shouldn’t need to be any of the above mentioned people to realize that change needs to occur in order to achieve a level of education that every child in the United States deserves. Yesterday I watched a film that looked to expose the elements of our industry that need to change in order to start this process, and yes, getting rid of the bad teachers is one of the factors that must occur. In my opinion, Waiting for Superman didn’t belabor this point – but let’s not kid ourselves, bad teachers exist and those of us who are working hard every day to do our jobs should be offended that our unions that prevent their dismissal do so.

I’m taking Davis Guggenheim’s stats as fact – should they be wrong, then my opinion would change – but there is no way in the world that over 600 teachers alone from New York City should be paid to sit in what is referred to as the “rubber room.” (Please note: according to the New York Times, this practice no longer occurs according to this article). Quite simply, we should be appalled that this practice happened. Now don’t get me wrong, due process must happen – but this shouldn’t take years to happen. The dismissal of bad teachers, let alone teachers who have committed atrocities that warrant sitting in a room for a long period of time, is simply one of the things that must happen in order to see change occur.

While teachers as a whole were not attacked, the “lemons” who get passed around from school to school in Milwaukee due to their lack of effectiveness and tenure certainly did. And they should. As I said earlier, we are all responsible for seeing change happen and we all must play a role in this in order to see this necessary change. When we allow our industry to be filled with ineffective teachers who’ve been granted a lifelong job after as little as two years, then those of us who do our jobs suffer as well. Allowing these teachers to skate through year after year only hurts our reputation in the eyes of the public and this doesn’t help matters when it comes to further reform.

Through a friend on Twitter, I learned of an excellent project completed by students at State College High School in central Pennsylvania. It is a response to student suicides which have happened due to being bullied due to their sexual preferences. In essence, the video takes a strong stand to say that those of us who sit on the sidelines and aren’t willing to take a stand are just as responsible for their unfortunate deaths. This is the same situation we face when we allow our unions to hide these ineffective teachers. Sitting on the sidelines and doing nothing will get us nowhere – and fast.

So we should go all Michelle Rhee on teachers then, Lenzi? I don’t doubt that you’re saying this to yourself, as my views on this sound a lot like hers to this point. No, this is not what we should do now. What we must do now is come to terms with the idea that tenure is an outdated idea. It doesn’t help us, it hinders us. It makes our profession about US instead of what it should always be about – STUDENTS.

We must overhaul the way we are evaluated and we must figure out a way to determine what makes a good teacher. We must be ready for the consequences should we not meet the requirements we have come up with.  We must profess the idea to those coming up through the college ranks that while this profession is the greatest on earth, it’s by no means easy and we must expect more out of colleges as they prepare those who will enter our profession. We must realize that being a senior teacher doesn’t necessarily make one a strong teacher, just as being a new teacher doesn’t necessarily make one a great one. We must play our role in this crisis. We can’t simply sit back and blame the bureaucracy (which certainly deserves blame, don’t get me wrong) without admitting that we must do our part as well.

I realize that the clip from State College isn’t the highest quality, but its message is. I hope that you took the time to watch it all. If you did, I also hope that you agree with me when I say that the I Am can just as easily apply to the problems we face in education today, just as the We Are can be applied, or to use what I’ve just focused on, We Must

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5 thoughts on “How “Waiting for Superman” can lead to Education Reform…

  1. I was just thinking this weekend that I should twit (?) you and ask if you’ve seen this movie and what your opinion of it is. Like you, I’ve been skeptical. But I do want to see it.

    I completely agree we are in need of major education reform in this country. And I think teachers need to be involved in this reform, and my worry is that they won’t be. There are so many people who aren’t involved in the field of education that have opinions on what to do with our schools. There are so many people who don’t know about this system, this profession — and therefore blame teachers for our failing schools. Why is it always the teachers? Maybe it’s the students too. Maybe it’s the failing curriculum we’re mandated to teach? Why does no one consider that?

    I’m not suggesting teacher’s *shouldn’t* be held accountable. I’m just a bit uncomfortable with all the finger pointing.

  2. I agree with what you’re saying, but there are a ton of things that need to happen. What’s been disturbing to me, though, is the reluctance on the part of teachers to admit that we are part of the problem also. This movie has generated a lot of thought on my part and will also be the catalyst for more posts to come.

  3. I agree with much of what Mr Lenzi has to say. I do think that what we as teachers and union members can do is to approach our districts about teacher evaluation methods. We need to develop a system from our perspective and get it in place. We could design a method where admin evaluates teachers, regularly and consistently (I know this is a stretch) and then when a teacher is found to be “unsatisfactory” they pass that teacher to the union and assign a mentor teacher to them who can work with the teacher for a period of time and get them up to “satisfactory” (terrible terms for evaluating teachers but one we currently use). Then we control alot of the process. If a teacher after being mentored doesnt improve then it is up to the district to let them go.
    I would also like to see as part of this system more a more consistent, systematic and up to date professional development program for teachers. Many teachers have no clue what is going on and new tools and all the resources that are available to them to improve their classrooms and their teacher methods.
    Lets face it there are alot of other issues that need addressed but this would be a good start and if initiated by the teachers would give us some of the much needed positive publicity we don’t currently have.

  4. I agree with much of what is being said. I accept it as common sense that inadequate teachers, like inadequate employees in any field, should be addressed, offered training, etc. and then ultimately dismissed (in a timely fashion) if still inadequate.

    However, as I read the articles and the various blog posts and comments, I felt as if I were hearing a lot of “whats” and not a lot of “hows”. I felt like the Manifesto article in particular was quick to criticize but only offered solutions in passing; as if a quick firing process or new computers can reform our educational system overnight. Frankly, I expected more from educators of the authors’ supposed caliber. For example, how about a step-by-step five or ten year plan for true reform? How about specifics on how to hold educators accountable for the performance of students who truly don’t care. I think sometimes education professionals paint a picture of students like they are all struggling, day and night, making the greatest of efforts to learn, and that is simply not the case. Some simply don’t care; further, some are intentionally disruptive. It is illogical and a fallacy to suggest that there are teachers who don’t care and to not extend that same characteristic to some students. (This notion is taboo and very un-PC in the education world, but I’m not finished yet.) I fear that our problems in education are bigger that former-Chancellor Rhee and her peers suggest. I do believe that it is unnatural for students to not care. ‘Not caring’ is ultimately self-defeating; in essence intentionally damaging oneself. That is not what organisms of any type do naturally. We have a will to live and we struggle for success; each of us, every species. The larger issue–much larger than just relegating problems and fixes to education–is that our kids (and lazy adults) are a reflection of the society as a whole. We are, every one of us, America writ small. Education is often pointed to as the scapegoat or the solution to clean up the mess that is much contributed to by a prejudiced and often biased legal system, a ridiculous entertainment-centered media that nurtures the 30-second attention span and shock-value stories, an entertainment industry that often seeks out the lowest common denominator, an industrial system that pisses in the natural resource pool while simultaneously extracting unsustainable resources from it and pollutes our water, air, soil, and food, and–by extension–our bodies under unhealthy work conditions, etc. etc. etc.

    I believe that it is our society that needs an overhaul. Kids and bad teachers are in some respects (maybe many respects) products of that environment. But it is no excuse. Understanding the problem doesn’t excuse it. We need to be proactive. I would like to see educators stand up and take pride in themselves and pride in students as learners–it is, after all, what we do naturally; Homo Sapien, “the wise (wo)man”. I watch us very often be reactive–e.g.: we must adjust our curriculum to the 30-second attention span of our students through the use of technology and gizmos. Learning takes more time and effort than that. Things of true value take more time and effort than that. The development of good habit and self-sufficiency take more time and effort than that. How about we rise up and demand from the media longer, more thoughtful and time intensive coverage of stories? How about we have kids grow plants over weeks in our classrooms or gardens in our school lots or communities instead of buying the latest web program to simulate the growing of plants in twenty minutes? How about we lobby our politicians and other leaders to model lifelong learning and ethical behaviors and true caring for the planet and the people on it?

    I believe it’s time for education and educators to raise the bar on the other major institutions that exist in our society and demand better for us all. We should be a leader in that.

  5. Both of you make valid points.

    1) (JL) For too long, many teachers have allowed their complacency and possible incompetence to get the best of them. I know quite a few teachers who make this job as easy as possible, at the expense of actually being *good* at it. Sometimes I get angry at them because they get paid the same (or more) and do an extremely less amount of work. Sometimes I feel bad for them, because my blood and sweat transmits into deep and meaningful connections with my students. Every year I learn and grow from my students. I learn just as much from them as they do from me. That takes a lot of hard work and dedication. But I’m in this for real. Not for summers off.

    2) (RC) You’re right, we need a better system of evaluation. I would love to see more teachers and administrators popping into my classroom for both formal and information evaluations. I’m proud of what I do in there each day. (Some days are better than others, of course.) As a fairly new teacher I’m desperate for constructive feedback and suggestions on how to improve my practice. I know there is a lot of room for improvement. And as you said, there is a lot of advantages of having administrators (and I’ll add colleagues) evaluating teachers.

    BUT, I see a lot of other pitfalls to our system. I’ll try and make this brief, but I hope this won’t be the last time we discuss these things.

    1. I’m not sure how it is at your schools (I’d be interested in knowing), but there’s a strong competitive sentiment among teachers at my school. There’s not a school wide collaboration taking place that should. There’s a lot of: Well, if GT is doing something awesome in her classroom than that means I’m doing the wrong thing in mine. Instead of learning and growing from each other, we feel competitive to be the best. In my opinion, that contributes to the failures we see in our system. Sure, competition is good for fostering improvement and success, but it’s bad when it comes at the expense of collaboration and sharing of successful teaching methods and strategies.

    2. Teacher Training is a joke. During my undergrad at Penn State I was not required to take one classroom management course. In fact, even if I wanted to I couldn’t. Penn State did not offer (and still does not) any courses in classroom management as part of their teacher training program. Are you kidding me?! I know the majority of what we learn as teachers comes from stepping in that classroom for the first time, but that’s a poor excuse not to offer proper and expected courses to adequately prepare for the job. I’m sorry, but that just pisses me off. Teachers get blamed for being incompetent when it really stems from the training programs – before and during the profession. (There’s more to say here, but Doug Lemov does a good job in this NYTimes post: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/07/magazine/07Teachers-t.html)

    3. (For now, this will have to be an inadequate explanation, as I’ve already hijacked JL’s post.) Our curriculum (nation-wide) needs a major overhaul. We need to re-evaluate what we are teaching; we are leaving out meaningful curriculum. We are still training youths for factory jobs — at least on paper. Maybe individually as schools or teachers, we are imparting “21st Century Skills” but our curriculum and standards have not caught up. Why is it necessary that my students know who Mansa Musa is? I could think of more meaningful lessons to teach, but those get pushed aside because of an outdated curriculum that is still being mandated. (This gets complicated quickly. I’m talking about “what” we teach, but that also ties in with “how” we teach it. But I think re-evaluating our national curriculum will help to weed out incompetent teachers.) I’m going to spend the next ___ years doing doctorate research on this — it’s my baby.

    4. Finally, I think it’s a bad idea and a dangerous idea to dismiss poor teachers. I believe that, as in other professions, they should be given the opportunity and *proper training* to improve. I truly believe a lot of the “poor” teachers are just lacking guidance and training (yes, even the seasoned ones). I don’t buy that crap that good teachers just “have it in them.” I think you can build a great teacher from the bottom up. (Again, I’ll point you to Doug Lemov for more on this.)

    Looking forward to continuing these conversations. I’ve been casually doing this for a while now (discussing with teachers via the interweb social networks), but I think it’s time to get serious about it. Thanks for opening up the door, Lenzi.

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