Thursday, 10 May 2012

Waiting for Superman: A review

Last spring I edited an essay for a client who was a student teacher. She had been assigned to write an analysis of the film "Waiting for Superman," which is about failing schools in the US and supports the charter school movement as a solution. She recommended that I, as a practicing teacher in Canada, view the film myself. I finally got around to doing that last night.

Let me start with my caveats. As mentioned, I am a practicing teacher, so I have definite opinions and knowledge of educational practices. I am also a member of the BC Teachers' Federation, a powerful union in British Columbia that represents teachers across the province. It is a requirement to be a BCTF member to teach in the public system here. Although I generally support and I strongly believe in unions, I do not agree with all union policies. I certainly don't agree with the union protecting incompetent teachers, but I also don't think it really does that. I think what the union demands is accountability on the part of management for any decision that affects a teacher's future. It's the management's job to make sure this is carried out in a workable way. I could write a whole blog entry about BC teacher politics, but it wouldn't be relevant to this Waiting for Superman, which is about problems in the US.

I do have some personal experience with the US system, having graduated from a public high school in the US, Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Virginia. In 1974, when I graduated, it was simply a high school, but it was later changed into a magnet school, with a focus on science.

Waiting for Superman makes several broad assertions. The primary argument is that failing primary schools feed students who are some grade levels behind where they should be into failing middle schools. When students move from these middle schools to failing high schools, they are four or five grade levels behind. They flounder for a few years and then drop out. One school cited a 40% drop out rate. School district statistics show up to 87% of students in grade 8 reading below grade level! These are shocking statistics. It's hard to argue with the drop out rate, and even though I think standardized testing is a suspect practice for evaluation of teachers, I think the argument that millions of students are not being properly educated is probably true.

We get into more difficult terrain analyzing why there are so many failing schools. A lot of causes are suggested in the film: poverty, school culture, poor or inconsistent teaching, and unions. The film attempts to show poverty is not the cause of failing students through the depiction of several charter schools that are producing first rate scholars drawn exclusively from poor neighborhoods. It does attack poor teachers, somewhat mercilessly, while praising the good teachers. The point the film makes is that school officials have their hands tied in getting rid of poor teachers, or rewarding good teachers.

I absolutely agree that good teaching is essential. And I agree that in any profession, whether filmmaking or teaching, there are some good and some bad. And, of course, poor filmmakers will have a hard time finding funding for their next film, but poor teachers have a job to come back to every September. But are union contracts really the problem? In my school district, the drop out rate is about 15%. I'm sure we have a few underperforming teachers. There are a few teachers I know who I don't think cut the mustard. But in BC, you can be fired as a teacher for a wide variety of reasons. Having a strong union does not have to mean incompetent teachers automatically get to continue in the profession. Having a strong union means teachers cannot be fired for arbitrary or political reasons. Having a strong union also means teachers can be compensated fairly for their education, and seniority.

One of the very troubling things that I found with the film was the support for the idea that high performing teachers should be paid more based on their students learning outcomes. The recent scandal in Georgia, in which teachers and administrators were found to be changing test scores, is evidence of why pay for performance based on standardized tests is so wrongheaded. Gathering evidence is one thing, but they don't call this "high stakes testing" for nothing.

We have some controversy over testing here in BC. Although neither teacher compensation, nor school funding rests on it, a private right-wing think tank, The Fraser Institute, uses it to publish school ranking. Although the purpose of the testing, which occurs province-wide in grades 4 and 7, is supposed to be for the use of the Ministry of Education, using freedom of information laws, the Fraser Institute gains access to the data and ranks the schools of the province. Schools in remote aboriginal communities are compared to schools adjacent to universities. Guess who comes out on top?

Again, I can accept Waiting for Superman's argument that good teaching trumps poverty. But how and under what conditions does good teaching occur? Waiting for Superman showcases several charter schools. We do not have these kinds of schools in Canada yet. (But the Fraser Institute, which is in awe of anything privately owned, is pushing for them.) These charter schools operate within a school district, but outside of the school district administration. They also do not hire teachers from the union, and therefore have more freedom in hiring and firing.

If you were paying attention, it was cited in Waiting for Superman that only 20% of charter schools are performing above the public system. That's why there is so much demand for a few schools. But it also shows that freedom from the union and school board does not necessarily translate into a successful school.

Waiting for Superman cites several factors for a successful school. Great teaching is one factor. In addition, it says longer school hours, dedication to excellence, and a longer school year are needed. I don't argue with any of that. I would argue that all of these can be achieved with a union contract, and without standardized testing. Graduation rates and post-secondary admissions speak for themselves.

But I think there is one huge unspoken issue. Waiting for Superman focuses on a few families who are working very hard to ensure their children have an opportunity to attend one of these select charter schools. And that is the key. These families value education. They support their children to whatever degree is necessary. The kids get the message. Education is the key to their future.

Kids from families like these also attend public schools. But what happens in the public school system is that kids unlike these also attend. Sometimes the kids who are from the families that don't value education outnumber those who do. In poor neighborhoods (as Waiting for Superman states) many kids know more people who have been to prison than who have attended college. The challenge for public schools is at least partly fighting against a community culture that does not value education.

When charter schools siphon off those families who care about education, the proportion of families in public schools who do not value education grows. Even though charter schools may be giving an excellent education to a lucky few, those left behind (irony intended) in public schools face even more challenges.

I teach at a school that draws on a mixed income community. Most of the students come from comfortable homes, but some come from poverty. I teach a special program for kids at risk. My students are most likely to drop out. A high proportion of my students have drug and alcohol issues, and come from homes with drug and alcohol issues. A majority have already had problems with the law, or are on probation. They are embedded in a culture that does not value education. They are more likely to see drug-dealing as a way out of poverty than education, because the only people they see who are financially successful are the drug dealers. Thank God, I'm not paid based on their test scores. If I were, I'd probably have to take my advanced degree in Learning Support and move my teaching to the wealthy community closer to where I live. Instead, I do my long commute every day and bring the best I can to a group of students who largely don't have any reliable adults in their lives. I know I help some kids; others not so much.

The solutions proposed by Waiting for Superman are superficial and can not help those students left behind in public schools. School boards need to have the ability to fairly evaluate teachers. School boards need to be able to fire teachers who are clearly not performing to minimum expectations. But there are so many more issues.

Waiting for Superman cites in Illinois some hundreds of school boards. The actual number is 869. Here in BC we have about 70. At least part of the problem in the US is too much bureaucracy. Waiting for Superman describes the maze of funding from the federal government, state governments, and local school boards. US school funding is through property tax, which guarantees a disparity of funding between communities. Here in BC, the provincial government funds education. Each school district is allocated funding based on the number of students enrolled. That doesn't mean each school and district is not crying for more money, but at least I can get paid the same as my colleagues in the wealthier communities.

I do not disagree with the proposal to extend school hours. I'm not sure I want to work more for the same money. The assumption that teachers work only from the time of the first bell to the time of the final bell is not correct. It is obvious that teachers must be in their classrooms, ready to teach before the first bell. My experience is that most arrive about half an hour before school starts. I often arrive an hour before school starts and I'm never the first. Teachers also work after students leave and take work home. When did you think they do their marking? In Learning Support, almost all the teaching materials must be custom prepared. I'm on summer vacation, and I'm re-writing my grade 9 socials curriculum (for the third time!) Teachers also coach, sit on committees, and supervise student clubs. I prefer to have my lunch in my classroom, so I can do some extra work, but I also open my classroom to students so they have a safe place to relax. Because I work with students with special designations, I must also meet with parents, caregivers, social workers, and probation officers regularly. I often do that during my lunch hours, or before or after school. I've had a few other jobs, both in and out of unions, but this is the first job where I didn't get a lunch break and two coffee breaks everyday. I can't even go pee except at lunch because I work in a portable classroom and I don't have time to go between classes.

Would I like to get paid more? By all means! I do editing every afternoon and weekend so I can add a little extra to my income to make ends meet. I know many many teachers who work part-time jobs as well as teach. We sell shoes, tutor, work in restaurants, and work on our summer breaks so we can provide for our families. As much as the mother in Waiting for Superman, I am doing what I can to make sure my daughter can go to college. But I also love teaching. I love it when I see that light bulb go on over a student's head and they say "I get it!" I love it when I see a kid who was on the verge of dropping out walk across the graduation stage. I love it when a kid I haven't seen in years comes up to me on the subway and says "I'll never forget you." The idea that more money will attract better teachers is wrong. Yes we deserve more money, but attracting people who are in it for the money won't get us better teachers. Teaching comes from the heart, and the Beatles said it right "Can't buy me love."

Another issue that Waiting for Superman did not address is how charter schools cope with students with special needs such as learning disabilities. It's easy to set a goal that every child should be up to state standards in reading, but some students have brains that don't process language at a standard rate. These students need special instruction, which is one of my jobs. There's always more to a problem than meets the eye.

Beware of simple solutions to complex problems. That's my conclusion.