Friday, October 1, 2010

Waiting for Superman

I had the opportunity to see the documentary Waiting for Superman last week before it was officially released and I can see why it is generating a lot of controversy. Here is my take on the movie, for what it's worth.

I think that this film is causing a stir within the education community because, frankly, it exposes the dirty little secrets in education that no one wants exposed. Here's the cold, hard truth: there are bad schools and bad teachers out there. Plenty of them. And yes, I willingly and gladly admit that there are also lots of great schools and great teachers. That being said, there are far too many rotten ones. I have been teaching for a little over 20 years and I count myself among the good teachers (not the great teachers). I keep up with best practices. I am actively involved in my own personal professional development. I differentiate my instruction as much as possible for my students. I try to integrate technology into my instruction and my students' learning experiences. I take time to get to know my students personally. I communicate regularly with the parents of my students. And I enjoy doing all of these things. Yes, it's work, but it has its rewards -- happy, involved students and parents, AND the kids LEARN! So now that I've justified why I can can consider myself one of the good guys, I'm going to say something that's not too popular: I'm tired of having to stand in solidarity with the bad teachers and defend them just because we're all teachers. I am tired of seeing the lazy teachers do the bare minimum and get away with it AND get the same benefits as I do in the form of salary. I'm not going to blame anyone for this (like unions or administrators) except for the teachers themselves. However, I'm pretty sure that the lousy, lazy teachers don't recognize themselves, so how can they fix themselves? Good question. Regardless, it is time that the bad teachers were outted and that's what this movie does. Some say it teacher bashes; I think it bashes the teachers who deserve to be bashed.

Another criticism of the movie is its pro-charter school stance. I admit, it does show charter schools in a positive light, especially in comparison to the public schools that are profiled. However, Guggenheim doesn't ignore the fact that there are bad charter schools; nor does he ignore the fact that there are good public schools. Instead, I think he does a good job of pointing out that the good, popular charter schools are so desirable because they can do things that traditional public schools cannot. They can require parental involvement. They can increase the school day and the school year. They can boot a student who doesn't comply with discipline policies. I never once got the impression that Guggenheim wanted to do away with traditional public schools and have only charter schools available. Instead, he offers up some of the strategies and policies that have had success in charter schools for possible adoption by traditional public schools -- IF teachers and their contracts will allow those changes to occur. It's a tough sell since it often demands more of already heavily-worked teachers. But the funny thing is that the best teachers will take on the extra work if they know that students and parents are also on board, and it is all worth it in the end to see the kids succeed. I've been looking at KIPP schools in Houston for a few years now, and I'd love the chance to work at a KIPP school. I was glad to see KIPP get a nod in Waiting for Superman.

This movie doesn't directly address the roles of parents and administrators in children's academic success, but I'm guessing Guggenheim wasn't interested in making a 4 - 6 hour documentary! They are two sets of educational stakeholders that can play a huge part in how kids fare at school and their contributions can't be forgotten. All parents need to be as involved with their children's education as the parents in Waiting for Superman. Kids first learn to value their education when their parents value it for them. Administrators need to be willing to stand strong against the storm that may be whipped up by calling a bad teacher out and starting the remediation process as set forth in the collective bargaining agreement and getting rid of that teacher if that's what needs to be done.

The most important thing this movie can do is open dialogue between all educational stakeholders. It does no good to spend any time pointing fingers at unions/tenure/parents/teachers/students/charter schools/politicians/etc. Instead, everyone needs to acknowledge where weaknesses and deficits are in educating our children, discover what works and where the strengths are, and then continue to do what works and fix or end what doesn't work. Mediocrity on any level is bad for everyone who cares about educating children.

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