Monday, March 28, 2011

Waiting for Superman: American Education

I took the first sick day of my working life today. I actually went to work and did one lesson, but I was feeling really crappy so I went home again. I slept, read, and finished watching The King's Speech (really good). Then I slept some more until it was time for dinner. Will I even be able to sleep tonight? We'll see.

After dinner I finished watching Waiting for Superman with my parents. We started watching it last night but it wasn't loading quickly enough so we turned to the Great Escape. For those of you who haven't heard of it, it's a documentary about America's education system.

It's really sad! It follows a bunch of different families whose children are in unpromising school situations. A lot of the regular public schools in inner-city areas are pretty hopeless. Watching this makes me a little angry about the tenure system in schools. If a teacher somehow manages to make it through two years of teaching (they just have to be breathing, one educator put it) then it's impossible to fire them. If a teacher is incompetent or even abusive they still can't be fired! Every day they go to a "rubber room" where they can sleep, play cards, read the paper, whatever, and they COLLECT THEIR FULL SALARY for that. Ridiculous.

Whenever people try to reform the system, they get caught up in the unions. Michelle Rhee, the former Washington D.C. Superintendent, tried to change things but kept getting stopped by the unions. Even though it spends more money per pupil than almost every other state, the DC school district is the worst in the country. Rhee tried to take away tenure by giving the teachers a pay-raise if they would let it go. Also, they would be able to get performance-based raises if they gave up tenure. But, of course, the unions said that that wasn't in the teachers interest. Well of course not. But it is in the student's interest! It is not cool that those teachers have no accountability.

I don't necessarily think that you should fire a teacher right away just because they aren't doing too well. Teaching is hard. There's definitely a learning curve, and that should be taken into consideration. But if a teacher is incompetent, maybe there should be a system to work with them and help them get better. And if they refuse, then yes, they should no longer teach. In one part of the documentary, a student brought a hidden video camera with him to many of his classes. He video-taped teachers reading magazines, surfing the internet, and sleeping. The students around him were goofing off and gambling. No learning was going on. When the superintendent of that school wanted to fire those teachers, he found out that he couldn't because of tenure.

Now not all schools are that bad, but there is another problem that students face. Even middle-class students face the problem of tracking in schools. In most schools, students are divided into higher-achieving and lower-achieving tracks. The higher tracked students usually get better teachers, better resources, and are pushed harder than their lower-tracked peers. Sometimes tracks are set while the students are still in middle school, so there's no catching up if they have a change of heart or want to do better a few years later.

So what options do those families have? They can leave their kids in those schools and hope that they get lucky or they can send them to a private school or a charter school. Private schools can be good, but they cost money. One single mother in the doc worked really hard to keep her daughter in a private school, but she was laid-off and unable to come up with the payments. Charter schools, schools that are publicly funded but privately run, are the next option. While they can be a good option, they are very hard to get into.

The charter schools really seem to be working. One charter school, KIPP Academy, takes the same low-income students that are in any other school and sends 90 percent of them to college.
Of course, competition to get into that school is stiff. The documentary followed several families all applying to different charter schools. According to law, the schools have to hold a random lottery to ensure fairness. In one school, there were only 42 spots but 767 people applying!!!!!! Whew.

I'd encourage all of you to watch the documentary. It is really informative and well put together. They also have some awesome cartoons and use many examples to make the information clear.

So what would you do if that were you? What if that was really your only option? It's sad, so sad.


  1. I really want to watch this film

  2. I've heard really good things about this movie. I think it's on my netflix queue.

  3. It's of interest to note that it's not that all charter schools are working- it's actually about the same rate as there are working public schools. (The documentary notes this as well, only about 1 in 5 charter schools actually excel.) However, KIPP charter schools have been able to consistently succeed (at leas that's how the film makes it sound.) This is especially apparent to me as the failing public middle school I work at shares a lot with a KIPP school. The difference in discipline, attitude, and understanding is enormous.

    In essence, the documentary seems to point to the inflexibility of the school system as being responsible for the lock up in education. Since schools are stuck in systems that worked seventy years ago, they are unable to cater to the changed needs of students today.

  4. True, true. I've also read about KIPP in a few other places like in Outliers by Gladwell, and it's something else. While I don't necessarily like how hard the kids have to work, I guess it does get results.

    I do wish we could somehow reform things, but how? That's a question I haven't been able to answer, especially since so many people have tried and failed.

  5. I agree- it's an incredibly frustrating thing. It's not really impossible on a small scale- taking one or two kids under your wing and working to keep them trying and learning is achievable, but it feels like such a tiny dent in the massive amount of people struggling. Ugh. If only everyone could take a kid or two aside and keep them going we might have an answer. But for that to really work, we'd have to convince everyone to care more than they do, and the only real way I know to do that is Jesus. Which is of course the goal anyway, but i've been working on that one much longer and am still drawing a pretty significant blank.


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