Reflections on Waiting for Superman

This past Friday was a half day at my school for Professional Development. As a nice surprise, our CEO took the entire staff to see Waiting for Superman at a movie theater downtown. It was a very thoughtful (and exciting) outing.

As I sat in the theater before the movie started, I realized that I was going into the movie with a lot preconceptions and I already had a sick feeling in my stomach.

As the movie progressed, I realized that there was very little in the movie that I didn't know already. I recognized Geoffrey Canada's voice before I even saw him. I had learned about the Rubber Room in NYC 2 years ago when This American Life dedicated part of a show on them with interviews with actual Rubber Room teachers. Most people in the theater, including my colleagues, were learning about a lot of things for the first time. The other thing the movie failed to mention? Mayor Bloomberg and the union have agreed to do away with rubber rooms altogether.

Throughout the movie I was frantically typing notes into my iPhone, and trying really hard not to be a curmudgeon. I'll be honest, I did yell out a comment or two, but I tried to control myself.

Who are the Real Superheroes?
To me, the real heroes in this movie are not the teachers or the education 'reformers,' but the families and parents of the children the movie follows. We watch parents who have struggled themselves but have made a conscious decision to put their children first. We see a parent who takes a 45 minute subway ride just to visit a school that her child has a tiny chance of getting into. These parents are empowered in that they seem to know what their options are, they see the value of education for their child and they are willing to do whatever it takes to give their child the best education they can.

To me, the shameful thing is that while this movie shows the dedication and love of these parents, it chooses not to celebrate these engaged and caring parents. Instead, it chooses to demonize teachers and unions and lift up a small group of 'experts' as the true heroes of education reform.

Public Schools are Evil
At one point, the movie states that these poor performing schools are doing damage to the neighborhoods in which they exist. I can't argue that fewer graduates means more youth on the streets and higher crime rates, but what the movie doesn't discuss is the deeper issues that influence students outside of school. If you know more people who have been to prison that have gone to college (a statistic from the movie) a school has a huge hurdle in helping you understand the importance of school. This hurdle is magnified by uninvolved or neglectful parents.

What really saddens me is that what the movie doesn't discuss is the fact that many of these low-performing schools in high-poverty neighborhoods are teaching scripted programs, have cut out art, music and other creative arts and teach primarily to the test. Of course a student in a school like this would find no value in education. Worst of all, the teachers have little say in the introduction and implementation of these programs. This is NOT a generalization. I taught for 5 years in a school like this. We were nearly at the bottom of the list of state test scores.

What IS evil about public schools?

The wall in my old classroom.
Yes, there are a number of poor-performing or novice teachers (though for some reason if you're a Teach for a American teacher this stigma doesn't apply to you) and yes, it does require a series of paperwork to 'get rid' of a poor-performing teacher. However, the true evil is many traditional public schools are over-enrolled, under-staffed, under-funded and in many cases, the buildings themselves are falling apart.

The world Jonathan Kozol described in 1991 in his book Savage Inequalities has not changed much. In fact, Camden, which sits a stones throw across the river from Philadelphia, is, I believe, still one of the lowest performing districts in the country.

Teachers Unions are Evil
One of the most disturbing parts of this movie is the way it depicts teachers' unions. There was ominous music playing when AFT president, Randi Weingarten appeared on screen and many in the audience, including those in my staff may as well have booed at her.

Throughout the movie, the Guggenheim refers to the fact that the education reformers always find that 'the union gets in the way.' At one point, Jonathan Alter, a Newsweek writer, actually used the term "menace" when referring to unions. This from a man who writes about the economy and from a magazine who wrote the 'brilliant' cover story: The Key to Saving America's Education or Why We Must Fire Bad Teachers. (To which I responded: Shame on You, Newsweek)

I have my own issues with unions, and I'm not a gung-ho union supporter. That said, I understand their importance and their place in education.

It a complete and utter myth that union teachers are lazy and do the bare minimum because they can. Some of the best articles I have read about education have come from American Educator, a publication of the AFT.  The union and its members is dedicated to celebrating good teachers and good teaching.

The movie describes what some districts call the 'lemon dance.' This is a process by which administrators agree to shuffle around their poor-performing teachers to share the burden rather than fire them (wait, we should blame that on the teachers?).

This process happens constantly in the School District of Philadelphia with administrators. A strong administrator will be pulled out of his or her school to go 'fix' a school with a poor-performing administrator. This poor-performing administrator is then either shuffled to a new school or put behind a desk at the central offices. Principals have a union, too.

For the 7 years I taught in the unionized School District of Philadelphia I met teachers from all ends of the spectrum. 90% of them were talented, hard-working and dynamic. They had classes of anywhere from 25-30 students with no aid. They weathered fights and lock downs, they taught students were neglected, malnourished, students with a variety of learning difficulties, and they did this often in a building with a broken heating system, no air conditioning, peeling paint, broken stairwells and a schoolyard that looked like a prison yard.

The other 10% were like the 10% in any other profession.

So why did they still have jobs? Yes, partially it was because of due process. Not tenure, as some would call it, but what I would like to call 'due process.' (Thanks to Ken Shelton for reminding me of that distinction.)  Some of these teachers were receiving extra support and had already been disciplined. Some had not been disciplined, but were offered extra support by school coaches. 

Others? Lord knows. In some cases, everyone in the school knew they were a poor teacher, but nothing was ever done about it. In my opinion, it may have been too much of an effort to go through the discipline process. Or, maybe certain steps had been gone through, but then the administrator never pushed further.

Why, you ask, have due process at all? Why make it so difficult? It may seem simple enough. Do away with due process and you can get rid of these poor performing teachers more easily.

Here's why.

Many administrators here in Philadelphia solve the paperwork conundrum by just writing teachers out of the budget. However, they usually don't write out the poor teachers. Instead, they write out the people who speak their mind, the people who stand up for themselves. The people who won't accept the status quo.

Without due process, without a union, these people would essentially be out of a job just because they stood up for what they believed in. I am not speaking hypothetically here. I personally know of two people who were written out of the budget for these reasons.

So why else are unions important?

In a large, urban district, a lot goes on in any given day. A teacher may be dealing with a dangerous child who has destroyed a room 2 or 3 times without repercussion. They may be publicly teased or harassed by a co-worker, an administrator or a student. A union is there to help them out.

The current system of tenure (due process) does get a few things wrong.

I was granted tenure by the School District after 3 years and a day as any employee is. However, I had not received the necessary official observations required of a non-tenured teacher. Despite that fact, I was granted tenure automatically.

That system is inherently flawed. No one really knew what was going on in my classroom.

I wonder, as a side note, how Michelle Rhee herself kept her job after applying masking tape to her students' mouths during her first year as a Teach for America teacher.  I'll tell you one thing, though. Her union would not have been able to do much if she asked them for help.

However, focusing the conversation on tenure is a waste of breath. It is, in my opinion, the least of our worries at this point.

Divide and Conquer
What I feel that this movie has done is successfully pit 'us' against 'them.' Charter versus traditional public, union versus non-union.

I see this in my day to day conversations and it breaks my heart. Recently, on Facebook, a friend told me that I was part of the "Charter school movement." I had no idea, first of all, that there was such a thing. This statement just reaffirmed my beliefs that we are moving away from the real issue, which is educating children.

My response has become my personal mantra:

I'm a part of the educating kids movement. Charter, regular public, whatever works ;) I think all schools should be free to do what they think is right for kids. So do most of my union buddies.

Why the Movie Appeals to Us
One thing that Guggenheim does to reel the audience in is to use scenes that depict school the way it looked when 'we' went to school. The desks are in rows. The kids are using pencil and paper. They are taking tests. There is some carpet time with a story. He also intersperses some school scenes from the 1950s and 60s. There is a warm sense of familiarity to the scenes that helps pluck our heartstrings.

The problem?

from Wikimedia Commons
None of the scenes depict a truly innovative or progressive school. School just doesn't look like that anymore. To see what progressive and innovative education actually looks like just see George Lucas' response to the movie and watch the videos at the bottom of the post.

What is it That Teachers Do?
If you were hoping to get that answer from this movie, be prepared to be let down. There is little insight, aside from the clip of a teacher whose use of rap songs to teach the alphabet and other concepts inspired KIPP founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin. Other than that, it's all similar to stock footage. One can also assume that the teachers they filmed were at the charter schools and not a local public school where pretty much the same kind of teaching probably goes on.

What you will see, however, are images of kids heads opening like a door with a teacher pouring knowledge into their brains. Because we all know THAT'S how teachers do their best teaching.

Some Surprises
There were a few comments about the profession that really amazed me. One came from Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children's Zone. In describing his path to teaching and his experiences, he stated that he became a Master teacher in his 5th year of teaching.

I was floored.  I am in my 6th year of teaching and I am hardly a master. In fact, I believe that there is no such thing as a Master teacher. If you call yourself a Master, it implies that you have no more to learn, that you have mastered everything you need to know. Anyone who has ever taught before knows that, as a teacher, you can never master everything you need to know about teaching. Becoming a teacher means dedicating yourself to a life of learning new things.

The second surprising comment came from Michelle Rhee, who stated that she came into her job as Chancellor of schools in Washington, DC, knowing that she'd be a one-term chancellor. She is also a TFA graduate. What does it say about her motives or dedication to students and families to come into such an important, powerful job with that mindset?

What it Gets Right
As I went into the movie trying very hard not to be a curmudgeon, I made a point of finding parts of it that I agreed with.

The first statement I agreed with was actually by Michelle Rhee. She stated that after all of the trials and tribulations she had been through that in the end, it's "always about the adults." While we may not agree on why that is or which adults we are speaking about, it is entirely true that in the discussion and implementation of school reform, it is most often the students who are thought of last.

The movie also makes an important case for the detrimental effects of tracking students. However, it is not necessary to attend a charter school to avoid tracking. Many schools have done away with it. It's a shame that the one featured has not yet.

I also agree with the movie's statement that we have an obligation to other people's children.  Now who 'we' are in the movie I'm not sure, but I would agree that we are in this together.  I would also agree with Guggenheim's statement that "schools haven't changed, but the world around them has." This indeed, is one of the roots of the problem. Too bad he didn't take the time to show schools who are changing with the times and it's a shame that he says that almost at the end of the movie.

Final Thoughts
All in all, Guggenheim has produced a film that is heart wrenching and has a clear message. It provides a solid jumping-off place for dialogue to happen.

Let's just hope that the dialogue happens and that people learn to read between the lines of a well-produced and well-funded movie.

I hope that others will join me in my mantra.

I'm a part of the educating kids movement. Charter, regular public, whatever works ;) I think all schools should be free to do what they think is right for kids.

Other posts about the movie:

Abandoning Superman - John T Spencer
Seeing Waiting for Superman - Kirsten Olson
We're Not Waiting for Superman, We're Empowering Superheroes -- Diana Rhoten
Larry Ferlazzo's list of posts about Waiting for Superman 

An excellent description and explanation of Charter Schools:

The Toll-- Chad Sansing

Superman image from Xurble on Flickr


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