There is a new film out that has the support and backing of a number of folks, including my friend Steve, Oprah and Bill Gates, among others. The film “Waiting for Superman” is the story of children around the country in low-income areas, who are trying to get into the “good” schools- the charter schools in which admission is often determined by lottery. The title comes from the narrator who shares how, as a child, he kept waiting for Superman to come and fix all of his school’s problems- and how devastated he was when he realized that there was no Superman who would come swooping in and fix everything.
It’s a film that questions why, if these schools offer such a chance for kids, why can’t ALL schools be like them? Why, when children and parents are flocking to get into a few select schools, why aren’t those options available to ALL students? It takes on issues such as teacher tenure, financial limitations and the slowness of a system to respond to changing demographics. It’s a call to action for parents and the public. It wades right into the middle of many, many sticky issues- and it drives me crazy.
My first reaction was a remembered one as a parent. We had asked to get into Brown, a public “School of Choice” when we lived in Louisville, Kentucky. We toured the school, got on the waiting list and were told that since the school selected students from an equal distribution of zip codes around Louisville, we were unlikely to get in because of the proliferation of families from our area. As we toured with many other parents from our part of town, we asked each other “What will you do if your child does not get in?” “Go to a private school” was the unanimous statement. My children did not get in, and we did, indeed, go to a private school. We had that option. We had that choice.
But I was struck- here were literally hundreds of families being turned away from the possibility of attending a particular public school, and many of us would rather go private than to go to another, more traditional public school. The public school system was missing out on tens of thousands of dollars from the state that it could have received had my children, and all of those other children who opted for private been given a chance to go to Brown. If Brown was too small to handle all of us, why the heck didn’t the school system develop another school- to be just like Brown? You would think that the pressures of supply and demand would force a school system to develop another Brown. And which school in the district had the highest test scores? Brown. There were literally dollars and learning being lost.
I was told by other families that Brown was “too progressive”, “too different” for the school system to develop another one. That the “system” would really prefer Brown to go away, but that parental pressures and long-time ties to the community kept it alive. And I was floored… As a parent, I was appalled at a system that a) intentionally lost money and b) was too focused on their way of working to look at what WAS working. At least, that was my perception.
My second reaction, as an educator, was to find out “why”. Turns out that Brown is expensive to run. Turns out that Brown has families that pay for extras through the PTA. Turns out that Brown has teachers with experience and from training programs that no longer exist. Turns out that Brown is hard to duplicate, and so the system was focusing on other “schools of choice” that were easier and cheaper to implement. Schools such as the language immersion program at Hawthorne. But the perception among the parents turned away from Brown was that of an intractible system.
That intractability of a large system is exactly the issue that the film addresses. But what really gets me is that almost everyone highlighted in the film as “innovative” or “fixing the system” are from OUTSIDE “the” system. There are “educational entrepreneurs” and people with Ivy League degrees who taught for a few years with no formal education training. ALL of the highlighted schools are charter schools. And that is such a slap in the face.
The research on charter schools- those schools that were highlighted in the film as giving a chance to the students? The research shows that they are no better academically than “regular” public schools, and in many cases, worse. They promise great things, but they do not deliver consistently. Much of it depends, of course, on the individual school. Variability of scores? Wow- results that are just like public schools. Perhaps the “charter” part is not the important part.
How credible would it be for people with no training in business or engineering to walk into Apple or Microsoft and tell them how it should be done? How far would someone with a business degree get if they tried to tell surgeons how to do their job? After all, people buy computers, right? People get operated on, right? Does that make them experts, simply because they are a consumer? How can people- very smart people, admittedly- but with no training and who worked for a few years or went to school themselves, or who worked on the fringes, really and truly understand the monumental task that changing schools involves?
Because schools are micocosms of society. Let’s start with the teachers themselves. It is a battle to even go into teaching today. When I told my grandmother, an R.N. herself, that I was going into teaching, she told me, “There are three things a woman should never be: A nurse, a teacher and a prostitute. They’re all under-paid and under-valued.” While I can’t speak for the other two fields, I can certainly speak for teaching- and she’s right. Most men and women today have many, many other choices- choices that pay better with less stress- and so the ones that do go into teaching go into because of a genuine love for children- and a deep desire to make a difference.
When I, as a teacher of teachers, stand up in front of prospective educators, I’m selling them on aspects of the profession that will provide internal motivation- the love of children, the feeling of doing good, and the knowledge that they are making an everyday difference in children’s lives. I do not tell them that few people will thank them for the job they’re doing. I do not tell them that they’re going to be working 12-14 hours a day grading and preparing and worrying. I do not tell them of the vast hole of neediness that their students have and how they will be unable to fill even a small portion of that neediness. I do not tell them of the parents who will come in yelling at them or the parents who do not come in at all. I do not tell them that due to public concerns and money whims, they will be asked to raise a child’s reading level 3 grade levels in one year, while increasing the numbers of students within the classroom and cutting the supply monies and reducing professional development. I do not tell them that 50% of them will quit within 5 years — and if they teach special education, within 3 years.
I do tell them that I can empower them. I tell them that we know what works in education — this is not some secret that we’re holding on to. We know that involved parents, time, interactive learning and healthy lunch programs all help to raise test scores, increase student graduation and make for happier teachers.
It is wonderful that the film asks parents to take responsibility for their child’s learning. Test scores go up when parents — at any school– become involved. But as families becomes more and more impoverished, as the structures of society begin to crumble, when parents and families are dealing with so much stuff in their own lives, that they can’t even take care of themselves, much less their children– it is the teachers who are the last bulwark, who are expected to “turn them around”. When children are so hurt and angry and betrayed at a family, a society, a system that has forgotten them, they are difficult to teach. Not impossible- just difficult. And we do.
And when school boards, governed by “ordinary” people, reduce the number of days that students will be in schools, and when “innovative” practices, such as year-round schooling, are shot down by a local school board because schooling cuts into summer vacation plans, and when after-school programs are cut for lack of funding, there is not much time to do what we need to do. But we do.
And when students come to school hungry because they have not eaten, or their families only buy food from fast-food places because it’s the cheapest food available, and children are obese from lack of exercise because their streets are dangerous, and the school food is the poorest quality from the producers, but the healthiest that children are going to get, it’s hard to get their attention for learning triple-digit multiplication. But we do.
And when the system is scared and powerless from a public that demands high test scores, but is unwilling to do those things that raise test scores, it’s hard to teach in ways that are less than “traditional”. Let’s look at just math. In almost every international test, we are dramatically outscored by Singapore. According to a friend of mine in the Ministry of Education in Singapore, they spend all of first grade on nothing but place value. No addition, no subtraction, just place value. And they GET place value. The children LEARN place value. When they move to second and third grades, they do nothing all year except addition and subtraction. No multiplication, no percents, just a deep and true understanding of math. Multiplication doesn’t really start until the latter part of third grade. There is no surprise that we are more competitive at the fourth grade level compared to other countries. They haven’t covered what we’ve covered. But once they get to fifth grade, they don’t have to spend six, nine, twelve weeks reviewing. They don’t have to cover fractions in four weeks in fourth grade, and again for four weeks in fifth grade and once again, for five weeks in sixth grade. There is no surprise that we sink to the bottom by twelfth grade- they understand in depth much more than we do.
Try telling a school system, one that is aware of the pressures faced by our graduates in an international marketplace, that we aren’t going to be teaching our children multiplication until fourth grade, and you will hear screams. There isn’t a school board in the country that would see the delay of content as a step ahead — and so we keep cramming more and more into our curriculum, hoping that it will stick. Our curriculum, according to friends of mine at the US Department of Education, is a “mile wide and an inch deep”. And the more we have to teach, the more challenges we face in schools, the more teachers need ongoing training- training is that being cut as well. There’s no surprise that we’re losing in math scores and almost every other kind of score — we don’t spend the time to teach it.
I applaud the movie for bringing the topic of education to the forefront. The struggles that we face on a day-to-day basis can be helped with the actions the film is calling for — more involved parents, greater flexibility to respond to student needs- things that are happening at so many schools- public and charter- but not at enough. But it doesn’t call for those things that really and truly make a difference in all schools- teachers who are paid well, respected by the society and the parents, and training. Leaders who are trained and are not just promoted because they’re the winning coach. School boards who focus on what is best for children and not what we’ve always done. And curriculum that focuses on the development of a few skills well.
Schools aren’t bad because they want to be. Schools aren’t bad because we don’t know what we’re doing. Schools aren’t necessarily bad because of “bad teachers”, or “bad principals”. Those reasons are too simplistic for a very, very complex issue. Schools are failing because too many people think that they know how to fix them and schools are pulled apart in the ensuing struggle. Polls consistently show that families support their local schools, but are worried about “schools” in general. In other words, the perception is that education in this country is terrible, but my local school is doing the best it can. Schools are struggling because our society is struggling. There is no easy fix. Familiarity breeds, not contempt, but understanding of the struggles that educators face every day. Familiarity breeds respect for what teachers can accomplish, given what they have to face.
I only wish that the movie had shown the same respect and the same familiarity with schools. I applaud the efforts of Bill Gates and Oprah to fix things. I applaud Dave Guggenheim who directed the film. But they might ask the schools and the teachers, too – they’re working from the inside. They know. We’re all on the same side. Let’s work together to move education forward, and people from within the system understand the complexities- and want to fix it, too. Just ask us. After all, we chose it for our life’s work- to make a difference.