A friend asked me what I thought of “Waiting for Superman”

Original letter:
Subject: Waiting for Superman 

XXXX and I are having an ongoing debate about this movie (admittedly having  only read reviews and summaries and not having seen it yet) and wanted to know  what you thought of the debate especially as one of the key players has been a  major factor in the DC school system.  Note that I am scrupulously avoiding saying which of us thinks what :-).




Here’s what I wrote back:

  • While I haven’t seen the movie yet, I’ve read and seen a lot about it. From what I can tell, the movie sounds like a crock of wrong-headed propaganda, part of the war on US public education that has been going on ever since ‘A Nation at Risk’ came out in the 1980s, and that has intensified since the passage of NCLB, and shows no abating under Obama and Duncan.
  • You asked about Michelle Rhee. I don’t know anybody who’s taught for more than a couple of months in DC who applauded her policies. Like them, I was heartily relieved to see Michelle Rhee go, and am heartened that I suspect that the data on my blog may have played a small part in defeating her and Adrian Fenty. However, I am depressed to know that Rhee’s policies are probably going to stay in place.
  • From what I can tell, just about everything factual in the movie is wrong. The idea that Teacher Unions control public education is laughable. Just how much control did the *teachers* in the ZZZEA exert at WWW in the state of UUUU when you taught there, YYYY? Gee, I wasn’t aware that teachers controlled hiring of new teachers, decided on tenure, or had much to say about curriculum, either. (In fact the courts have just ruled decisively that teachers have NO rights on curriculum.) It’s always been the responsibility of school administrators to figure out who is teaching effectively, and they have often used that power to “counsel out” of the profession teachers who didn’t seem to be making progress, rather than terminating them outright. Why is it so important all of a sudden to have so many unsuccessful teachers’ resume contain a “FIRED” statement, rather than having them be able to say that they decided teaching wasn’t for them?
  • (Yes, I have encountered a small number of teachers who got fired but who managed to get their jobs back because the system made procedural errors. And it was truly sad that they got their jobs back, because they were either incompetent or evil or both. But their administrator was even worse. And to say that nobody should have any sort of due process at all? Guilty people get acquitted all the time. Gimme a break.)
  • From my viewpoint in the trenches of teaching over 30+ years, I agree that there are definitely teachers who should not be teaching, just as there are lawyers who shouldn’t keep their jobs because they steal from their clients, clergy who sodomize their charges, janitors who don’t do their jobs, nurses and doctors who steal drugs and kill patients, politicians who make laws for corporate special interests, businessmen who render entire communities unemployed so that they can transfer their business offshore, accountants who rob the public blind, and computer programmers who exert monopoly control on software and produce knowingly defective software at that. Don’t they all demand (and in our system, deserve) due process if accused of doing those things?
  • Probably all of us has had a lousy teacher (or several) as well as good ones. But the idea that the entire staff in a low-achieving school is a bunch of evil creeps who get up in the morning and try to figure out how they are going to flunk their charges, is ludicrous. Just as ludicrous as the idea that replacing all of those teachers with unseasoned, inexperienced Teach For America cadets will magically transform things. Hah. The research, shown on my blog, shows exactly no significant difference between brand-new TFAers and brand-new regular teachers in low-performing, low-income schools. In fact there is an incredibly close correlation between parental income (as far as we can tell) and student achievement on all of the normal standardized tests; sometimes the correlation is as close as negative 0.95 (percent on free and reduced lunch, and percent ‘proficient’ on various NCLB tests). Nobody has ever gotten around that in a big way yet. NO ONE. And if teachers from St. Alban’s or Sidwell tried to be a success at Cardozo, Coolidge, or Anacostia high schools in DC (or Landover or Suitland HS in PG county) they would run for their lives in about two weeks.
  • If you have ever tried to teach in a high-poverty, poorly-organized secondary school, you realize quite quickly that the odds are against you. What do you do when students are running in and out of your classroom at all times of day, perhaps specifically coming to threaten one of your students with serious physical harm (or death)? With total impunity? When you discover that 1/4 of your students are homeless, and another 1/5 are actually incarcerated? And another 1/4 are pregnant or already have a child, in the 10th grade (which they got into because of age, not because they had learned anything)?
  • We have an insanely huge and widening gap in the US between the super-rich (think Bloomberg, Broad, Koch and Gates) and the poor (and, you know, a new single-mom teacher pretty much qualifies as the latter). And, irony of irony, the Bloombergs, Broads, Kochses and Gateses are essentially blaming the one single remaining unionized portion of the workforce for that gap. Isn’t that rich? (the pun is serendipitous)
  • In my current incarnation as a retired teacher and a mentor/advisor to some teachers, I get to visit quite a lot of middle and senior high schools, both regular public schools and charter schools. There are good ones and bad ones in both categories. I have seen some charter schools that do an amazing job of getting student and teacher buy-in and acceptance, at least at the middle-school level. PPPP is one such school. Now, they don’t seem to teach much real content, as far as I can tell, but they do have those kids really well in hand. Of course, if you as parent and student aren’t going to accept the PPPP party line, you will not be accepted, and that’s that. So it’s like a selective private school run with public money. However, there are other charter schools that are just as troubled as the normal middle and high schools, even with a longer day. Plus, the students appear to never get to go outside, and in some cases never leave their classrooms for 8 hours at a stretch, except to go to the bathroom and maybe PE. (No sports, no clubs, no anything.)

  • So the idea that charter schools are a, or THE solution, to education, is a total joke. Now you don’t have to rely on my anecdotal evidence. The best study on the subject found that about 1/6 of the charters did better with their students than the surrounding public schools, 1/3 did WORSE, and the rest did about the same. And they all paid their founders hefty salaries while working their teachers to death. Teachers flee the charters in great numbers… Instead, let’s fix public education for real, and not via the insane narrowing of curriculum that NCLB and Race To The Trough have engendered.
  • One aside: part of the gist of “A  Nation at Risk”, and even a part of my own organization’s own major drive, is the supposition that not enough American students learn math and science and therefore will be uncompetitive. Well, we have made math and science much more appealing and easy to master for many more students over the past 50 years. Lots more students, and higher percentages, take more math (up through calculus in HS) than ever did before. And we have lots of students who start off in math and science courses in college, only to have their butts kicked by weed-out courses that are deliberately as hard and as fast as possible (my opinion, obviously). Yes, we import large quantities of math and science students from overseas, and yes, a lot of them are really good at it.

  • But then look at the numbers of engineering and science and math graduates who attempt to go into a career in their chosen field. For this analysis, I exclude medicine and allied sciences. How many remain in their profession after 5 years? I don’t recall the exact numbers (probably in my blog somewhere) but huge percentages drop out, partly because we have an OVERSUPPLY of such people, who are required to work at a pittance for many years as a post-doc if they are in the sciences, and who suffer abrupt losses in employability depending on business cycles and changes in government policy if they are engineers. (Unless they work on ‘defense’ – in which case they probably will have no problem.) Further evidence: I find that a lot of my extremely gifted Mathletes decide to go into fields other than STEM, when I hear back from them after some years. It wasn’t because we didn’t have skilled workers or engineers that many major sectors of American industry decided to relocate overseas. On the contrary – our skilled workers and engineers wanted to be paid more than our billionaire captains of industry wanted to pay, so they went to Mexico, the Philippines, Vietnam, China, and Malaysia, where workers would work for much, much less.

  • Does that help?
  • GFB
Published in: on October 26, 2010 at 12:13 am  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. CONTEXT–yes! History, the beginning of things with A Nation At Risk. But why was that written, in your experience, view?
    I read a report that said that the federal gov’s involvement with education really got going with Brown v. Board of Ed. What is your experience, view about that?
    I haven’t seen WFSM either but I did read a neat little contrarian review of it recently in the City Paper and was relieved to know someone in journalism has a brain to think with!
    The “bottom line” with me ‘n charters is that we can not have a public school system that depends on a small group of people up and deciding they want to have their own school. Not enough people are going to decide to do that so that there is an entire system that all children can go to which is not the way they operate anyway with their autonomy. So, that’s just a crazy way to go.
    That is closely followed by the reality that “growing” a “system” of so-called public schools along side of the current, real, public school system, it seems to me puts us right back to a separate and inherently unequal situation–also crazy.
    Great post–Thanks!


  2. The big difference in determining the academic success of a student is not just the teachers or the school, it’s also the parents. Involved and caring parents will make a huge difference. If only there was a way to get more parents engaged in their child’s education.


  3. I don’t have the references, but a public school principal friend of mine told me that the movie spends most of its time blaming teachers unions and showing the great example of charters but fails to mention that all the charters in the movie are unionized. You might be able to find a source for that.

    I also find it a problem that all the charters that are used as examples get piles of private money on top of the equivalent amount of money provided to traditional public schools. I have yet to see a story of a high performing charter that didn’t have lots of extra money.


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