Waiting For Superman: Part II

Well, I didn't make it to see the movie last Thursday.  The rain that shut down school early also flooded enough of downtown Baltimore that I worried about getting stuck there, and starting the next day I had another nonstop week full of students and classes and one glorious but exhausting field trip.

And all of a sudden, yesterday morning, I realized I had nothing to do!  Rob was at an all-day bikeathon, so I called my friend Laura to see if she'd come with me.  It was a perfect day to walk around by the harbor and pretend we actually lived in a high-rise condos and ate at Oceanaire and Charleston every night.  As much as I love my little patch of earth in the suburbs, there's something very attractive about the city lifestyle.  Everything feels more exciting there, more immediate, more colorful and accessible and real.

Does it seem like I'm putting off talking about the movie?  Maybe I am.  It was very difficult to watch.  There were only a handful of people in the theater with us, and each of us, more than once, gasped or groaned or sniffled audibly.  It's not a good date movie, and it's not a good movie for a teacher to watch on a Sunday night. Or, maybe, ever.  I had trouble even telling friends about it without getting choked up.

The sad truth is that America's schools are in trouble, and no one wants to talk about it.  We know this.  We've seen the statistics that place us near the bottom of the literacy pool in developed nations.  The goals we set for No Child Left Behind are far out of reach; around 30% proficiency in math and reading for most states, and the goal is 100% in the next two years.  Despite the fact that we continue to pour money, time and resources into the system, we consistently fail to educate our children even passably.

The film makes it clear that there are two obstacles standing in the way of better education: first, teachers' unions, which refuse to make any distinction between effective and ineffective members, which insist on tenure for all after an average of two years in the classroom, and which will not agree to merit-based pay or removal from the system if the teacher is spectacularly good or awful; second, the bureaucracy that runs the school system, which consists of federal funding, state funding, local funding and independent school boards, each with its own agenda and set of rules.  Between these two behemoths, it's a miracle if any improvement is allowed to occur anywhere; someone like Michelle Rhee is an anomaly, the result of a loophole that can't last long (and, in fact, despite the extent of the positive change she has wrought, her job is now very much in jeopardy.)  Here's Rhee's sound logic:
For too long, we have let teacher hiring and retention be determined by archaic rules involving seniority and academic credentials. The widespread policy of "last in, first out" (the teacher with the least seniority is the first to go when cuts have to be made) makes it harder to hold on to new, enthusiastic educators and ignores the one thing that should matter most: performance.

A 7-year-old girl won't make it to college someday because her teacher has two decades of experience or a master's degree -- she will make it to college if her teacher is effective and engaging and compels her to reach for success. By contrast, a poorly performing teacher can hold back hundreds, maybe thousands, of students over the course of a career. Each day that we ignore this reality is precious time lost for children preparing for the challenges of adulthood.

The glacial process for removing an incompetent teacher -- and our discomfort as a society with criticizing anyone who chooses this noble and difficult profession -- has left our school districts impotent and, worse, has robbed millions of children of a real future.

There isn't a business in America that would survive if it couldn't make personnel decisions based on performance. That is why everything we use in assessing teachers must be linked to their effectiveness in the classroom and focused on increasing student achievement.

The whole article isn't long and is worth reading.  And after a day of being stuck in a major funk, it started to make me feel less depressed and more optimistic.  If people are making movies like this, creating websites like this, and losing their jobs over this, maybe we're on the way to a better system.  For now, I'm going the way of Harriet Ball, who is profiled in the film and on its website as a super-teacher, one of the heroes of the education world:
Q: What can teachers do, right now, to help improve the system?

A: Watch other teachers who are doing well. Give up your planning time and lunchtime and meet up with somebody who's willing to let you observe them. Keep asking until you find answers. Don't give up if that's your dream. If you want to be a teacher -- baby, teaching is a job. Close your door and teach those kids.

Axios!  Amen!