Thursday, September 23, 2010

Waiting for Adults to Put Children First

I had no intention of mentioning Central Dallas Ministries' public policy department's screening of 'Waiting for Superman' so soon. However, I didn't know that the documentary about the state of public education, charter schools and the desperation of parents to provide their children the best education possible would be so controversial. Honestly.

But as we found out that some would view the movie as 'taking aim' at failing schools and making teachers scapegoats, we began to understand that 'Waiting for Superman' would create tension. However, we finally decided that if that were the case, it should be a healthy tension around a critical issue.

Then again, we didn't foresee the 'Oprah affect'. That's right, in Oprah Winfrey.

Television's talk show maven had David Guggenheim, the Oscar winning director of the documentary as a guest on her show, as well as Washington D.C. school chancellor Michelle Rhee, as she spotlighted the movie. The reactions are kind of stunning.

From Dr. Gene Carter, president of ASCD (formerly the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development) says, "...As a career educator and the executive director of ASCD, an education association of 160,000 educators worldwide, I was dismayed that your show on education reform excluded a key demographic from the dialogue: teachers. Yet the research—and your high-profile guests—say a child's teacher is the most important factor to determining his or her success."

"Moreover, simplistically dividing a profession of 5 million people into "good teachers" and "bad teachers" misses an important opportunity to show how all educators must continue to learn, develop, and grow throughout their careers. Would we ask a proficient doctor to stop learning new technologies or strategies that may help save a life? No. Our most effective teachers are the ones who pursue professional development not only to sustain student achievement, but also to help teach other educators."

Still another reaction to the film (not Oprah's promotion), is from a group challenging the premise of the movie. The group is called "Not Waiting for Superman".

"The message of the film is that public schools are failing because of bad teachers and their unions. The film's "solution," to the minimal extent it suggests one, is to replace them with "great" charter schools and teachers who have less power over their schools and classrooms."

"This message is not just wrong. In the current political climate, it's toxic."

"The film was made by the Academy-Award winning director of "An Inconvenient Truth," a documentary that helped awaken millions to the dangers of global warming. But this film misses the mark by light years. Instead of helping people understand the many problems schools face and what it will take to address them, it presents misleading information and simplistic "solutions" that will make it harder for those of us working to improve public education to succeed. We know first hand how urgently change is needed. But by siding with a corporate reform agenda of teacher bashing, union busting, test-based "accountability" and highly selective, privatized charters, the film pours gasoline on the public education bonfire started by No Child Left Behind and Race To the Top."

And finally, this review on the AFT (American Federation of Teachers) Union.

"It's hard not to be moved by "Waiting for 'Superman.'" It's an emotional film about families seeking good schools for their children. But good storytelling is no substitute for an honest and accurate look at how we can really improve our public schools so they offer all children access to a great education."

"The film's central themes—that all public school teachers are bad, that all charter schools are good and that teachers' unions are to blame for failing schools—are incomplete and inaccurate, and they do a disservice to the millions of good teachers in our schools who work their hearts out every day. The film relies on a few highly sensational and isolated examples in an attempt to paint all public school teachers as bad. Had the filmmaker visited some good public schools, he would have found that no good teacher supports tolerating bad teachers who are failing in the classroom."

"But "Waiting for 'Superman'" doesn't show many of the great public schools..."

Ok! So let's just say that praise for the documentary is not unanimous from all quarters.

I'm anxious to see the movie and I'll see it before our screening. But here's the thing: I know many teachers. Many. I've had the chance to work with some of the finest in across the state on campus based school reform. I've have known and have had those teachers I know, tell me about those who consider it just a job. Until a few years ago, I lived in a neighborhood where the entire school district failed, due to incompetent teachers and corrupt administrators. And whether you accept the premise of "Waiting for Superman" or not (which I don't believe is 'all charter schools are good; all public schools are bad'), the one thing on which I think we all can agree is that we can't count the number of lives ruined by poor education, while adults have defended themselves and blamed one another.

It's about time we figured out how to do what works.

None of us want to be blamed for the mess we've created. Not parents. Not teachers. Not politicians. But we are all to blame and we all suffer because of it. 'Bad' teachers may be great at something else. Good to great teacher will always be able to find a job in their chosen profession. The people who will ultimately pay for the failure to fix education in this country and keep on paying are the children who are victimized by a system designed to perpetuate and protect itself.

Whether we're "Waiting for Superman" or not, we ought to be have conversations that are tense and uncomfortable. What I don't want is for the children who want a great education today, to become so frustrated that they stop caring tomorrow.This is one issue that matters too much for us to have feeling good as an objective.

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