Ten Thoughts After Watching “Waiting for Superman”

1.   The film never says if we want better schools, we have to pay more. Consider how much it would cost just to fix up the physical plants of the inner city schools featured in the film.  The film evades the resource issue by reporting instead that spending on schools has skyrocketed over the years, with no apparent payoff in improvements in test scores.  That is an interesting fact that begs further explication.  But to bemoan the state of our public schools without mentioning the positive impact that more money could have is like working on strategies for improving crop yields on a drought-ravaged farm without mentioning that more rain or irrigation might be nice.

2.  The assumption seems to be that to fix our schools we have to deal with the recalcitrance of the teachers’ unions rather than “throwing money at the problem.”  There is little appreciation for how closely linked these alternatives are.   Teachers’ unions aren’t recalcitrant in the abstract, but they are likely to insist upon adherence to specific protections and procedures they have won through bargaining. The burdensome terms in teachers contracts are there in part because school districts couldn’t pay teachers what they wanted and probably deserved, so the concessions they made in bargaining over the years tended to be skewed toward non-financial areas, such as job protection provisions.  These add up.  If you want to get changes to teachers’ contracts to give the school districts more flexibility – and I do – you have to give something to the teachers to get them to agree.  More money frequently does the trick.  The collective bargaining system isn’t premised on the notion that one side will concede to the other’s demands simply because the first side becomes convinced that the other side has the better argument.  You get in bargaining what you pay for.  It again goes back to resources.

3. This, of course, is the huge advantage of charter schools.  They can operate free of the stifling effects of burdensome collective bargaining agreements.  They are much more free to experiment. If they do, we can all see what works and what doesn’t.  Do we get the results we expect from longer school days and longer school years?  Let’s see what results are achieved by the charter schools that follow this approach.  Can charter schools offering a more intensive learning experience retain and sustain their teachers, or do they tend to burn out?  Let’s find out.  So, hurray for the Urban League’s proposal for its Madison Prep charter school.  Let’s hope they can make it work, and let’s see what we can learn from how well they do in improving student achievement.

4. I have always thought that merit pay for teachers makes sense as an abstract matter.  But is there any evidence that teachers themselves want it?  Or is it just current and former business executives who think that teachers ought to want it?

5. More important than merit pay is the ability to get rid of bad teachers.  As far as really bad teachers go, we’re generally able to do this in Madison.  My sense is that MTI can be more helpful in this regard than tends to be appreciated.  Good teachers are no fans of bad teachers.

6. The film notes the critical role of good teachers in ensuring academic achievement, but says nothing about how to attract into the profession college graduates from diverse backgrounds who could develop into great teachers.  Other than a strong commitment to social justice, what would attract anyone to be a teacher at the public schools that the film portrayed?

7. Speaking of attracting new teachers into the profession, it would be beneficial if there could be a more streamlined path into the profession for those with well-developed expertise in particular areas than the kind of multi-year commitment to the certification process that seems to be required now.  That kind of change could be accomplished through the legislative process and need not be dependent upon bargaining concessions.

8. The film rightly celebrates the efforts of the featured mothers, fathers and grandmother to get their children into better schools.  There are many mothers, fathers and grandmothers in Madison who have made even greater sacrifices so that their children may attend better schools. Think of the families of limited means who have pulled up stakes from Chicago and other large cities and moved to Madison for a better life for their kids.  Moving to a new city and a new way of life can’t be easy, for the adults or for the kids.  The students can find themselves in new classrooms where they know no one, are behind in their studies, may not understand what is being taught, and have little sense of the accepted behavior norms in the class. No wonder they can be a handful.  Many of us have a tendency to focus on the burden these students place on our schools.  And it’s true – they do often require special help and extra resources because they have a lot of ground to make up, they may have particular learning challenges, and they may not behave all that well at first.  It is good to be reminded that standing behind just about every one of our students is at least one adult who wants nothing more than that that child find a better life than the adult has had, and who may well have made sacrifices large and small to get that child into our schools.  We have an obligation to do what we can to set their kids on the path to academic success and so vindicate the sacrifices those parents and guardians have made.

9. After filming the scene of young Bianca in tears – she is barred from her graduation ceremony at a parochial school because her mother can’t pay her past due tuition – I sure hope the filmmaker went across the street and paid the school the hundred dollars or so that was owed so that the girl could graduate with her classmates.

10. As far as I am concerned, making the film doesn’t expiate filmmaker Davis Guggenheim’s guilt for sending his kids to private schools.  That’s where the rubber meets the road on one’s dedication to our public school system. Here’s a venerable quote from Susan B. Anthony: “If all the rich and all of the church people should send their children to the public schools they would feel bound to concentrate their money on improving these schools until they met the highest ideals.”  And I’ll conclude with another quote, this one from a blogger associated with the Fordham Institute:

But let’s face it, reformers: As long as we’re working to fix the schools of “other people’s children,” we’re only going to get so far. An Inconvenient Truth inspired people to vote for environmentally-friendly candidates, but it also motivated (some) people to ditch their cars, consume less energy, and change their lifestyles. The education corollary is simple, Davis: Stop at the closest public school, fix it up, and send your kid there.

Bonus Thought 11:  Disagree with me?  Have thoughts of your own about the film or the state of public schools in Madison?  Come to A Community Conversation on Education on Tuesday evening, November 9, from 6:30 to 8:30 at CUNA Mutual Group Building, 5910 Mineral Point Road.  The event is sponsored by the United Way of Dane County, the Urban League of Greater Madison, MMSD, MTI and the UW School of Education.  Transportation, childcare,  language interpreters, and even some food will be available.  More information here.

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5 Responses to Ten Thoughts After Watching “Waiting for Superman”

  1. Thanks for sharing your commentary on Waiting for Superman. I’m an employee of SEED, one of the organizations featured in the film, and we’re excited about the release of Waiting for Superman. Follow us on Twitter or become our fan on Facebook if you’re interested in learning more about education reform, the film, and SEED.

    Come visit us at http://www.seedfoundation.com!

  2. Kristen Nelson says:

    Thanks Ed. I just saw the movie and I concur with all ten of your observations (especially #10.) I would also add that I was disappointed that the film didn’t dive further into the work Geoffrey Canada has done with younger children (starting when they are infants) and their parents. The Harlem Children Zone’s work starts at birth (and in come cases *before* birth with pregnant mothers.) I admire the work he has done to promote early childhood education/parental involvement. See you Tuesday…

  3. Ed

    I don’t disagree with most of your points but have two questions (both kind of rhetorical).

    First, do you believe that your profession, the legal profession would be improved by “a more streamlined path into the profession for those with well-developed expertise in particular areas than the kind of multi-year commitment to the certification process that seems to be required now,” if not, what is the difference?

    Second, you are a party to the “burdensome collective bargaining agreements” and their “stifling effects. Why does it make sense to you to have the experimentation/innovation you desire dependent on outside charter proposals and governance instead of working for contracts that would allow the district to initiate and govern the experiments?

    • Rhetorical or not, TJ asks a couple of good questions and deserves my responses.

      As to the first, a streamlined path into the legal profession is a complicated issue. The focus tends to be less on who becomes a member of the bar and more on what sort of tasks are ones which only lawyers can perform. Personally, I’m fine with lessening some of the guild protections for the profession, so long as it doesn’t lead to bad outcomes for consumers.

      But here’s the thing about the teaching. I have taught seminars at the UW law school. I put together the syllabus, ran the course, and created and graded the final exams, all without any specific training in pedagogy or even any supervision from the law school. I could not teach a high school level class on the legal process, though. Similarly, TJ teaches history classes at Edgewood College, but as far as I know he would not be considered qualified to teach high school history classes.

      A few years ago I looked at what it would take for me to become certified to teach a high school class. (I once had a fantasy of teaching a high school English class, a task for which my spouse considers me quite unqualified by temperament. But under my tutelage students would have learned to diagram sentences, by gosh.) There were no short-cuts. I couldn’t take classes at night, and then do a student teacher gig. It would have required a couple years of taking college-level courses essentially full time and hence would have required a financial sacrifice that was simply prohibitive. This doesn’t seem to me to make much sense.

      I am not saying that anyone should be allowed to walk into a classroom and start teaching. But why not have a streamlined pathway into teaching for those with the inclination and with top-of-the-line subject matter knowledge who are interested in changing careers?

      TJ’s second question asks why the school district should wait for proposals for whatever innovative approaches outside groups choose to bring to the District. Why not come up with innovative approaches ourselves and try to win whatever agreements might be necessary with MTI to see if the approaches work?

      I can think of four reasons at the moment. First, it isn’t an either/or proposition. We can welcome whatever innovative approaches others bring while exploring options ourselves. Second, you generally don’t get something for nothing in bargaining. We may not be willing to make whatever concession MTI would (appropriately) ask for in return if we sought a concession to try something new. Third, the bargaining process tends to take a long time and may not achieve the desired goal, particularly when one of the parties isn’t particularly motivated to reach an agreement. Finally, if we want to know how an innovative approach might work, I’d much rather look at the results achieved by a group that is fully committed to the approach and giving it their best effort. But I would certainly welcome any ideas for innovative approaches that we are able to generate internally and try out ourselves, if we’re able to get buy-in from the relevant stakeholders, including MTI.

  4. Ed

    As always, thank you for the thoughtful response.

    I have a lot to say on the second and little time, but just a few things on the first so I’ll offer those.

    Where I teach and where you have taught, students have been selected and have self selected. To me this makes all the difference. Although the craft of teaching is common to all classroom situations, I believe that k-12 public school teaching demands truly professional knowledge and skills. I’m not going defend the reality of teacher training (a decidedly mixed bag), but I will defend the concept of the requirements.

    I also think that the idea of apprentice teachers with extended and intense mentoring would be good to have in the mix, regardless of the path taken to the classroom.

    I will say that I can see some streamlining working, particularly for some high school situations (advanced courses, technical courses…).

    I think this may related to your comments about legal credentials. There are places where an attorney is called for, but there may be others where a paralegal with experience is just as good if not better. Likewise, there are places where a historian with an interest in education or an attorney with a literary bent may be fine in a high school classroom, but I don’t think they belong in (most) middle school or elementary classrooms or even some high school classrooms.

    We agree to a degree and probably also have to agree to disagree.

    Maybe more later (I enjoy these public conversations and wish I had time for more).

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