Is there no one left to defend public education? The attacks grow more ferocious, as the blood is in the political water, so to speak. Who will defend the purveyor of nascent democratic ideals, the socializing force of the rough American prairie frontiers, the facilitator of public, open-minded controversial discussion, and the bulwark of modern scientific advances? Even Secretary of Education Duncan seems to think that the American educational reform must follow an aggressive business-type plan or be doomed to failure. While many may have seen Davis Guggenheim‘s “Waiting for Superman” or the new TV shows with Tony Danza “teaching” English in Philadelphia or School Pride pouring money into school buildings, labs and football fields so that poor students can be successful, we must return to the original premise: is better learning about having a celebrity teacher, lowering class sizes or about how much money is spent?
Do we selectively ignore the good news? According to the Institute of Educational Studies, the repository of statistics for the U.S. Department of Education in December 2010, the current national average expenditure per student in the U.S. is projected at $10,792 and the high school drop-out rate is down to 8.1%. A full 70% of graduating seniors are enrolled in two and four year colleges the following fall. The 2009 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) science reading scores of 15 year old American students averaged 500. Our student averages in this category trail ONLY SIX other countries of the 65 countries in PISA : Korea, Finland, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Australia- hardly the dismal picture of failure that the doomsday- sayers have recently promoted. (And note the fact that these countries are our allies, not our adversaries- none of whom are managing the foreign and military policy initiatives or fiscal expenditures that the U.S. presently is.)
Of the above critical examples, “Waiting for Superman” bears a special response from educators themselves. The pathos, ethos and logos used by Guggenheim are questionable and represent but a fraction of the reality of contemporary public education. Clearly, the intent is to attack public education and promote both charter and private schools, which his children attend. Like his earlier work, “An Inconvenient Truth”, Guggenheim looks to shock and enrage the viewers. President Obama found the film both “heartbreaking” and “powerful” and invited the five young students highlighted in the film to the White House to visit for a photo opportunity. Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook, donated $100 million in response to the movie to reform educational programs in Newark, New Jersey. Oprah Winfrey featured Guggenheim on her September 20th show and Thomas Friedman praised the film in his New York Times column. Valerie Strauss labeled the film: “misleading”, “a dishonest look at the public education system”. The Gates Foundation gave a $2 million grant for the film and Mr. Gates also finances “Turnaround Teacher Teams”. But in July while Gates was in Seattle he said: “If reforms aren’t shaped by teachers’ knowledge and experiences, they’re not going to succeed.” Trust the man who has invested millions in educational initiatives- he speaks the truth here. Teachers’ experiences- mature, focused, dedicated, professional teachers in the field.
My favorite summary of the controversial film was that of Dana Goldstein in The Nation September 23, 2010 edition: “ Here’s what you don’t see: four out of five charters that are no better, on average, than traditional neighborhood public schools (and sometimes are much worse); charter school teachers, like those at the Green Dot schools in L.A., who are unionized and like it that way; and non charter neighborhood public schools, like PS 83 in East Harlem and the George Hall Elementary School in Mobile, Alabama that are nationally recognized for successfully educating poor children.” The film says that teachers’ unions are to blame for student testing failures or drop-out rates while they advocate for “more school funding, smaller class sizes and better school resources and facilities.” The shock and horror of such outrageous requests!
Guggenheim himself set up a blog for teachers to respond to the film, but hasn’t responded to any of their comments, questions or suggestions. But several of the teacher comments are enlightening: “How could you make an entire film about the so-called ‘failing’ schools, and never actually visit or interview anyone within them? Teacher Sabrina: “Poverty, crime, lack of funding and politians making policies who have never taught a day in their lives are the problem. Make that movie, please. Mccullen” “Education reformers have been making decisions for decades without inviting teachers to the discussion. Glynis Cooney”. What should be added is that when those educational reforms pressed upon the field by well-intentioned non-educators aren’t successful, the universal blame usually falls back on those same teachers, who are on the front lines.
I too, was shocked and enraged both when I watched “Waiting for Superman”, but not for the reasons the filmmaker may have hoped. Let me elaborate.
The expected emotional response
I too cried as the bright, hardworking students held their breaths waiting for the lottery results and then turned away dejected and sorrowful when they lose out on the slim chance that may allow them into a better school, and hence, a better future. It’s hard to lose- it’s hard to watch others lose, in a system that is beyond their control. What kind of hard-hearted American, even maybe a union teacher, would deny education to a motivated student, such as these young people?
Is the fault with the market-driven school districts that only have a limited amount of economic resources for education? I agree with President Obama’s sister Maya Soetero-Ng: “I hope that public school teachers are not vilified by people who think that they know more than they know about what happens in classrooms. I hope that the film’s emphasis on test scores doesn’t make us lose sight of the many other potent and meaningful forms of learning and assessment that exist like creative writing, projects of civic engagement, Socratic learning forums, and multifaceted portfolio presentations.” It’s true that NCLB stresses tests and test scores as THE indicator of successful students and successful schools. How many students ARE successful in the American educational system and go on to lead happy, productive lives? “Waiting for Superman” ignores those students, who in fact, are the majority of public school students. (It may even be you, dear reader.)
I too was dismayed to see the dozens of public school teachers in the “rubber rooms”, paid to wait while their unprofessional conduct was investigated. We SHOULD be outraged to see or hear about mal-practice or poor performance in any profession, but are teachers a special media target? Would it be better to allow them to continue teaching students while the investigations are ongoing? No, each of us would want the right to earn a living while an investigation was underway as our Constitution allows for us to be considered innocent until PROVEN guilty, much like police officers are put on paid leave during investigations of their conduct in the line of duty. And every profession has a percentage of those who are not successful or productive- eliminate them after a fair process of remediation and investigation.
The beliefs about teaching and education
The average class size for Math in the charter schools highlighted in the film was 14! 14! I couldn’t believe my eyes! A teacher’s dream come true- lower class sizes beyond imagination!!! Every study on educational reform has continuously indicated that smaller class sizes consistently lead to higher test scores for the students. More one-on-one teaching time improves student performance. Duh, you say- pure common sense. I believe that any class of 14 will get more individualized attention from the Math instructor than a class of 35. Their homework and test scores will go up with individualized attention. We all win. But the taxpayers must financially support that decision. In an economic recession, districts are looking to cut costs. The largest share of any school district’s budget is teacher salaries. To cut costs, they turn first to salaries. Districts can freeze salaries, cut salaries or keep the salaries the same and cut teachers. Cut teachers and class sizes go up and test scores go down.
It’s not really about the teachers’ unions, tenure or testing. As Secretary of Education Duncan says himself : “ Teacher creativity, teacher innovation- not just the content knowledge but the personal passion they bring to the work and really connecting with students, particularly the students that are struggling, is hugely important. And the good ideas in education are frankly never going to come from me, they’re never going to come from Washington, they’re always going to come from the local level: great teachers, great principals, school boards, superintendents, making a difference in students’ lives.” (MSM interview on October 4, 2010). So if teachers are the KEY to reform and student achievement, wouldn’t it make more sense to RAISE teacher salaries to encourage the best and brightest to go into teaching? Support them with master teachers and mentors. Give them time to learn how to teach, refine their teaching and add to their knowledge bases as they progress in the their profession. Obviously, this is not new reform premise. Washington won’t solve the problems- individuals will. Then why is Washington still trying to solve the problem?
What do we believe about teachers? Are they the “key” to learning? Should teachers emphasis teaching techniques or student learning styles? Should they emphasize learning instead? Do we even need them anymore in a technological world of computer screen time? Can’t a student learn everything in terms of content from computer instructional units with instant graded feedback and working at their own pace toward pre-determined proficiency in each subject area? Does successful American education really focus on teaching or learning in the 21st century?
Diane Ravitch in her latest book The Death and Life of the Great American School System traces her own journey in the national educational reform movement and concludes: “Eventually I realized that the new reforms had everything to do with structural changes and accountability, and nothing at all to do with the substance of learning.” The SUBSTANCE of learning. There it is- the crux of the matter. How each of us learns- what motivates us to learn- what helps us remember what we learned- and then how we apply that learning in a variety of settings. Not how many tests we take to compare us with other students across the nation, who didn’t even take the same “standardized” test but are compared to us nonetheless, like it was the same test.
The logic is, of course, that the system has failed our students. That teachers have failed our students. That the lowest SES classes in America have no choices but the local neighborhood public schools that are short on talent, resources, inspiration and success. Therefore, to “fix” them, you need to allow for individual choice and charter and private schools should be the alternatives to public school. If that is the case, then level the playing field between all of these options and see if the statistics still hold true. Once the private and charter school serve ALL students, will their test scores remain high? Once every misbehaved, new immigrant, or special needs child is placed in these schools, will they perform at the same artificially maintained testing levels? These are the “gated communities” of education at present. Open the gates and let’s see how they do.
Guggenheim doesn’t relate his own children’s levels of success in their private school to the audience. I wonder if they are straight A students? With all of the possible advantages, including a supportive home environment, shouldn’t they perform at the highest levels of academic success n most subjects? And if they aren’t doing well, who does he blame- his children or the teachers?
Secretary of Education Duncan just visited Minnesota in January 2011 and he addressed the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. No, I didn’t write that incorrectly- he addressed the Chamber of Commerce because, well, his goal is that American education is being transformed into a business. He now acknowledges publicly that NCLB is “fundamentally broken.” Duncan says the law needs reform because it has focused too narrowly on Math and reading. He didn’t mention that 100 % success rate goal by NCLB by all students nationally on those tests by 2014 is impossible. He said: “We need to get Washington out of the way.” I couldn’t agree more!
Edited by Susan E. Smith