Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Public School Teacher’s Reflections on “Waiting for Superman” Written April 2011

A Public School Teacher’s Reflections on “Waiting for Superman”

I have been a public school employee for over 20 years, moving from para-professional to Special Education Teacher at a school for students with severe emotional and learning challenges. I spent this afternoon watching the much talked-about school reform movie “Waiting for Superman.” I watched it with an open mind, and these are my thoughts:

The movie established from the outset that it was anti-public school, and told the story of how schools have ended up failing and some ideas for solving the issue.

There were a number of salient points; among them that offering variety in the types of schools and ways they teach is a good idea, that schools are systems that have become stuck, and that students do better when they have good teachers.

I also appreciated the mentioning of the archaic ‘tracking system’ which pigeon-holes students into a sequence of classes that is very difficult to break out of. Most effective schools these days do not put children on tracking systems.

Among the ‘heroes’ featured in the film was Geoffrey Canada, a dynamic school director who has established a remarkable school in Harlem that makes a promise that the student receives services from the school until they day they graduate from college. He is a dynamic and innovative educator who has taken students from one of the poorest districts in America and has, without a doubt, brought forth the very best of his students and his staff. He has created a culture of success. He is truly a hero in every sense of the word.

They also followed Michelle Rhee, the controversial Washington D.C. chancellor who fired throngs of teachers, offered teachers merit pay, and is now under fire for lying about the achievement made by her own students when she was a teacher. Washington DC schools are now under investigation for suspicion of widespread cheating on standardized tests that she used as the indicator of the success of her ring of terror. She created a culture of fear and mistrust, the victims of which are they very children she purported to be standing up for.

However, the villains of the film were the public school teachers and the teacher’s union. While it was noted here and there that there are good teachers, the majority of the film focused on poor teachers and the detriment they cause a student, and how the teacher’s union seems to only protect these poor teachers and make contracts that don’t allow good teachers to get paid enough.

Now my thoughts:

If it weren’t for the teacher’s unions, teachers would still not be making a living wage. Occupations that have larger numbers of women than men, such as nurses, child-care workers and teachers, have traditionally been significantly underpaid by a male-dominated society. The glass ceiling applies not only in jobs where men and women do the same work, but in these occupations. And now the same politicians who are attacking women’s health services are attacking these careers and the unions that have been their only protection.

The film made the point that the teacher’s union has donated millions of dollars to democratic politicians over the years. I was struck with the thought that this pales, compared to the millions infused into the system this year by foreign entities. The money from teacher’s unions is from legitimate, voluntary contributions of union members, all of whom are US citizens, but I digress...

I have been a member of the teacher’s union for over 20 years. I am not forced by anyone to join. I pay my $70 or so monthly, and receive a magazine that usually profiles good educators and has a lot of advertising; a newspaper that keeps me up-to-date with information about my local branch, particularly what I can expect in terms of my reduction in pay and how negotiations are going; and I go to a 15 minute meeting once a month after our union rep. goes to her monthly meeting, where they discuss current issues and eat bad chicken dinners. I can get a free copy of the contract, but I have to ask for it. Oh, I get e-mail updates from the state branch of the union that watches what is going on in the legislature, and keeps me informed about how I will be affected by pending legislation, and if it is bad news, I usually get invited to a rally and am asked to write my legislator. I frequently do write my legislator when I am so advised.

I have never been told by the union how to teach, what to teach, or what, in any way, to do in my classroom. I am informed by them what my rights are, the hours I work, the breaks I get, where to file grievances should I need to, and I get $1,000,000 liability insurance. I get to vote for ratification of contracts, and I get to vote for the handful of paid union employees. That is it.

The media, and “Waiting for Superman” paint a picture of the malicious teacher’s union keeping teachers from doing their jobs and preventing schools from teaching proper curriculum. (FYI - the curriculum I teach is dictated by the school district. I follow it, and make accommodations for my students with disabilities.)

As far as bad teachers, I believe I may have known one, many years back, who left our school quickly. Otherwise, the people I work with are the hardest working and most dedicated people I have ever met. Bar none! None of us work just the hours we are paid. All of us use a lot of our own money to buy things for the kids that it would seem the school should provide, but we want our kids to have the best. granted, we have a unique opportunity in our school to build our own culture, and our approach is typically that if things aren’t working, we change the culture to fit the needs. Not the other way around.

That comes to my criticism of public schools:

I believe that the culture of schools is where the problem lies. The school reform movement has taken a big role in breaking us loose from pedagogical practices that are ancient. Students are individuals who need different kinds instruction and activities. The advantage of some of the new charter schools is that they can build a new culture. That is why Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone works so well. 

But the another problem lies at the other end: The high-stakes assessment.

So, we need to build schools that offer a bunch of different holes for different pegs, fine. And then we make them all take the same one-time-a-year high-stakes test, and that is the end all for jobs, funding, resources, everything. And that is imposed on us by a group of politician’s whose only experience with education is that they went to school.  Judging from the recent lack of intellect and poor attitude toward teachers, a lot of these politicians did not do well when they were in school.

The movie did make an interesting point about mid-way through, when it discussed the idea that there are bad neighborhoods surrounding bad schools, and that the conventional wisdom was that they bad neighborhoods created the bad schools, but maybe the reverse is true. that does have me thinking. It is, again, a cultural idea. The culture needs to change within and outside the school. There needs to be a renewal of the whole animal there.

I have been in the middle of school reform for a number of years, now. I have seen, first-hand, how it is difficult for people to change. And the changes are coming fast. A frequent complaint among teachers I work with is that we get trained in something new, and just when we start to get the hang of it, they tell us “now, stop doing it the new way, and instead do it the new new way.” We do a lot of mid-stream changing. I have adapted new curricula and been to extensive training to learn the new curricula for several years in a row, now, working the latest and greatest curriculum of the moment. The reform is happening, but it is not being given an opportunity to take hold. And now we are going to be working on shoe-string budgets, and with a lot more kids in the classroom. But it is intended to best benefit the kids, and I support that.

I work in a very small school, where we do reform our culture on a frequent basis to adapt to the particular mix of students. We are very flexible and fluid, and I know that this is a unique thing in any system. There is always grumbling, but everyone comes along. 

Of course, the systems problems of schools are not just internal to the schools: we are given our charge by the community, particularly the parents of the students. Many of these people do not agree with many systems changes. We have frequent battles with parents over such ideas as extending school days or the school year. The introduction of ideas that are proving to improve performance, such as meditation or yoga, are not allowed in schools because the Christian community views them as anti-Christian. Parents and community members often bring up the argument that the old way worked for them, so why change it, and so on, and so on. Any large scale changes bump up against this resistance.

I know that in schools that have huge staffs, large buildings and typical kids, and that it is less easy to change like that .I have a friend who was a principal, and when she tried just to have the teachers all change classrooms to make the flow of the building work better, she was dismissed by the community superintendant. It was was tragedy, but that is how people deal with change. But most importantly, this is true for humans, not just teachers.

There is a lot of talk out that relates schools to businesses. “In businesses, we fire people all the time, why can’t you fire those teachers,” “if schools ran like businesses...” My only comment to that is that in schools, we do not have a bottom line, and we do not create a product. We deal in making human beings realize their full potential. Children are not products.

“Tenure” was a word thrown around a lot in that movie. They said that in 2 years teachers get tenure, and then they are stuck in the system and no one can fire them. ever.

Colorado has not had tenure as long as I have been a teacher. Let me tell you about two teachers I work with. One has been at our school for probably 7 years now. She is a very talented teacher who started as a part-time art teacher. After several years, she had no years toward a permanent contract, because she was part-time. She finally got a full time job, and at the end of the year, her position was advertised, and she had to reapply. This has happened some number of years. Last year, she barely beat off the job cuts, and maintained her job. This year Colorado adopted a new plan, whereby teachers are temporary now for 4 years, instead of 3, and there are more budget cuts coming. One of our other teachers in a similar position resigned his job and is moving to Texas where he might actually have a chance of getting a job.

(update - since the initial writing of this, the second teacher also lost her job, after working at the school for 5 years to be replaced by someone with more seniority and a master's degree.)

In what industry do they keep firing you each year and making you reapply for your job? They never talk about this when criticizing teachers. There is no tenure, just a continuing contract where you can stop reapplying for and interviewing for your own job year after year. All that to get a job that starts paying at around $30,000 a year.

“Waiting for Superman” followed 4 delightful, bright children, three from the inner city, and one from the suburbs. All four had a similar plan, which was to apply at high-performing charter schools. All the charter schools had a lottery system to fill their few open positions. The end of the movie showed these children at the lotteries. The film implied that if they did not make it to these schools, they would become drop-outs and drug addicts, and their lives would be over. Two made it.

The reality is different. Even in ‘failing schools,’ there are bright children who go on to have bright futures.

As far as failing schools, there was a recent study, cited by Arne Duncan, Sec. of Education, that stated that it had been determined that numerous schools had been labeled as ‘failing,’ and many had been closed down due to their populations of disabled students. “No Child Left Behind” is legislation that says that by 2016, ALL students, regardless of their disability will be reading and doing math at grade level. That is 100%. Barack Obama has called on congress to fix this oversight. But for now, it is law.

I have worked with disabled people all my adult life, and the fact is that there are people whose disabilities impair their academic abilities. This does not belittle them as people in any sense, but I have worked with numerous people for whom reading at a sixth grade level is a crowning achievement, and they have worked harder for that than most of us have worked at anything. The world needs to embrace people with differences, rather than to mark them as bad. And it is bigotted to call schools failing because there are people unable to achieve a random mark.

As far as curricula, in order to increase test performance each year, the concepts are being pushed to earlier and earlier grades. I learned multiplication in 5th grade. They are now going to start it in 3rd grade. I learned Algebra in 10th grade. Starting next year, it will be moved down to 8th grade. The problem is that people develop cognitively (the ability to understand different concepts) based on growth and development, not based on what the test says. Typically children develop the cognitive schema needed to intuit multiplication around the end of their fourth grade year. some develop it earlier, some develop it later. And so, in order to keep up with the demands of the test, we are teaching concepts earlier than they have developed cognitive devices to handle them. Granted, some of these devices can be forced by introducing concepts earlier, but more kids will become lost and frustrated in that process. That is the downside of school reform.

If school reform works for the betterment of our education and the betterment of our country, I am all for it. But if educational reform becomes a device for politicians and for test companies like McGraw Hill, (who write the Colorado Student Aptitude Profile, aka CSAP) to improve themselves, and they stress students and teachers past the point they can manage, then I do not support it. We need to reform our antiquated thinking about how people learn; among this, high-stakes testing.

Reliable data comes from frequent, informal progress monitoring, such as many low-stakes tests and assignments. There are a multitude of computer programs that give quick, weekly tests that paint a very accurate picture of the student’s abilities and needs. Many of these provide the teacher immediate feedback on what the child knows and what the child needs to lean. This is that data gathering that drives true school reform.

But ultimately, schools are about the thing which is immeasurable: they are about relationships. “Waiting for Superman” did not even use the word relationship. Students learn from a pedagogical relationship with adults. Students respond to different adults. At my school, I am great at reaching some kids, and have no absolutely no luck connecting with some. The fortunate thing about our school is that were have such diverse adults that almost every student develops a meaningful pedagogical relationship with at least on of the teachers, and then we become their mentors. David Harris has written about this magical thing that happens in schools, but almost no one else has even mentioned it!

School reform will never work, no matter how many tests and mandates we give, how early we introduce curricula, how many teachers we fire or whether there are or aren’t unions until we look at what REALLY needs to happen in schools. And that is that we need to love our children, and hone these children’s curiosity until they love learning. Then no one will ever stop them!

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