Back in 2007, when District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) was still somehow getting by with a superintendent and not a chancellor, I was invited to participate in an advisory group concerning culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students. The first meeting of the advisory group was presided over by three DCPS administrators. The first told the audience about all the great new plans and programs administrators were enacting to help all the District’s students thrive.
The second got up and gave us a lecture on how each and every student could be high achieving, and never mind the Lake Woebegon conundrum. (How can every student be above average?) She dared the audience not to believe that all students could be high achieving and threatened dire consequences to anyone who might, in a passing moment, pause to question whether her assertion was plausible.
The third administrator took the stage and talked about the contribution of parents and the school community. She noted how important parents and the community were to student success and proceeded to give a number of examples of strong community support.
So, the administrators aren’t part of the problem—they have the programs to make things right. The students aren’t part of the problem—they’re all ready to be high achieving. The parents and the community are of course, just dandy. Gee, what stakeholder group was left to be the source of school problems?
The newly released film, “Waiting for Superman,” (Paramount Vantage) which claims to address a crisis in our public school system, builds its case in a similar fashion. We hear from many administrators who have great programs and plans underway. We hear from administrators who wanted to solve problems but who were blocked by nefarious entities. We are shown five sets of parents and children, all hoping to flee the blight of substandard public schools by winning a lottery that will permit their children to attend charter schools. The children are all loveable and reasonably precocious. The parents are all dedicated, they all want the best for their children, and they all state that they are willing to do the impossible if that’s what it takes to help their child succeed.
True, “Waiting for Superman” does not directly demonize teachers. One of the puzzling aspects of the film is that we hear from no practicing teachers on these problems. We do hear about one teacher in the film who continues to frustrate one parent because he won’t send home her child’s progress folder. We are told periodically about the difference that “one good teacher” can make (in fact there seems to be an assumption that “good teachers” are rare natural phenomenon, not the products of education and professional development), but we don’t see many teachers. In fact, the one time we see a generic teacher (a cartoon actually), she is opening students’ skulls one by one and pouring in knowledge, as if teaching was simply a matter of information delivery.
My thought is that Davis Guggenheim, the director, feared a backlash if he painted teachers directly accountable for the problems of our public school system. Instead, the film avoids blaming teachers, instead demonizing teacher unions (we conceptualize “teachers” as individuals, so a union is easier to beat up on for being an entity). In “Superman” the unions are the source of all problems. They refuse to allow the dismissal of incompetent teachers, they refuse plans to introduce merit pay, they block proposals to lengthen the school day or year. Because of unions (according to the film) charter schools needed to be created. Never mind that even proponents of charter schools only find 20% of the schools to be genuine successes—charter schools are the sure solution. But the charter school model can’t be introduced into public schools because of the unions. Clearly the teacher’s unions play the fall guy role here, but wait, the teacher unions represent...ah...er...teachers! So the buck for failing schools stops with the teachers, whether Guggenheim comes out and says it or not.
Teachers play a pivotal role in our public schools, but the challenges facing our schools go beyond what teachers can accomplish—they go to the core values of our culture. Many of the nations that regularly best us in international achievement tests, for example Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan, are relatively small and homogeneous countries that value education profoundly and respect teachers immensely. Americans don’t value education as highly; it goes against our sense of self-reliance, and as those of us who have taught internationally know, there are few countries that respect teachers less than the United States. My wife is from South Korea, a place where a child’s education is the number one concern of the family, where studying and studying much is the work of a child. For U.S. families, too often, school is just one of many, many competing obligations and interests. If education were genuinely valued in the United States, public education would not be a problem
The other critical challenge on which teachers can have only limited impact are the achievement gaps between minority students (especially those from impoverished families) and students from mainstream families. Teachers must work to narrow this gap. And they want to—why would anyone go into teaching if they were not committed to having all students achieve their best?
My wife teaches second grade in a Title I public school. Last week one of her boys came to school quite ill. Part of the reason he was sick is that he, his homeless mother, and siblings had slept in four different places in less than a week. The mother basically has the clothes on her back. The boy is a good student—so far. It is just too sad. His continued academic achievement counts on many factors that my wife and his future teachers cannot possibly control.
Still for too many people, if there is a problem in public schools, be it about international comparisons of student achievement or minority scholastic success, it must be the teachers’ fault. Those looking at the source of public school problems are too easily inclined to see teachers as not knowing what they are doing and/or not caring about their students. There are even instructional systems that try to “teacher proof” teaching—choreographing the teaching process right down to scripts that teachers must read (the Success for All Foundation, Baltimore, MD).
The faulty perception, one that “Waiting for Superman” succumbs to, is believing that there are a few excellent, natural-born teachers and many bad or mediocre teachers. Thus the thinking goes, if we just had more excellent, natural-born teachers, the public education’s problems would be solved. This belief simply ignores the majority of public school teachers who take their jobs seriously, who care deeply about their students, who teach with enthusiasm and devotion, and who engage in regular professional development to become better in what they do. The teachers are there. They are doing admirable work. They are not the problem.
Stereotypes abound about teachers: Great teachers are paragons of inspiration and dedication, the rest are at best, vaguely mediocre. Young new teachers are successful because they are fresh, full of enthusiasm, and willing to take risks, whereas any veteran teacher must be burnt out, cynical, and uninspired.
Spend time in any public school. You’ll find veteran teachers as committed and enthusiastic as any novice. Those veteran teachers will also be well educated and deeply experienced in their craft—they can expend their enthusiasm through the most productive channels, while many novices, as often as not, flounder for lack of know-how.
By and large, good teachers are not born; they are educated. Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of DC Public Schools, who appears often in “Waiting for Superman” and is surely one of the film's “heroes,” entered Teach For America with no teacher education or teaching experience and taught for 3 years. Apparently, her students performed very well. Based on her success, she has come to devalue both teacher education programs and career teachers. The problem is that if Rhee had success, it was the exception and not the rule. Most teachers are not “natural teachers.” Most of us have to learn how to be good teachers, both through professional development and through hard won teaching experience. Good teaching comes from education, experience, commitment, and a willingness to look at yourself honestly and ask, “How can I do better?” Trust me, we are not the people that to be fired.
Also, times have changed. The teacher accountability movement, which began in the mid-nineties, means that teachers are regularly observed and evaluated, especially during their first 2 years before tenure. Teaching standards are in place and performance indicators monitored. Student success on standardized tests does affect teachers and there are consequences if significant numbers of students in a class don’t achieve grade level results. Are other public school stakeholders being held to comparable levels of accountability?
Teachers have been addressing the challenges of our public schools for many years. They continue to do so despite politicians who take cheap shots at complex problems as elections draw near; they continue to do so despite administrators who impose the “flavor of the year” instructional systems on them and focus only on getting the test scores up; they continue to do so without the support of working parents who want to participate, but who don’t have the time; they do so despite a general public that doesn’t place a high value on education and doesn’t particularly respect teachers.
Do you want a better public education system? Roll up your sleeves and join us. We teachers are already giving it our all.
By the way: My daughter is a sophomore in a public high school, and we are quite satisfied with the quality of her education.