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Education Sun Oct 03 2010

Waiting for "Superman" -- OneMan's Perspective

Two of us Gapers Block Mechanics section writers were invited to the Chicago premier of Waiting for Superman, by filmmaker Davis Guggenheim. I am not sure if we got our invitations because we write for Mechanics or have blogged about education in other places. Regardless, we thought it might be interesting to post our thoughts on the movie separately.

In order to understand my viewpoint on the movie, I think I should provide some background about myself...

I am a Republican who is in favor of vouchers. I attended public schools though my undergraduate degree (In Dolton, IL for K-12 and then NIU for my BS); my graduate education is from two private universities in the western suburbs (Aurora and Lisle). I have a MS in MIS. I have taught for credit classes (part-time) at the community college level (Introduction to Windows, Introduction to Windows 95) and a database class for credit for the on-line component of The University of Phoenix. I currently work as a computer professional. Finally, because I think it is relevant to the discussion, I grew up in a union household: my dad was a union member and, at one time, the shop steward.

Some First Thoughts
Well, if the goal of this movie is to start a conversation, I think it is going to succeed. Education perhaps more than any other issue is something most people feel comfortable talking about and having an opinion about because most folks in the US have been users of education for a decent portion of their lives. Think about it: If you have a high school diploma and are in your late 40s you still will have spent a quarter of your life in the educational system. So much like how everyone thinks they can run a restaurant because they go out to eat and watch Hell's Kitchen, the same is sort of true about education. So this movie is going to solicit a response from everyone who sees it.

It does not paint a very positive picture about teachers unions, and I suspect they are going to be the largest force complaining about the movie. Much like the right was all over An Inconvenient Truth (from the same director as this film), the teachers unions are going to working overtime to try and counter this movie. You can read the AFT's response here.

Some thoughts on some of subjects brought up in the movie.

The Challenge in Firing Teachers:
This was one of the most interesting parts of the movie for me; they used the research that was done in Illinois by the Small Newspaper Group. When some of the statistics were shown about terminating teachers using a very effective graphic style there were audible gasps in the audience. For example, in the last 18 years, 94 percent of school districts in the state have not even attempted to fire anyone with tenure. I think this in many ways is going to be the one thing that sticks in the minds of those seeing the film the most, because after 12 years of public education I suspect everyone can name at least a teacher or two who they think shouldn't be teaching.

The second example that sticks out in my mind is the "Dance of the Lemons" in Milwaukee, where school leaders try to push off their "lemons" on each other. In large part this concept really sticks in my mind because of the way it is presented visually in the film, as the same concept is illustrated in different states with different names. I suspect that if anything is going to change after this movie, it is going to become easier to fire a teacher with tenure for being a bad teacher.

Charter Schools:
The focus of the second half of the movie is the attempts for various students (from the East and West coasts -- apparently there are no kids in fly-over America) to get into the charter schools of their choice, and why these kids are trying to go to these charter schools. Since the charter schools are all open enrollment and there are more kids trying to get into these schools than there are open slots, the students are picked by a lottery. The lottery sets up by far the most dramatic and heart-wrenching component of the movie. After hearing about their dreams and hopes and how important getting into the school they want to go to is to them and their families, watching the various lotteries is very emotional.

The movie talks about how the charter schools these kids want to go are successful (their test scores, graduation rates, number of students who head to college), but not too much about why they are successful. Since the focus of the second half of the movie is these kids getting into these great, successful charter schools, I would have liked to have seen more on why these charter schools work.

The Teachers Unions:
They end up in many ways the hobgoblin of the film. The film does talk a bit about how and why teachers unions came about. But most of the discussion is about how the unions make it hard to fire teachers, hard to promote change in schools and how the teachers unions are huge political spenders that basically set education policy for the Democratic Party. The film has a couple of segments with the president of the AFT where she does not come off very well, which can be a function of the filmmaker as much as anything else (just ask any conservative who has been in a Michael Moore film).

At the end of it, however, I think either because he couldn't go in for the kill or it never crossed his mind, the director never really got down to the essence of the idea of the teachers union. At the end of the day they are a teachers union, not a student union -- their role is to represent what are the best interests of their members and those interests may not necessarily be the best interests of students. The argument is made that the unions are an impediment to improvement and change (I am sure the unions would disagree with that), but then the next logical question is, why that is the case? Is it in someone's interest to make it hard to fire a teacher; if so, whom? Is it in the best interest of someone to not allow merit pay for teachers; if so, whom? Do the unions feel that in 83 percent of Illinois school districts there isn't one unsatisfactory teacher? If you are going to identify a villain in all of this, you should try to explain and document why they are taking the stances they are. That was one of my biggest issues with the film, Guggenheim in part blames the teachers unions without explaining their motivations.

There is a lot more that is going to be written about and as a result of this movie in the coming weeks and months. Again, I think it is going to start a conversation they real question is if, and when that conversation is going to move from blame to action.

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