Some thoughts on Waiting for Superman

The film Waiting for Superman has some cinematic elements but mostly it seems like propaganda. The insertion of a failed bike jump to illustrate U.S. students’ over-confidence is just one of the funny, effective, and ultimately sad, propaganda elements. I saw the film the other day and I left feeling a little pissed off but […]

The film Waiting for Superman has some cinematic elements but mostly it seems like propaganda. The insertion of a failed bike jump to illustrate U.S. students over-confidence, is just one of the funny, effective, and ultimately sad, propaganda elements. I saw the film the other day and I left feeling a little pissed off but not necessarily moved to action. I could feel the filmmaker shoving me though so I wrote this.

I processed the film for a while and I kept hearing some of the phrases repeated. One that really stuck out was “Teachers are good but unions are evil.” I just couldn’t swallow this statement. The film seemed like a summary of all the negative media I have read and seen over the course of the last two years. It was just the type of reductionist spittle that Teaching 2030 is calling to the carpet. The film is full of either/or choices, negative portrayals of people who think they are doing the right thing (even if they aren’t doing it well), and conspiracy theories aimed at weakening our public school system.

When the film maker puts public schools in opposition to quality education, he is harming the same children he appears to be trying to help. Leaving our future up to the chance of charter school lotteries is unacceptable, yes. But attacking public schools to support your ideas about charter schools shows the weaknesses of the argument.

In the film, what really separates the “bad” schools from the “good” schools amounts to three factors, teacher working conditions, teacher practice, and community support. In charter schools you get better working conditions because funding and resource distribution is streamlined. Procedures that are put in place in many school systems as an attempt at equality, such as equal distribution of new computers, fail at producing equity. The argument between justice and fairness is taken out of the quality equation. The teacher practice in the charter schools highlighted in the film seems better than that in the “bad” school, but this could be due to a number of factors. Often charter schools can provide competitive wages or offer more teacher autonomy. Other charter schools use the “program approach” in which teachers are expected to implement, not invent curriculum and instruction. These teachers are also much easier to fire because they don’t have as much support from unions. Community support is ensured through the mere process of “opting in” to the educational process. These are not insurmountable differences for public schools, merely difficult ones.

Teaching 2030 suggests that we need to create a system in which teachers enter schools effective and are duly compensated. It seems Bob Pianta, renowned early childhood researcher and developer of the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) agrees. Head Start, in a bold, forward thinking move, has adopted the CLASS as part of its 3 year review process.

Bob Pianta said in a guest post for Jay Matthew’s blog Class Struggle,

“the core problem in public education is not identifying effective teachers. It’s that our existing system does not produce effective teaching in sufficient scope, scale, regularity, or intensity.”

It’s true that there are many great teachers but, there are likely more OK teachers. I tend to think that many OK teachers are great at some things and need more support in other areas. Pianta has provided the education world with a performance based assessment of classroom teaching in the early childhood, and soon, later years. One of the great things about the CLASS is that it evaluates academic teacher-child interactions as well as social emotional development and the implementation of a variety of instructional learning formats all of which are important to learning.

What Waiting for Superman does is point fingers at teachers without asking why. We put teachers into classrooms before they are ready, without continued support, and tell them day after day, what you do doesn’t matter, only the end result matters. Its enough to suck the soul out of anybody. Most of those “bad” teachers that Waiting for Superman portrays did not start out that way, but they ended up that way, why?  It is likely a systemic failure not a personal one. For a long time we have used the results of teaching practice to make judgments about teacher effectiveness. However, as Pianta points out, test scores don’t tell us how to teach better, the only tell us the end result. Perhaps if we had better tools to judge teacher effectiveness and these tools were used for “good” instead of identifying “evil” we would have better teachers already instead of the comic book baddies in the film.

Image: http://blogs.sltrib.com/iraq/2008/10/living-in-bizzaro-world.htm