Since I was already in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex to teach my “Computers in Classroom” course at UNT today and had a free evening, I drove about 45 minutes to a wonderful independent movie theater in Plano, Texas, and watched the movie, “Waiting for Superman.” I’ve read quite a few articles and blog posts in the last couple of weeks not only about this movie, but also Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee’s op-ed “manifesto” in the Washington Post on October 10th. I read Diane Ravitch’s book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” a couple months ago, and I spent ten days in China last month thinking a LOT about our schools, our economy, and our future as a nation. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know the ideas this movie addresses are near and dear to my heart, and I have strong opinions about issues like accountability and NCLB. I think NCLB was designed from the start to label public schools in general as failures, and I’ve questioned in the past the motives of some championing charter schools as not having the best interests of our students or our nation at heart. Public schools aren’t businesses, and shouldn’t be treated as such. A narrowed “back to basics” curriculum is harmful, yet we need disruption within our educational status quo to increase options for students and inject innovation into a system which often can be deadly to different and creative thinkers.
When I went to the theater tonight, I was expecting to be upset by a one-sided film which would grossly exaggerate the reality of the situation in our schools today. I thought it would put me on the defensive as an educator and educational change agent openly opposed to the NCLB/RTTT agenda of our current and past administrations. I was wrong. While there are certainly some big ideas this film misses, I think it was well crafted and is definitely worth seeing. I regret that apparently (according to the unscientific searching I did today on Flixter) this movie is NOT being shown in the entire state of Oklahoma. It should be showing in every city and town. This is a movie we need to watch as citizens, and discuss as taxpayers. I regret we didn’t have an opportunity for an “on the spot focus group” with the 7 other people who were in the theater with me tonight.
In this post I’ll share a few reflections on the movie and what it inspires me to consider regarding both local and broad-based educational reform in our nation. I did take some notes (yes, on my iPhone) during the movie, and I posted those to Posterous right after the movie was over. I’ll attempt to organize those thoughts and reflections more coherently here.
I agree with George Lucas’ main point in his guest blog for EduTopia today. We DO have a lot of successful educators and successful classrooms around us. “Waiting for Superman” highlights schools like the Harlem Kids Zone and KIPP, but there are MANY more. EduTopia does a great job highlighting the ways learners in our schools (teachers as well as students) need to not only work hard and have high expectations for each other, but also learn DIFFERENTLY using a combination of problem-based learning strategies as well as technology tools. I can’t help but think of the fantastic K-12 Online Conference, which kicked off its FIFTH year today as a global, worldwide conference bringing together some of the most innovative educators to share their best ideas FOR FREE– as another example of a SUPER place to see “what’s right” in our schools and with our teachers (as well as students) today.
I have summarized some of the main points of “Waiting for Superman” in my notes. What I really want to do here is reflect on my conclusions after seeing the film.
One of the biggest FUNDAMENTAL ideas the movie “gets wrong” is the idea that education is far more than filling a pail. Paulo Freire and John Dewey are likely rolling over in their graves in response to the animation included about halfway through the film, where the producers literally show a teacher “pouring” metaphorical knowledge into the heads of students.
The “Waiting for Superman” producers then try to make the point that this educational process SHOULD be easy to replicate everywhere. The educational process is so much more than simply knowledge transfer and regurgitation! I would have loved to have served as a consultant on the film and corrected this point. Many of the scenes in the movie make the appropriate point overall, but I don’t think it’s stated explicitly as it should be: Relationships are pivotal to a good education. Relationships with parents, relationships with teachers, and relationships with peers. They are all VITAL. This was a BIG omission in the movie, and a missed opportunity to clarify this for audience members. All too often as adults, we mistake knowledge transfer for education. If that was all we needed, the phonograph would have been the transformative technology that would have ushered in a new golden age of learning. As it turns out, the ingredients needed for effective learning are far more complex.
One of the main points of the film is to demonize teachers’ unions, and suggest we cannot move forward in our nation without somehow breaking the stranglehold unions have on school administrators being unable to fire incompetent teachers. The New York City “rubber rooms” were highlighted to make this point, along with other dramatic stories of large school district superintendents unable to fire teachers for clearly egregious, unprofessional conduct. I actually agree with this point in general, that it needs to be MUCH easier for school administrators today to fire unprofessional and ineffective teachers. Of course we should still have “due process” to prevent capricious firings, but the kinds of tales related in the movie of NYC “rubber rooms” and superintendents who couldn’t fire teachers on the spot who were actually videotaped abusing children is ridiculous. Balance and common sense is needed here. The film failed to point out that at least some educational union leaders acknowledge this. It’s not in anyone’s interest, those in a teachers’ union or those outside, to have unprofessional and negligent educators protected and in some cases even retained by “the system.” I don’t know what this answer is, but it clearly IS part of the problem that we cannot afford to ignore. No, I don’t view all teachers’ unions as demonic. I do, however, acknowledge that many administrators I know have expressed frustration over their own inability to weed out educators who do not consistently act in the best interests of children.
Perhaps one way to address this is by having educators apply periodically for their jobs, and letting principals select the staff they want to do the job before them. Chris Lehmann is a Philadelphia school administrator I admire greatly along with many others. Chris was able to SELECT his staff from a pool of applicants, however. His school has kids APPLY and they have to turn away many. That’s a VERY different situation than that faced by most public schools, however. There are important lessons to learn, of course, and perhaps one of them is we should let administrators choose their staff on a regular basis. That kind of turnover and ability of a campus administrator to hire and fire (or at least not ‘re-hire’) is pretty much unheard of now, but maybe it shouldn’t be. Certainly that situation would underline the vital importance of high quality administrative leadership even more. Our need for high quality leadership is everywhere, however, and is not just limited to formal positions of administrative leadership. We need strong leaders at all levels, including the classroom. Our policies should reflect this need and empower leaders to work with those who can do the best work with and for kids.
I must quickly add that I am NOT supportive of plans to simply measure teachers based on the test scores of students. As a nation, we need leaders who can firmly reject the failed idea that “high stakes accountability” is good for our schools and our nation. It is not. High expectations are needed everywhere, and of course we should continue to have assessments which include testing. The high stakes testing regime which continues to be touted by politicians and foundation chairmen alike is destructive, however, and MUST END. This is another point “Waiting for Superman” completely missed.
We do NOT simply need the same schools we have had for the past fifty years, filled with more passionate teachers and longer bell schedules. This is a mistaken recommendation movies like “Two Million Minutes” make, I think, and “Waiting for Superman” may also suggest. KIPP produces results, but it also burns out teachers. It also doesn’t encourage the sort of collaborative, project-based, digitally blended learning environments we need to be successful in the 21st century knowledge economy. Today, Karen Motley asked me what I think we need to encourage more broad-based educational change. Conversations like those inspired by “Waiting for Superman” are part of that answer. Those conversations must not only focus on the challenges facing high-poverty urban schools, but also the challenges facing ALL schools to reinvent themselves as community hubs of education equipping students to leverage the power of blended learning and acquire REAL workforce skills needed TODAY and tomorrow. “Into this breech” of challenges I offer EduTopia, the Buck Institute for Education, and the K-12 Online Conference as not just beacons of hope, but also suggested recipes for success.
The ending of this movie, focusing on the “lottery” drawing of student names for educational charter schools, certainly is touching. It is very good to see and hear from parents who have such HUNGER and passionate motivation for their children to get a high quality education and become more than their parents could be. This issue of motivation is a key one, however, and it takes FAR more than school changes to address it. Geoffrey Canada is portrayed well in “Waiting for Superman,” and I’m sure he’d agree this process is NOT simple. We can’t simply change state charter school laws, or do away with teacher union contracts with a magic wand, and suddenly have schools appear like the Harlem Kids Zone overnight. What this takes more than anything else is PASSIONATE people working hard to make a difference. That point IS made well in the movie. We need to empower different and creative thinkers, and find ways to reduce bureaucratic hurdles which prevent leaders like Geoffrey Canada from making a bigger difference. This is a conversation we need to have in our churches and our community centers, however, and I don’t see that happening yet.
“Waiting for Superman” makes the clear suggestion that a BIG problem for US schools has been our democratic processes and system of local school control. Michelle Rhee is held up as a heroine, but the movie only tells part of that story. Rather than needing less civic involvement and participation, I think we need more. We need adults from all walks of life to get MORE involved in our schools, as mentors and guest experts in our classrooms. We need MORE documentation of what’s happening inside and around our classrooms, rather than less. Social media and storychasers have important roles to play here. I don’t think we should see the path of the Joel Klein’s and Michelle Rhee’s as the road we want to travel in our cities and communities. We don’t need authoritarian rule with minimal accountability. Rather, we need MORE civic participation and citizen involvement in the educational process. We need community schools.
I’ll close on a personal note. My son attends a public magnet school in downtown Oklahoma City. For quite awhile, my wife and I have felt called to move into the city. The changed transfer policy of the district along with the age of our oldest daughter, who also wants to attend Classen SAS, has forced us to get serious about looking for a new home in the city. We’ve been looking in earnest since early spring. The issues raised in “Waiting for Superman” aren’t just rhetorical for me as a parent and educator, they’re right in front of our family. We don’t plan to send our kids to private schools. I’ve worked in private schools on two continents in the past thirty days, where individual student tuition exeeds $10,000 US per child and may have exceeded $15,000 or even $20,000 per year. It’s challenging on different levels to work in environments like this, and not only think about “21st century skills” for the wealthy, but also those needed skills for our urban and rural poor – and all those in between.
No, “Waiting for Superman” doesn’t get everything right when it comes to our schools and educational reform. Neither did “An Inconvenient Truth” (also directed by Davis Guggenheim) however, but both films can serve important purposes. We need to be having conversations about the issues both films raise in our communities, and taking ACTION as a result. My kids are in school, along with thousands of others, and they can’t wait. They need “The School I Love” now.
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