article by Amanda Ripley last week about a film titled Waiting for "Superman" coming out this month. The film has already outraged my union-friendly colleagues who point out the funding for the movie was raised by the same people who fund charter schools (generally seen as union sink holes). At the same time it’s being heralded as an emotional, gut-wrenching documentary on how many American kids get a raw deal with their education.
I can really only speak to what I’ve seen in New York, which is such a monster of a system that it’s difficult to compare to any other school system. Our students have the option of attending any school in the city, though some require admission exams. Even still, there are schools ranging from the best to the worst that students can attend if they so choose- especially for high school. A big difference between here and places that lack public transportation is that low-income students who are zoned to go to bad schools are stuck, save for perhaps the opening of a charter school, which gives them choice. That choice represents the largest hope many parents have for getting their students into schools that cannot pull together great staffs. Ripley points out the statistic, however, that only 1/6 charter schools perform significantly better than their traditional public school counterparts, while a full third do worse, making the move to a charter school pretty hit or miss in most areas.
As the film follows five families that are trying to get into charter schools, I hope it addresses the fact that the very involvement of those parents reflects a healthier home life than students have who are being left behind by the traditional public schools. An issue is brought up a lot amongst my colleagues and I that charter schools have an edge simply because parents have to care enough to put their kids on a list. Supporters of charter schools will generally say there is a lottery, claiming that anyone can get in, but the bottom ten percent of performers do not make it onto that list. Why? No one signs them up, leaving them in the failing schools Americans are becoming increasingly concerned about.
In general, the article seems to bring together known problems with the system: the teachers union impeding change, bad teachers lingering in the system, and, of course, there are teachers out there who give up on kids. She’s gracious enough to acknowledge the unions are changing their tune at least a bit by trying to promote real accountability, but also seems to be she’s riding the media craze over test scores that only paint part of the picture. Pointing out teachers who say terrible things to students like, “It doesn’t matter if you learn. Your future is determined,” while her best shot at describing good teachers are those who work longer days and years and who give out their cell number to parents and students gives the writing a negative taste, leaning toward very critical of teachers in general.
Ripley and I both want to see teachers held accountable in a meaningful way, but it seems that the momentum she’s hoping will come from the film will "fix" teacher accountability with little more than the data even she refers to as imperfect. What she wants is to get rid of bad teachers, which would be delightful, but getting rid of a large chunk of the country’s teachers does not automatically replace them with the great ones we dream of. Articles such as this one aren’t exactly helping the recruitment cause by painting the profession as riddled with incompetent, mean-spirited folks sitting around waiting for their pensions to kick in. That said, I'm looking forward to seeing the film in its own right, which I hope will be as honest and free of bias as the director claims it is.