`Superman’ comes to Oakland

Superman image from aka Kath's photostream at flickr.com/creativecommonsI saw “Waiting for Superman” tonight at Oakland’s Piedmont Theater, an invitation-only screening hosted by the California Capital & Investment Group and the Oakland Schools Foundation.

The first thing I saw when I approached the theater was a small and orderly demonstration by a group of teachers. The film comes down pretty hard on unions, so I wasn’t surprised. One of the signs read: “We are not waiting for anyone! We teach because we care!”

I stood in line behind a San Francisco public schoolteacher named Vanessa Nelson, who was not sure what she’d make of the documentary. She and her colleagues wanted to see and discuss it, she said, but they were concerned that the only schools held up as models of success and hope were privately run, publicly funded charter schools. Why should they support such a film?

Behind me was Mieko Scott, her 12-year-old daughter, Kamari, and one of Kamari’s friends. Scott’s family recently moved from Oakland to the East Bay suburb of Dublin, where they thought the public schools would be good. Kamari lasted four days in a public middle school, Scott said, before she returned to private school. She goes to Ecole Bilingue, a private French-English immersion school in Berkeley with much smaller class sizes.

“The system is not good for kids right now,” Scott said.

The film made people laugh at times and gasp at others. (Some said afterward that they cringed at an animated cartoon that depicted teaching as opening up a student’s head and pouring knowledge inside.) And, of course, there was sniffling at the end. Even I — the hardened journalist that I am — had to work to keep the tears from flowing. At a purely human level, it’s heartbreaking! Does anyone know if kids always sit through these lottery drawings, and if so, why? To make them feel more grateful and invested if they do get in?

After the movie ended, after developer Phil Tagami and mayoral candidate Don Perata introduced Superintendent Tony Smith, and after Smith gave his two cents about the film, a man in the crowd (whom I probably should know, but don’t) suggested that the wait was over — that Tony Smith was the school system’s superhero.

“You’re pretty much the idea of Superman,” the man said.

Smith thanked him for his support. Then he leveled with him.

“I don’t think Superman is coming,” he said. “I really don’t.”

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • http://www.skylinehs.org/apps/pages/index.jsp?uREC_ID=77763&type=u&rn=6808095 David Orphal

    A lot of teachers are feeling frustrated and angry about the new movie “Waiting for Superman.” It’s true that this film does not give a holistic picture of public education. Instead it focuses on the stories of five children who are likely going to attend five under funded, understaffed, and unsuccessful schools, and their hopes to win a lottery that will allow them to enroll in a charter school that is having a lot more success. Frankly, I am neither shocked or angry at the narrow scope of the film. In my minds, what we have here is a film adaptation of Jonathan Kozol’s excellent book, Savage Inequalities, updated to include the modern charter-school movement.

    I work in a public school which is far too similar to the ones portrayed as failing in this film. Nearly half of our incoming freshmen will still be gone before senior year. Those remaining seniors, will most likely graduate and many of them will start college. However, most of our college goers will be enrolling in community colleges rather than four-year institutions, and many of them will not graduate.

    What “Waiting for Superman” wouldn’t show you about my school are the dozens and dozens of teachers, parents, students, community members, and administrators trying to make our school better. What “Waiting for Superman” doesn’t show you is the patchwork of quality that makes up the charter-school movement. Some charter schools, like some public schools, are excellent. Some charter schools, like some public schools are not serving their communities nearly well enough. Most charter schools, like most public schools, are somewhere in the middle.

    I wish my colleagues would stop expressing so much vitriol about this film and acknowledge it for what it is, a narrow portrait. I think we are overly caught up in the Shame/Blame dynamic. Too many of us seem to think that we cannot allow any criticism of public schools or public school teachers. Perhaps we think that if we acknowledge some of our problems and failings then we should feel ashamed of ourselves. Since we cannot accept the shame, many of us choose instead to blame others: Parents don’t care about their children’s education; politicians wont fund schools properly; kids are impossible these days; reformers and principals just want to blame teachers.

    I want to beg my fellow teachers, “Don’t let the pundits shame you!” One of tactics of some of these pundits right now is to shame teachers into working even longer hours and donating even more time, energy and money that we have been. If we are not self-sacraficing teacher-saints, then we must be one of the so-called bad teachers.

    I am sure that you are like me: that you average 9+ hour days; that you think of lessons at night and on the weekend and are suddenly working some more; that when your kids need something and the school wont buy it, you do.

    Teachers working just a little bit more is not a solution. When Geoffrey Canada commented on Oprah that he couldn’t get the teachers to “work just one more hour,” he neglected the fact that this would mean now working 10+ hours a day for most teachers.

    One of our BIG challenges is not to accept the Shame and not to transfer the Blame onto children, parents, even administrators, politicians and pundits.

    Instead, we have to clearly name the Shame-Blame dynamic for what it is, discuss how this dynamic is neither helpful nor productive.

    Only then, we can focus our energies toward ways we can rebuild trust across these divides and put our energies toward imagining what a well-functioning public school system should look like and begin taking steps to get us from here to there.

  • rumbler


    A brilliant post. I agree that the Shame / Blame game doesn’t help. We should have honest and positive dialogue about the fact that some teachers and effective while others are not. When a teacher can’t send her daughter to a public school, we’re in trouble. OEA needs to be taken over by teachers who work hard and are effective. Right now, OEA is all about protecting the rights of ineffective adults. I’m sorry, if you can’t teach, find another job. Caring doesn’t matter to our youth who are not making it to graduation. It’s really sad,


    –J.R.: your two cents?

  • JR

    David and Rumbler,
    The two of you are correct, and it is not so much “the blame game” as it is the acknowledgment of the fact as even teachers will tell you “we are the ones in the trenches, and this is where the learning happens”. Why would you not start there in the classrooms when you are looking for improvement, and then there is the bloated bureaucracy(in every district BTW) that is the education system(from all the superintendent on down the line). The system needs an enema to make sure that most of the resources go to the children, not adults.

  • “This is why I teach”

    Tony Smith also put out a call to action to the Oakland community. He urged folks to read the district’s strategic vision (which was written by him, collaborated on by many stakeholders, and passed in June by the School Board). He also urged folks to volunteer to fulfill needs within our schools, i.e. mentoring, literacy tutoring, school beautification, etc.

    I believe the he resembles a “Superman” but, in actuality, he truly knows that closing the achievement gap requires addressing the issues (especially the racial inequity) and getting Oaklanders to collectively put in the hard work that this feat will require.

  • Nextset

    The last thing these failing “schools” need is more money.

    Since they produce so little their budgets should be cut.

    We should not be spending more money on poor students. Money should go with the better performing students. 15 year old illiterates should not be in “schools”. They should be at work in jobs suited for them. As far as the achievement gap, money is not the answer. We should be working the at-risk students harder in the pre-puberty years. If they don’t cut the mustard by 14 they should be transferred out to vocational programs as is done in Europe. They’d be happier and more productive and probably better disciplined. Low IQ’s are not going to learn anything in “school” after age 14. They learn best in on the job training.

  • JR

    There is no need for any good or great teachers to feel shame or frustration, the parents know who you are and (should)appreciate what you do. On the other hand those that are not fit to teach should find other avenues of employment, and let those that are capable teach. Everyone needs to be honest with themselves and have enough self respect to step aside if they cant do the job.

  • Mary

    Here is something to keep in mind when considering this issue.

    You may be familiar with Naomi Klein’s book “The Shock Doctrine (The Rise of Disaster Capitalism).” There are forces pumping up the “education crisis” for privatization and corporate profit.

    The Shocking Doctrine of Ed Reform Laid Bare by NBC

    “The very idea that all schools in the nation should be made to suffer a catastrophic disaster in order to be rebuilt by private interests is a vile and thoughtless concept.”

  • oakie

    I agree w/JR in #6. I think we need institutional reforms to bring about this kind of change.

    David mentions these “so called” bad teachers. Well, there ARE bad teachers in our system. And they need to go if your sold highest priority is the need of the students.

    We need real and meaningful teacher evaluations, and compensation based on their performance. Better performing teachers should be paid more. Poorer one paid less. In no way should their compensation (or decisions on layoffs) be based on seniority.

    Why is it that the Oakland Athletics can accomplish this with their players over playing a silly game but when it comes to spending taxpayer’s money for the highest goal possible of educating our children, somehow this is entirely impossible to do?

    I say OUSD does not deserve any additional tax money until they do real reform. Enough of this silliness of ingratiating the current head as a superman, when in fact zero real reform is happening. This is a dysfunctional system and the test scores prove it, and the resistance demonstrated by the entrenched (adults’) interests opposing reform is disgusting. Those teachers defending the status quo ARE the problem. Why is this so hard to see?

  • JR

    I could not have said it better, magnificent post. The education establishment need to know that the taxpayers are tired of dumping money into a system that is “just treading water”, we don’t need high paid admins and consultants,specialists etc what we need is a re-allocation of funds to the children, and discard all of these education geniuses to put all that money “back” into the classroom where it belongs.

  • http://www.BoyScoutXMAS.com AIPCS Parent

    Just a bit of a related side note….a cheerful anecdote…

    This Friday there is a school holiday and schools are closed.

    My son, who goes to AIPCS, tells me that his teacher is going to open up his classroom on Friday for kids to come in and do their weekend homework/get tutoring. in the afternoon, the teacher is going to take all his kids out to see “Waiting for Superman”.

    My kid begged me to let him go to school on Friday.

    Got to love that guy (Mr. Wong)!

  • harold

    Our society is crumbling before eyes … 50%+ divorce rate … 10%+ unemployment… families are falling apart. Not an excuse for low scores, but it needs to be stated.

    I am against merit pay. Its a sham.

    Here’s a better movie to watch (with OUSD student voices):


  • oakie

    To AIPCS Parent: Congrats. When your kid begs to go to school, you’ve got a lot to be happy about.

    harold Says:”I am against merit pay. Its a sham.”

    Thank you Harold for the scintillating exchange of ideas. Keep up the good work. I love it when people on the other side of an issue make my side look so well argued. Well, at least sentient.

    And it is possible for us to both have what we want: split OUSD into two systems. One just like we have now: no real teacher evaluation, seniority determining compensation and layoff sequence and the annual Dance of the Lemons.

    For the other half, a system of serious teacher evaluations, compensation based on performance, and firing teachers who fail to perform.


    And let the better system win.

  • oakie

    I’m reading an article in the Sacramento Bee about a private showing of Superman up there and naturally union protesters out front.


    Even the goddess Michelle Rhee was there.

    Here’s a surprise quote:
    “The most powerful defenders of the broken system, without question, is the teachers union,” said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

    Hm. Not just Obama on the side of reform (lest you try forgetting, the California teacher’s union supportted Hilary in the California primary, which she won–not Obama).

    Is the tide turning? If so, it’s about time.

  • harold

    @Oakie – being nasty doesn’t make you correct. Merit Pay is a sham. How would the Art Teachers at our Secondary schools get merit pay? Do you have a plan?

    What about crappy Administrators are they going to get better at what they do when your magical merit pay system is unleashed? Who is going to evaluate them?

    i’ll be waiting to read your plan!

  • JR

    The true “SHAM” here is seniority based layoffs,bumping and salary structure without regard to performance. As far as Art and PE teachers are concerned, my children go to school to “learn” not to be entertained so I am not the least bit concerned about this “straw man argument” you present. Physical fitness is a lifestyle decision that will not be affected by a few hours a week running around doing some activity. administration needs to be streamlined not just evaluated, because we just flat out don’t need all the admins that we have. next question?

  • Skrill

    I saw the link to the Ract to Nowhere; man what a crock! How many blacks or Latinos did you see in the trailers? No wonder we are getting whooped on international tests.

    This country is on the brink of collapse becuase of such crap! Race to Nowhere? Ask how many in East or West Oakland have gone anywhere besides the penintentiary over the past decades.

  • OaklandEdSupporter


    Love this:

    “And it is possible for us to both have what we want: split OUSD into two systems. One just like we have now: no real teacher evaluation, seniority determining compensation and layoff sequence and the annual Dance of the Lemons.

    For the other half, a system of serious teacher evaluations, compensation based on performance, and firing teachers who fail to perform.


    And let the better system win.”


  • Nextset

    The idea of splitting OUSD and the other ghetto schools into two halves with one continuing as before and the other adopting all the “new” progressive ideas sounds like fun.

    But isn’t that what we have done with the Charter Schools?

    As the Charters steadily take the better students the Ghetto School Districts are left with the dregs to which they apply their pacification tactics with a vengeance – they don’t want unhappy students or families. I might add they prefer happy teachers also – at least no picketing.

    By and large I don’t see or hear of unhappy public school students and teachers. I hear some griping here, but nobody’s picketing. The teachers need a job and benefits and the students don’t want anyone getting in their faces. All is well.

    People like me complain we don’t like the way the ghetto schools operate and use the tax dollars. Nobody in the district political structure (including the teacher unions) care at all what I think or what any of the local employers think. They have correctly realized their paychecks will continue unabated.

    Brave New World. And you’ve seen nothing yet. It’s about to get real uncomfortable for a lot of people, real soon.

  • Ms. J.

    I was interested to read that a teacher at AIPCS is going to open his doors to his classroom so that kids can come in and do homework and have tutoring. At my school no teacher could choose to do this because we are going to be in meetings all day, as mandated by the district. I hope that teachers who are required to be at meetings are not considered less dedicated because they are physically unable to be in two places at one time.

    I also wanted to comment on the idea that parents should choose the schools their kids go to, by making a point I’ve already tried to make before (but fear of repeating oneself does not seem to stop many other posters to this blog). School choice could theoretically work for the children whose parents are involved. However, there are too many children whose parents are not, for whatever reason, involved and supportive–working too hard, not speaking English, too many kids to care for, don’t care–and these are the children who will be (or in Nextset’s view already are) ‘abandoned’ to the only remaining schools which are truly public (in the sense of being open to everybody). A school system which serves only the students who have no other support is destined to fail.

    There was an article on the News Hour on Monday which ended up laying the blame for homeless students’ problems at the feet of the heartless schools who fail to serve them. This seemed to me exemplary of the simplistic point of view dominating the debate on school reform.

    There is a context to school failure and school success. The people who repeatedly shriek that this is not an excuse are missing the point. I am not asking to be excused and certainly not to be approved by anyone who has not been in my classroom and seen me at work.

    I am suggesting that I and the other people who work in public schools cannot be expected to ameliorate alone the myriad problems caused by poverty, racism, drug addiction, lack of education, etc, etc, etc which are larger societal tragedies.

  • harold

    There are a lot of good jobs that relate to P.E. (health-care) and Art. Many professional Dancers, Musicians and Actors have been known to make a good living! Good Graphic Designers make good money too. Pixar employs hundreds of artists.

  • JR

    “I am suggesting that I and the other people who work in public schools cannot be expected to ameliorate alone the myriad problems caused by poverty, racism, drug addiction, lack of education, etc, etc, etc which are larger societal tragedies”.

    Lets be clear, there is a dropout rate of about 40% +/-, so are you saying that these 40% are failing due in large measure to these societal issues, and furthermore aren’t any of the other 60% who DO graduate facing these same societal issues? We need to be clear on this because either we need babysitters(and we can pay them accordingly)or we need teachers whom we need to pay much more, but the taxpayers do not want to pay teachers to babysit, because we can pay less to do that job. The good teachers already know this so they probably didn’t even read it.

  • On the Fence

    @ Ms. J: Thank you for your articulate post. I agree with your assessment.

    @ Harold: I saw Race to Nowhere recently and would recommend it to any parent or educator as a ‘must see’ film. In my opinion, this film warrants more attention, and I hope that Katy Murphy will add a blog about it when she gets a chance.

  • JR

    Decades before “Race to the top” and “no child left behind” this education system has been on a steady “race to nowhere” and soon there will be “most every child left behind”.

  • oakland teach

    am cursious… I am constantly hearing people say, “good teachers”– What makes a “good teacher?” What attributes do “good teachers” have?

  • Oakland Teacher

    This is what I read a “good teacher” is/does:

    1. works endless hours for free – paid for only 6 1/2 hours daily, no problem – you should still be working at least 9 + any good teacher would stay after their work day ends for at least a couple of hours of tutoring students for free

    2. be willing to bring home hours of work/grading daily

    3. focuses on high stakes testing – makes sure kids do well on the district benchmarks and CST’s, even if it means that all the other things that help to grow a child are ignored (can’t worry too much about arts or music for sure as they are not tested)

    4. be young, attractive, and low on the salary schedule

    5. be anti-union or at least not pro-union

    6. be willing to maintain frantic pace of pacing guides, regardless of whether your kids are getting it

    7. do not be overly concerned with the highest or lowest students as you get the most bang for your buck with those that are “just below”

    *No thanks, I’d rather not be a “good teacher”. I am hoping to impart a love of learning, mastery of important skills and concepts, and critical thinking skills!

  • Katy Murphy

    Isn’t there going to be an OUSD task force charged with defining what good teaching looks like? Is anyone here on it?

  • http://www.imaginethatkids.org Mieko Scott

    @ Katy

    That would be a wonderful idea! Keep me posted!
    It’s obvious teaching needs to be defined

  • Turanga_teach

    The task force is still being developed: no meetings as yet that I know of. Should be an interesting series of discussions. The irony is that I can name at least five truly excellent teachers at my site who are simply too busy with their excellent teaching to be on said task force….

  • Teach@charters

    I agree with Oakland Teacher (#25).Political levers decide what is good and not.

    Good schools for all children (charters or not) should be the goal. I have worked at both instituions and have seen sucess and many failures of both. I hear the term of private run public schools and ask-isint that what all public schools are? Until I can send my son wher I want regardless of where I live-I know I have no say in those private decisions.

    The biggest failure though is accetping excuses based on pure race, ethnicity, andscosio economic status. Our country is falling swiftly, and what will we do about it? Argue over fiefdoms?

  • Katy Murphy

    Here’s the story we ran today on `Superman':

    What do you think — or hope — will come of the film?

  • NewParent

    the charter schools highlighted in the movie are largely privately funded by billionaires like Bill Gates. If all the billionaires want to put more money into education (raise taxes), maybe our public education system would have a chance. California has one of the lowest $$ per student spending in the country. if we want real change we need real investment in our schools.

    as for creating two public education systems..i agree with Ms J, #19 0 maybe it’ll work for the kids with more resources, but not for the rest. i think we tried 2 systems already — and separate but equal doesn’t fly.

    Lastly, this movie is an intentional attack on teachers and the teachers union, funded by billionaires. Weakening teachers unions isn’t only bad for schools and students (how about the test scores in southern states where teacher unionization is much lower?) but is also bad for the democratic party. Whether you like the system or not, the teachers unions in CA and nationally are an important piece of the political infrastructure that keeps the right wing from taking over…so be careful what you wish for.

  • JR

    What do I think or hope will come of the film?

    I hope the political extremists on both sides will take the “middle ground” and start siding with the kids, but I don’t see that happening. There is too much ego and money on the line, and the kids evidently take a back seat to that. One thing that is for sure, the status quo has been getting us nowhere.

  • Jenna

    What is a good school?

    In this question, I am not being sarcastic, putting anyone down or being rude. I keep hearing about broad spectrum of learning – doing away with state standards or federal standards or testing. I keep hearing about learning for all.

    What if the classroom has this combination of students: 3 students who don’t have parents at home, are hungry and they are the 5th or 6th kids of one parent and 3rd or 4th of another, 3 kids who are truly gifted and are working two or more levels above grade level and as many as 5 grade levels below the lowest students, 4 students who are highly motivated and will do any work you put in front of them – they are quiet, do their homework, need things explained fully so that they understand the material so they need about 30 minutes of direct teaching to really get it and do the work, 4 students who know 200 or fewer words in English, parents are working 2 jobs each to make it in this country, 5 students who do not have medical insurance, need glasses, evaluations for ADD or ADHD and/or mental health problems – they cannot stay in their seats for more than 2 minutes (timed by an administrator), crawl on the carpet during lessons to reach friends, need to stand 4 feet from the board to read it and cannot see 12 point type, 3 students were average, each would do most of their work, most of their homework, needed to be shown things 8 – 12 times before they understood completely but once they understood the information was planted and could be used and accessed, and finally one student who had autism and an aid with outbursts and tantrums two to three times per day.

    I am not exaggerating – I reasonably accurately described my son’s fourth grade class in Oakland.

    So now tell me – what is a good school? what is an appropriate education for these children?

  • Nextset

    Jenna: A good school is not going to have a lot of these kids you describe in it.

    A good school does not permit “students” who are not ready, willing and able to do the work of the school. Those “students” have to go elsewhere, to other than a good school. They go to bad schools.

    The real question is why your child is in that school.

    My parents decided they would send their children to good schools and they selected their neighborhood to get a good public high school. Doing that meant a higher house payment and not living in the community of any their other relatives and friends. They had no problem talking about the decision and living with it. neither did a lot of other parents I knew. You do what you have to for your child’s future.

  • Turanga_teach

    And what of the future for those not-your-child children? What assumptions are you making about what those parents are or aren’t doing for their children’s future?

    One of the most troubling aspects to me of the charter-school as panacea concept is the idea that the parents with resources can “save” their kids from something that is somehow still good enough for someone else’s children.

  • Jenna

    @Turanga_teach and Nextset:

    I would still love to know what people on this list think is a good school. Everyone running for mayor talks about a “good school of every child.”

    Tony Smith talks about “good schools.”

    The school board talks about Good Schools – I know Alice Spearman is on this list – I would love to have her opinion of what a good school looks like with my son’s fourth grade class.

    And to Nextset: one of those students who knew 200 words in English tested highly gifted and two years later is doing work several grade levels above her current grade “for fun.” One child was able to get medication for his ADHD and is now at grade level. These were not dumb kids – behind, yes, but dumb, no.

    One problem that I see is that teachers get together a “study team” even though it is clear that students can’t sit still or can’t see. The study team process takes half a school year. There has to be a better way. If the kid was on trial he is guaranteed a speedy trial – much shorter than the study team.

  • Alice Spearman

    First, a Good School must start with An Experienced Qualified Principal, one who knows curriculum to help teachers grrow, one who knows how to motivate students and their parents, along with new teachers, and just as importanly, one who know what discipline is. I have found out in my years inside a school site, students Respect a Leader who is confident, has heart and compassion, and will draw the line! OUSD may have Five principal’s who fit this bill ( three are elementary, 2 middle, 0 high school). This is just my opinion.

  • charterteach

    First- I changed my post name( The othee may have suggested that you go to teach at charters-not the case. Do what you want!)

    A good school: A good school is one that is not afraid to differentiate classrooms based on needs. One that has regular assessments to gauge quality of teaching and learning. One that has a high focused class and another coveted class ; with clear distinctions of how one can reach thos coveted class. Yes tracking! I would not expect the leader to train staff on curriculum though, that is too much- their are too many other battles (kids, parents, teachers, community members, board members,…).

    Ultimately, a good school will need to have a leader who will stand firm, and disagree with parents who come to advocate for their babies, fight against those with political correctness/good intentions in mind, and one who will do away with bad teachers. Political correctness is stifiling our students.

    Ultimately though, speaking as a parent, kids who have reinforcement at home in terms of ethic, discipline, duties, etc. are those that will most assuredly stamd out.

    I agree with Ms. Spearman , the leader does have to be aware of dicipline; but I diagree with this whole notion of “Qualified”. Have you all entered some of these departments of Education at the universities? The one I went too (local) has murals of communist leaders! We paid for this by the way. I as a parent, cannot trust that teachers and leaders from this college will prepare teachers that will train my kids to compete!When will this enter this conversation of reform? I have heard the momentum of people using “Effective”. I agree wtih that term better.

    You notice that principals become less effective as the kids get older; to the point that Ms. Spearman says that their are not any at the high school level (thanks for being blunt Ms. Spearman). Why? The kids become more independent, and for those kids that have survived under the roof of those PC schools with communist trained supporters; well they are set up to act foolish and its ok! Have any of you ever heard of ODD? Its an identifiable term Oppositional Defiant Disorder. HOw many Black and brown kids are labeled with this ?

    I think the reason people are soo high on charters is that leaders can be a boss and not work through middle men.

    just my view.

  • Turanga_teach

    Jenna–that’s a crucial and complicated question. In my current position at an Oakland public school, I spend time, every day, in a number of classes with a make up similar to what you describe as your son’s fourth grade experience. And I fiercely disagree with Nextset’s assessment that any of those children belong in a place “other than a good school”.

    But we have to, as you say, define “good”–and define it in the context of how schools in America are funded, staffed, and operated. Define it also in the context of American social problems which public schools can neither fix nor ignore.

    Would a “good” school feed those hungry kids? (Most of my teaching colleagues in inner city schools raid their own pockets to feed their students.) Connect the ones without insurance to community health clinics for vision screening or developmental risk assessments? (School nurses can conduct vision screening: our district’s ratio of students to nurses is currently 1800:1….) Provide intensive ELL services to those students who only speak 200 words of English? (My school’s ELL coordinator position remains vacant due to HR issues five weeks into the year…) Differentiate instruction to keep those “truly gifted” students challenged while the below-level students get the remediation they need to make academic progress? (School funding cuts combined with testing pressure has resulted in many schools, my own included, focusing their limited intervention funds on the “bubble kids”–those who are just a little short of proficient, rather than far above or far below.)

    Good systems, I would argue, are in FINLAND. (Read Linda Darling-Hammond’s “The Flat World and Education”, for details: main differences are investments in teacher preparation and retention, comprehensive school services including health supports on site, national equity in school spending, and rigorous multi-faceted student assessment which connects deeply to classroom practice in non-punitive ways. Yet, despite incredible demands and ever-shrinking resources, good SCHOOLS exist throughout our district, our state, and our country. I spend time in one every day–in a class where parent volunteers work to build the vocabulary of ELLs during writing workshop, where the aide to the child with autism has also been trained and supported in keeping the ADHD and SLD kids on track a bit more, where project-based learning gives those “truly gifted” students a chance to go deeper while still teaching key content concepts and skills to all students in the class. And where it often feels like many if not most of the “good” things happening in this “good” school are happening in spite of, rather than because of, the way education is spoken of and prioritized in the system we’re in.

  • Jenna

    In Finland, the students all speak the same language in the classroom. The students in the Darling-Hammond video all appeared to be in similar style and similar “cost” clothing and all seemed to be of similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

    Also, in Oakland, our superintendent and many principals believe that it is learning when students talk over their ideas with their neighbors, read passages with their neighbors, and students teach each other what they know (not the experiential learning after a teacher lesson). In Finland, the classrooms often have 30 -40 students with a teacher who has a Master’s degree or higher. Teaching is done by the teacher with the practice and demonstration done by the child.

    How many teachers are willing to get a Master’s degree and specialize in science, social studies, mathematics, writing and reading literacy for several grade levels above what they teach? I don’t know the answer. I know that in my son’s fourth grade classroom there were students reading for fun about how rocket engines are designed and the effect of China’s one child policy on the elderly in China. Is that the norm? No, of course not. But there are children who could learn more in every classroom.

    What I am finding is that our schools define “good schools” as those with strong discipline and everyone following the rules. What our society and my own sons find is that their learning is enhanced when there is a code of standard behavior BUT there is also flexibility in learning and demonstrating what is learned.

    In America we believe that reproduction is a Constitutional right. I believe it is as well. I also know that there are reasons other than extreme poverty that parents do not get their kids to school. I look at classrooms with five or more levels of knowledge, skill and education and it makes me think that “age-graded” classrooms are not the answer, but our society is too keyed into age grading.

    Most families that have modest wealth or live in poverty send their kids to school as early as they can – often at four years old – without preschool – whereas families with higher wealth keep their kids out of kindergarten until almost six with two or three years of preschool. Preschool drill doesn’t seem to be the answers either.

    Also, what do we do about the natural curiosity factor that some children have more than others? If you have a back to school presentation five different days (as my son’s fourth grade teacher did) at different times of the day, evening and on Saturday and you still have only 40% of the families show up, does that say anything? Should parents be required to contribute time by showing up for an hour twice per year? It’s unclear how it works in Finland. Like I stated before, it looked pretty homogeneous to me.

  • JR

    Let’s hear what some Finnish teachers,students and parents have to say about education.


  • JR

    Ooops, that’s Belgian kids not Finnish.

  • Steven Weinberg

    I am not an expert in European educational systems (although I do know the difference between Finland and Belgium), but an article in Education Week, Sept 29, 2010 says that a major difference between the U.S. and countries like Finland, Singapore, and South Korea, that achieve high scores on international tests, is that those countries draw 100% of their teachers from the top third of college graduating classes, while the U.S. draws only about 23% from that group. A McKinsey and Company study said that U.S. teacher salaries would need to increase to a range of $65,000 to $150,000 per year to attract such a teaching force.

  • JR

    Therein lies the question, is a teacher that knows more(sum knowledge)automatically a better teacher, or is a better teacher a person who is able to impart and explain concepts in an understandable way(and maybe also makes learning a little fun). Some of the most brilliant people that I know could not teach you how to program a DVR or even edit a word document(they know how to do it, but yet couldn’t teach another person how to do so). There is some truth to that opinion though, when we were last confronted with a teacher shortage we hired a lot of teachers with little more than liberal arts degrees, a pulse and threw them in the classroom. We still have many of them today, and it shows. Ever since NCLB teachers have been more stringently prepared for the classroom than in previous years(the only good thing I have to say about NCLB). Teachers need to stand on their own individual merit if they expect more respect as professionals, and that is just the way it is(the teachers in many other countries are highly respected because of this and in turn it makes the profession more attractive.

  • Gordon Danning


    You are certainly correct that many brilliant people are poor teachers, but there are attributes other than brilliance that are also more likely to be found in the top 1/3 of college grads which are also attributes of good teachers. I’m thinking of things like conscientiousness, hard work, etc. For example, in college, I never once “pulled an all nighter,” and I almost never skipped class. It is no coincidence that, as a teacher, I have never, ever “winged it,” I am never late, and I am never absent (Well, except when I was sick as a dog for 3 days, about 13 years ago). So I’m guessing that “more teachers from the top 1/3″ generally translates into “more learning.”

  • JR

    I am just saying that just because a person is from the top 1/3 does not mean he/she is a de-facto better teacher, teaching while not overly complex, is more involved than simply that. Some of the great teachers I know had near 4.0 GPA’s and others were 3.0 and even 2.5+ GPA’s, and conversely some of the worst teachers I have witnessed had 4.0 GPA’s as well. There are other attributes that good teachers have that do not show up on report cards patience,compassion which I have seen in the great teachers that I have known.

  • Gordon Danning


    Well sure, but are those in the top 1/3 less likely to have those attributes? I don’t think so. So if we get more top 1/3 teachers, we are more likely to get teachers with all the attributes needed for good teaching. If we recruit from the bottom 2/3, we are less likely to get the “book learning” attributes, but no more likely to get the empathy.

  • Ms. J.

    Returning to the topic of the movie, a couple of friends and I were discussing the contrast b/w Superman and Inconvenient Truth, and wondering why the more recent movie seems more like propaganda than I.T. Both clearly have an agenda.

    I think that the reason WFS seems more like propaganda to me is that, as noted by some other critics, the movie has not only clear superheroes but clear villains, whereas the inconvenient truth of the earlier movie was that we are ALL responsible for climate change. I think it presented a challenge to all of us to make changes in our ways of life, as we are all consumers and thus all implicated.

    This movie, on the other hand, seems to suggest that the only ones who need to change in order to fix a very complicated and crucial system are the public school teachers and their unions. If you want to contribute, you are invited to donate money. That’s a lot less of a personal sacrifice and demonstrates less conviction of personal responsibility than deciding to bike to work instead of drive, or trying to fly less, or shop at thrift stores, or whatever environmental concession we each try to make.

    It’s also easier to feel outraged at what others are doing, or failing to do, than to take on the implications of one’s own decisions.

  • AC Mom

    Wow! Ms. Spearman…Can we follow-up on comment #37? There are only 5 “qualified” principals; none of which serve at the high school level? I have elementary school age children enrolled in OUSD, and I know that statement alone is enough to send some parents running out of the district. Do you wish to clarify your statement, or are you going to let it stand as is?

  • Former high school teacher

    Great beginning of much needed dialogue on how to fix public education although WFS could have been more even-handed by including the negative impact of uncooperative parents, disruptive students and incompetent and/or self-serving administrators and politicians on the best efforts of many teachers! Dealing with the complexity of the problem in that way would have been more constructive than adding the last segment on the drama of the lottery process.