Jamal Cooks, a San Francisco State University professor of education and former Oakland teacher, has mixed feelings about “Waiting for Superman.” He says people know what makes a great school; he wants to see less talk and more action.
On Monday, I went to a matinee to watch “Waiting for Superman.” Though I had heard that the movie bashed public schools and promoted charter schools as the answer to the problem, I went into the show with an open mind. When I walked out, I had mixed emotions about the film.
As a former teacher, director of after school programs, coordinator of mentoring programs, and a professor of teacher education, I watched the movie intently and hung on every word. I am a public school educator, a public school product, and a public school advocate. I have spent 20 years working for and with students who have challenging home lives, come from rough neighborhoods, and lack some resources, but who want the same education as the next person.
In fact, my daughter will be starting kindergarten soon, and with the local public school’s API scores under 800, I want public schools to work. However, there are some real facts that must be acknowledged before moving forward for equitable education for all students.
The movie made some interesting points about public schools and their teachers. It is true that some schools have been underpreparing young people for decades. The cursory tenure process for teachers needs to be revamped; it takes a typical university professor an average of seven years to earn tenure, in a closely scrutinized, complex process, but teachers earn tenure in many districts in two years. We also know that just pouring more money into school and giving merit pay to teachers based on test scores does not work. Though all these things are true, there was one example of someone trying to do less talking about change and more action.
Maybe Michelle Rhee, the Chancellor of Washington D.C.’s school district was on to the right idea. She made radical changes to an imperfect system. She closed schools, fired principals, and held teachers accountable. Within one year there were higher test scores, more teacher work satisfaction and a more positive learning environment for students. Though some people were unhappy, the bottom line was an upward trend in learning for students. Isn’t that what really matters? Aren’t we more interested in how the education system works for students, rather than for adults? She proposed giving pay increases and bonuses of $20,000 to $30,000 for teachers whose students earned higher test scores. Although I do not believe that test scores alone should be the determining factor for merit pay, since most norm-referenced, standardized tests are not aligned with most textbooks, there needs to be something in place to hold everyone more accountable for academic outcomes, such administration evaluations, peer evaluations, parent recommendations, and student feedback.
In the film, the answer for higher student achievement seemed to be charter schools. The charter schools selected for this movie had charismatic education leaders who believed that failure of students was not an option on their watch. They showed dedicated teachers working long hours, being members of the community, and advocating for student success. However, they also mention, albeit briefly, that both public schools and charter schools have a success rate of 1 out 5. Factor in the inconclusive findings in research about charter school effectiveness, and the question becomes this: If charter schools only succeed at about the same rate as public schools, then why should taxpayers continue to pay for them? In the end, I felt that the film was trying to tell the audience something that was new and unknown to most people, though well understood among educators.
Great schools have administrators with a vision for the school and have five years to bring it to fruition. Great schools have teachers who are competent in their subject areas. Great schools have educators on the school site who are all on the same page about how to educate children. Great schools focus on making sure that students master information in order to illustrate their genius. Great schools ultimately have teachers who love students and not necessarily just the content material. Great schools understand that teaching is one of the single noblest, most important jobs in this country, and teachers should be more respected, honored, rewarded, and highly compensated for shaping the minds and lives of young people.
As a result of these characteristics, great schools end up with higher test scores, happier teachers, and inspired, successful students. So if we know the answers, then why are we so frustrated with the current system that we want a change, not just for our own children but also for other people’s children?
I admit that I am tired of waiting for Superman and I am simply waiting to exhale. I am waiting for a superintendent to have the courage to move Oakland in the right direction without being worried about political ramifications. I am waiting for public school teachers to say that they only want teaching colleagues who are committed to teaching, dedicated to academic excellence, and motivated to do anything and everything to teach students. I am waiting for communities to get upset, demand change and take back their neighborhood schools. Let’s not continue to wait for Superman; let’s push our public schools to give us a reason that we will all, finally, be able to . . . exhale.