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April 12, 2011

Pointing Out The Problems

Nick Diaz

Myths tend to perpetuate themselves. One such legend is the one about how every child in the United States has a right to a good public education. Perhaps that one is particularly stubborn because it once was true, or at least mostly true. Not so much anymore, it seems.


People resist this notion because we are (were?) the leading industrialized nation in the world. How could we have gotten here without a top-notch education system? It’s because we are living off the fat of the past and, yes, there still are some good schools. These days, however, far too many schools are starving the minds of our children.


In the documentary, “Waiting for Superman” by Davis Guggenheim, we are shown an education system we don’t want to believe is ours. It’s preferable to look away, but closing our eyes and putting our fingers in our ears is never a good way to fix things.


Just as a serious medical diagnosis makes one want to run away, we know instead that the only way to survive is to fight it with everything we’ve got. The film is not entertainment, it is our very lives; the health of our public school system will determine the health of our country’s future.


“Waiting for Superman” gives voice to people who understand the problem. Too often their voices are muted by the shouts of the teacher unions – the National Education Association (NEA) and The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) that protect our country’s good and highly respected teachers. Unfortunately they also cover our country’s incompetent and lazy teachers with impenetrable contracts and tenure. It is an ironclad protection unlike that of any other occupation.


For instance 1 in 57 doctors lose their licenses to practice and 1 in 97 attorneys lose theirs. The teachers, however, have even outmaneuvered the lawyers when it comes to legal protection under the law. Only 1 in 2,005 teachers ever loses a job. Bad teachers, even with voluminous evidence of wrong doing, cannot be fired due to the tenure which makes their jobs almost an inalienable right, just behind breathing.


Instead of getting fired, in New York City, bad teachers get passed around or sent to reassignment centers, known as rubber rooms. During the making of the film, 600 teachers were relegated to an average of 3 years in rubber rooms; passing the time, reading, sleeping, or doing whatever, while collecting full salary and accruing benefits to the tune of $100 million a year.


Enough about teachers. How about the students – those whom our education system is supposed to serve. In “Waiting for Superman,” we are told that it’s been eight years since the “No Child Left Behind Act” was signed into law by President George W. Bush to raise 100 percent of students to proficiency levels in math and reading by 2014. With only three years left to go, the average proficiency across the country is 20-35%.


An educational researcher at John Hopkins University, Dr. Robert Balfanz, contends that, from grade school to high school, we lose many of our students. He refers to schools in which over 40% of students do not graduate as “drop out factories.” He has identified over 2,000 drop out factories in the United States. Locke High School, in Los Angeles, CA, is one of the worst. The freshman class averages 1,200 freshmen; by sophomore year, however, there are only 300-400 students. That’s a loss of 800 children.


In communities with high dropout rates, children have little future and crime becomes more likely. For instance, in Pittsburg, 68% of prisoners in the state penitentiary are high school dropouts. They cost $33,000 a year to house and feed for an average of four years per prisoner, resulting in a total of $132,000 cost to taxpayers per prisoner – more than the cost of 12 years of a private education. How ironic.


When it comes to comparing student test scores with students from other countries, well, more bad news. Yet, tragically, our students do score heads and shoulders above other kids in one area – self esteem. When rating how they thought they did on a math test taken by students from eight other countries, it was the U.S. students who thought they did the best. Their scores were the worst.


Fortunately, lest we pull our hair out in agony, the movie includes interviews with leaders in educational reform, including Bill Gates. As the founder of Microsoft, helping the country educate our children is personal for Mr. Gates, since filling job openings with qualified U.S. candidates has become a daunting task.


Another bright spot in the film is Geoffrey Canada. Although he grew up poor in the South Bronx, he graduated from Bowdoin College and received a masters from Harvard’s School of Education. He returned to New York City as a teacher, but eventually took it a step further, beginning a charter school in the heart of Harlem’s worst school district.


Charter schools are publicly funded, yet operate somewhat independently in exchange for achieving promised results. In spite of supposed conventional wisdom that blames poverty for poor academic achievement, Mr. Canada made parents a promise: “If your child comes to this school, we guarantee that we will get your child into college. We will be with you and with your child from the moment they enter our school till the moment they graduate from college.” The school consistently sends an average of 95% of its graduates to college annually.


The movie’s narrator asked an important question on this topic, wondering whether some under-performing schools remain so because they’re located in “bad” neighborhoods, or whether such neighborhoods become “bad” because of under-performing schools (diploma mills). Chicken or egg? Good question.


Another bright spot is that Michelle Rhee, daughter of Korean immigrant parents, became Washington’s public schools chancellor in 2007. With the backing of the school board, she made sweeping, controversial changes such as firing and laying off more than 200 teachers and principals, and closing 22 schools. “There is an utter lack of accountability for producing results for kids,” she claimed.


When Dr. Rhee began, only 8% of eighth graders were at grade level in mathematics despite having the third highest per student spending in the country. Two years later, high school graduation rates increased 3% to 72%. By 2010, reading pass rates had increased by 14 percentage points and math pass rates had increased by 17 percentage points.


In 2008, Rhee also sought to end tenure. In its place, she offered teachers the chance to get paid up to $140,000 based on a merit system for student achievement. The teachers’ union would have none of it, however, and refused even to vote on it.


It can’t be fun to be Randi Weingarten in this film. As head of the powerful American Federation of Teachers, she comes across as a villain, caring more about protecting union members than about children being cheated out of a proper education. Go figure…


In between the statistics and interviews, five families with young children are followed. Each of these children enters lotteries, apparently the fair way to select from a large pool of applicants competing to fill scant openings at schools that produce results. The suspense is intense because we come to know and empathize with these five young students who possess a hunger for learning. It is at this point where the message of the documentary hits the hardest.


What sort of a country have we become that, even in well-to-do Silicone Valley neighborhoods, parents have to rely on luck, or better-placed zip codes, to ensure their children are properly educated? Thus, with the tears of the losers, we come to understand that we are all losing.


Michelle Rhee stated: “There is this unbelievable willingness to turn a blind eye to the injustices that are happening to kids in our schools every day, in the name of harmony among the adults.”


This documentary opens our eyes with blinding realities.


My thanks to the local United Way, which sponsored the viewing of “Waiting for Superman” two weeks ago.


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