Saturday, March 12, 2011

Superman Isn't Coming

A few nights ago, I got the courage to watch the documentary Waiting for Superman. I knew I needed to see it, but knew it would make me angry. I've spent the last six years teaching English Composition to college freshmen and I've seen, first hand, the failures of our education system. I knew the movie would bring to a boil a lot of those helpless feelings I get with my job on a daily basis.

I taught for three years at Florida State, but I currently teach at a for-profit school with no entrance requirements (other than the ability to pay a lot of money). I see students with a 2nd grade reading and writing ability on a daily basis. These are students who have somehow passed K through 12 or at least gotten a GED, but don't have any basic skills. Many of them would not be accepted to other colleges or universities. There are many issues with the kind of work I do and with for-profit education, but I won't go into those here (I'm saving that for when I work somewhere else and can safely discuss them). My point is we have a massive problem on our hands. To be quite honest, once someone gets to 18, it is very difficult for them to get caught up on years of education they simply do not have. We are creating generations with little to no education and eventually this will destroy our country.

Waiting for Superman did all of the things I expected it to do. It made me angry. It made me tear up in places. It made me feel hopeless. It also surprised me by changing my mind about some very key ideas I've held for a long time. I'm a huge supporter of teachers and education and I thought the movie would mostly reaffirm all of my beliefs. It did in some cases, but in others, I learned something new and my mind was changed (see what education does!).

I've always been in favor of supporting education with more money. I've felt that we don't give schools enough funding, which leads to many of these problems. My idea about this wasn't completely reversed, but I realized that over the years we have greatly increased the amount of money per student in this country, yet nothing seems to change. More money is great, but if that money isn't distributed properly and fairly it won't matter. Our school system is completely out of balance and until we make all schools on the same level, a huge change will not come.

The film points out how there are too many people involved in making these decisions, which causes things to get held up. In the end, anyone who actually wants to do something gets burnt out or rejected. The money is filtered through various processes and doesn't favor all students or all schools. There is no excuse to have school in one part of town that is well-maintained and has all the necessary equipment and for another school across town to be falling a part. The film also focuses on alternative schools (like charter schools), but who gets to go is left up to chance. We are literally putting children's futures into the hands of lotto machines. I'm sorry, but that's just fucked up. Bottomline: money can't be the only part of the solution.

My biggest change came in how I view teachers and teacher unions. I know some people didn't like that the documentary focused so much on teacher unions and was clearly not in favor of them, but I found the information provided to be startling and valid. Teachers are at the heart of the issue. Without great teachers nothing will get better for the students. Good teachers are a part of the solution, but bad teachers are a big part of the problem, and until we face that and fix it, things will continue on a downward spiral.

As I stated before, I've taught at the college level for six years and I know the struggles of teaching and how hard it can be. I also can't imagine the challenges of teaching K through 12. I admire anyone willing to do that. I often wish I had the courage. Having said that, there is a tendency to place all teachers on the same level and to rally around teachers anytime someone tries to change policies or confront the unions about contracts. The problem is not all teachers are created equal.

For a long time, I didn't really have an issue with tenure for teachers, but after getting more information and thinking about it more, tenure for teachers is unfair. Because I am more familiar with the university process, I assumed it was a difficult process to get tenure (because it is for professors), but in K through 12 you are given it after two years. What other job is like that? We all know there are teachers out there that don't deserve to be teachers. I had plenty of them in my high school days. I had a teacher who literally gave us a book and a worksheet to fill out every single day of class while he sat at his desk reading a paper and drinking a diet coke. I can't tell you one thing I learned in his class. That man should not have a job teaching.

I understand the fear of teachers to a degree. If tenure is taken away, a good method of evaluating teachers needs to go in its place. There is much debate about how to evaluate teachers. Many proposals have been based on test scores. I don't think that is a fair method, and I completely understand teachers having issues with their pay and job being based solely on test scores. There are, however, other ways to evaluate someone. Classroom observations would be a good way. Student feedback would also be helpful. Many jobs are hard to evaluate, but people still do it, and I don't think teachers should be exempt from that. Good teachers should be rewarded and bad teachers should be fired.

Our schools need people devoted to education. Teachers are not the enemy, but anyone not doing their job is. Our system is so broken and we are quickly sinking to the bottom in comparison to other countries worldwide. This is scary and people need to start taking notice.

Do we really want a country full of people who can't read or write? Or people who can't do basic math or understand science? Some jobs are being outsourced because there aren't enough qualified people to do them in this country. Not fixing this problem is going to lead to the downfall of America. Dramatic? No, realistic. Education is key. Some comic book hero isn't going to just swoop in and save us all. We have to start saving ourselves.

I highly recommend watching this documentary and starting more conversations about these issues. Our schools need help. Our teachers need help. The youth of America need help. It's our job to save them.

-Stephen (Angry)


  1. Beautifully written and thoughtful as usual. I definitely need to watch this film, especially since I had that 6 month stint teaching 7th and 8th grade at a Title One school. I was never so depressed in my, not because of the students (well, maybe one or two of them), but because of the other teachers and administrators who sincerely did not give a shit and told me not to give a shit either. Since the kids were from poor families in a dangerous neighborhood, the mentality was that we just had to get them in and out, shuffle them off and let the high school deal with them. It went against everything I believed about education and teaching. Of course there were some good teachers and administrators, but the overall mentality was that there was no hope for these kids. It's also important to discuss the semi-recent shift in mentality that EVERYONE needs to go to college, which of course only lowers standards across the board and sets people up for failure. We need blue collar workers just as much--actually, much, much more--as we need academics. There is no shame in not attending college and taking up a trade that is better suited to one's skills. The battle between education and intellect is baffling and it's time we stopped the war.

  2. I haven't seen this movie, probably because I think about all of these things all of the time and I know I'll have many of the same reactions that you did. I know a few of the awful teachers that you have referenced and their unhappiness with their jobs, lives, and selves is echoed in the unhappiness of the children that they care for day in and day out. I also had high school teachers who taught me how to do nothing but have contempt for the show "Law and Order" as we watched it every day in geography class. I completely agree with everything that you've said and really only have only a few concerns.

    Alternative schools (like charter schools) are hyped as the answer to public education by so many. Kids are thought to be incredibly lucky if they get to attend and parents constantly opt out of public education for fear that America's public schools are failing these children (which is partially true). Many of these schools, however, do not require a teaching degree to teach, do not have any more advanced equipment or funding than any public school, and have teachers who are just as ill qualified as some of the idiots that are currently working in the public school system.

    The other part of the problem lies in comparing us with other countries such where 1. not every socio economic level gets an education and 2. education is highly valued on a social level. These are societies where parents spend the first day of school in class with their kids and where teachers are truly treated like gold instead of the "say one thing do another" rhetoric we have in America ; spending 100 bucks on an xbox and freaking out over a 1/2 penny sales tax increase. Or having to beg parents of 7 year olds to come and meet with you for even one conference to discuss their failing child. You should hear the amount of defensiveness I hear from parents whose kids have beaten other students or have been continually disrupting classes. On the flip side I have seen wonderful parents who want to be fully involved and who have great kids get frustrated by the terrible parents and teachers. I feel for them.

    I am glad that you denounced standardized testing as a way of measuring teaching ability as I have seen the RIDICULOUS effects of these measures on students and good teachers alike. This to me is what happens when business people try to run educational institutions. They focus on the facts, numbers, and figures without realizing that these kids are individuals with diverse backgrounds. They then overburden teachers with paperwork to the point where it's almost impossible to teach anymore and every moment of your day is regimented all in the name of keeping bed teachers in line. You end up with a bunch of teachers who feel the need to "drill and kill" the information.

    I do 100 percent believe that peer and student reviews (at least at the hs level) combined with intervention in the form of continuing and higher education for teachers are the ways to go. I also believe that students themselves need to have lots of truly valid educational options so that they are studying what interests and motivates them. I have no problem with getting rid of teacher tenure, but neither my pay nor my job stability should be at risk because of a snap shot that relies heavily on the failures or successes of years of teaching and parenting that have come before me.

  3. Great response Josh. The movie is just terrifying. I honestly can't express how much I admire that you can do it. You are amazing.