I had the opportunity to attend a screening of Davis Guggenheim's documentary, Waiting for "Superman" and I wasn't sure I wanted to go. I'd heard so much bad buzz about the movie's portrayal of teachers, teacher's unions and charter schools, but decided to see it (for free) so I could make up my own mind. I walked into the movie knowing a whole lot more than most people do about education, so I'm not sure what the general public will think, but I hope they'll walk away with this: ALL OUR KIDS deserve a quality education.
However, the movie suggests that charter schools working outside the constraints of this system will get us there. But as the movie concludes, most of the students lose out in charter school lotteries. This shows that charters cannot provide a quality education for ALL OUR KIDS.
The movie suggests that the answer is effective teachers. If we can just get rid of these union contracts and fire ineffective teachers, our students will thrive. But who decides which teachers are effective and which aren't? Will superintendents like Michelle Rhee determine teacher effectiveness? Principals? Value-added measures? And if we can find a real way to measure teacher effectiveness and get rid of bad teachers, who will take their place? How can we be sure that a new teacher will be any more effective than the old one?
The movie suggests we reward good teachers. The DC teachers are portrayed as insane when they refuse to accept merit pay based on a value-added measures (VAM). But what about Emily, one of the film's children, who doesn't test well? With VAM, would a teacher be willing to offer Emily the education she deserves or simply make her a better test taker? Are we trying to educate our students or just teach them to take tests? With our students and schools already deemed failures based on NCLB testing standards, do we really want to reward or punish teachers based on their ability to improve student test scores?
Guggenheim wonders if a movie can change public education. He attempts to convince the audience to care about OTHER PEOPLE'S kids. But I don't know if the stories of a handful of poor kids who can't afford private schools will convince Guggenheim's intended audience (people who have already turned their backs on public education) to come back. His portrayal of schools is simply too bleak and the successes too few to restore hope for those who assume their local schools provide what Michelle Rhee describes as a "crappy education."
From working in numerous "failing" schools, with "failing" students in a "failing" district, I see an awful lot of success. I still believe that at every school, there are good teachers and at every school (even those charter and private schools) there are not-so-great teachers, but a kid can learn from every single one of them. A student's experience is what they make of it and rather than abandoning this "failing" system, I'm sticking around. I doubt this movie will bring anyone back to their neighborhood school, but I will continue to work in a local public school. I will work hard for my students and their families. After all, that is who I work for. I work for students just like the ones portrayed in this movie: Anthony, Emily, Daisy, Francisco and Bianca. They aren't OTHER PEOPLE'S kids to me. They are ALL OUR KIDS. They are MY KIDS and they all deserve a quality education from a quality teacher in a quality school.
The reforms we need will strengthen all of our schools, not just a handful. They will involve listening to parents and communities. They will require us working together rather than forcing us to compete for space, funds, teachers and students.
The movie is right. All of our schools need help and maybe, despite all of its failings, this movie will bring all of our schools (not just a handful of charters) the attention and care they deserve.