Sunday, October 10, 2010

Waiting for "Superman"

When his mother told him that Superman wasn't real, education reformer Geoffrey Canada didn't cry because he wasn't real like Santa Claus wasn't real. He cried because "there was no one coming with enough power to save us."

In education, we've been waiting for someone to save us. We been waiting for someone with more power than we have to make things better. Not only has this waiting been unrealistic and lazy. It's also become dangerous.

Teachers and administrators have become complacent. Most parents don't realize how badly the system is failing their kids. And the kids are falling further behind every year.

The United States is ranked last or near last in Reading, Science, and Math in comparison to other developed countries. On the other hand, we're ranked first in confidence in these skills. Kids feel that they're doing well, while they're failing miserably. Their parents might have the same level of confidence in what their children are accomplishing. It's going to be difficult to start a revolution if the people getting an education don't think we have anything to fix.

So, where do we start? What can be done?

There are folks far wiser and more experienced than I dealing with the answers to those questions. All I have to offer are examples from my very limited time as a public school teacher.

One problem that is addressed at length in the film is the idea of tenure. Once you have it, it's pretty near impossible to take it away from you.

I worked with a third grade teacher who said she didn't waste time teaching writing to her students because they'd just end up working at the gas station when they grew up. They wouldn't need to know how to write there.

She has tenure, which means she has a job for life, if she wants it. Which means she's going to be teaching our kids until she retires. It's not just that she's going to be depriving those students of writing skills. She is sending the message to approximately 900 children that they shouldn't shoot too high because they'll be living their parents' lives anyway.

Yet I was denied tenure because one person *cough*AudreyHoward*cough* didn't think I had "enough of a relationship" with my students. This coming from a woman who visibly, physically withdrew when a student came near her.

Enough of my  personal stuff. A little lingering bitterness there.

Honestly, though, with tenure you get the same compensation for being an excellent teacher, a mediocre teacher, or a godawful teacher. Why be excellent when your contract entitles you to the same pay regardless of your quality? What sort of effort will the majority of teachers be willing to put in with this kind of system? I think most of us would bust our asses the first couple of years, but after witnessing coworkers doing the bare minimum and receiving the same pay as us? Maybe a select few would continue to put their all in, while the rest of us would fall in line with the crappy teachers.

What does this mean for our kids?

Another problem I saw in my time teaching is the inability to determine what makes a good teacher and what makes a good school, which is also briefly addressed in the film. We know what to teach, but we don't really understand how to teach it meaningfully. There are teachers who are just naturally good; I know quite a few. Yet there are also teachers who could be great, if only they were given the support and time to develop and the skills necessary to become exceptional.

There are problems here, but there are also solutions.

The first step to change is to realize there's a problem. Parents needs to be informed. Teachers need to remain hopeful. It's also imperative that the community knows what's going on. Even if you don't have kids, the current state of our educational system is going to affect you. What do you think happens to the kids who don't receive a quality education ten or twenty years down the line? Your tax money is going to be involved one way or another.

I've always loved Henry Ford's quote about teamwork and it applies here.

"Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success."

So, team, it's time we come together.

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