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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Side Tracked...Yet Again

I have been side tracked yet again from my blog project on 2004-2005 "The Golden Years". But this time there is a good reason. In my grad school class we recently watched "Waiting for Superman" a very buzzed about documentary about the American public school system and the problems it faces. Watching this documentary really got me upset about a number of issues addressed in the film. Below is my reflection paper on Waiting for Superman which I am handing in this Monday.

A Reflective Look at “Waiting for Superman”

As educators we always need to be looking for ways to improve our teaching techniques. Discussing teaching techniques with colleagues, observing other teachers in their classrooms, or reading educational journal articles can provide you with many useful suggestions and ideas for improvement. One over looked technique that most people would not think of as their first option is watching educational documentaries. Documentaries are effective ways of telling a story to your intended audience and getting them emotional invested in the films outcome. One such documentary that is incredibly effective in getting their audience emotional invested in the story’s outcome, and provides some valid points of improvement for teachers is: Waiting for Superman.

In this documentary, the filmmakers, Davis Guggenheim and Lesley Chilcott explore some of the issues the U.S. public education system is facing and ways in which we as a society can confront these problems. The film also provides a first person narrative of five children affected by the shortcomings of the U.S. public school system. In this reflection I will explore the validity of the filmmaker’s hypotheses’, and whether or not the filmmakers do an affective job of highlighting the problems facing the public school system of the United States with little biases.

The filmmakers of Waiting for Superman are trying to uncover the main problem that has caused the public school system to fail. According data provided in the film, since 1971 reading and math scores have been on a steady decline. This is despite the fact that federal spending on education has increased since 1971. Yet many inner city schools are overcrowded and lack resources. Guggenheim and Chilcott stat that poor schools reverberate back into their local communities, and this is one of the many causes of some communities beginning to fail. Communities with high poverty, and crimes rates, more than likely have failing public schools in their neighborhood. This then leads poorly educated students to have a higher chance of committing crimes and spending some sort of time in prison. However with the passage of the “No Child Left Behind” Act in the early 2000s, the school system was supposed and save our children from these failing schools. So far this has yet to be the case, leaving many schools systems still in complete disarray. This leads Guggenheim and Chilcott to conclude that there must be some other problem that is causing these schools to fail. But what is that problem?

Teacher tenure. According to Guggenheim and Chilcott teacher tenure is one of the major, if not the major cause of our failing public school system. But how can this be, is not teacher tenure not supposed to be a good thing? The film states that since teacher tenure is so easy for teachers to receive, teacher tenure allows bad teachers to remain in the classroom affecting our students learning. The filmmakers then ask a follow-up question, “What made it so easy for teachers to receive teacher tenure?” The answer is, teacher unions. Because of teacher unions, school administrators are handcuffed and not allowed to fire the bad teachers. Instead administrators are force to “trade” their “lemon” teachers to other school districts hoping that the other lemon teacher they will receive in the trade will not be as bad as they one they just shipped away.

Guggenheim and Chilcott conclude that if you really want to improve our public school system, something needs to be done about teacher tenure and teacher unions. Here are some possible solutions. Charter schools. If done properly, charter schools improve test scores in reading and math for students. However charter schools do not change the “big picture of education”. To change the big picture of education we need to find a way to weaken the teacher unions, so that it will be easier for administrators to fire failing teachers, and reward good teachers. Until we confront this problem, our school system will remain in its current state. Terrible and failing our children. Waiting for Superman ends with 2 out of the 5 children showcased getting into charter schools and thus, according to the filmmakers, have a chance of succeeding in life.

There is so much I would like to challenge about this documentary, but I have only five pages to organize my thoughts, so I will only focus on three major issues I disagree with. Waiting for Superman presents some very valid points. Teacher tenure is in need of desperate reform, and does act as a shield for bad teachers to hide behind. The film does an excellent job of showcasing this issue, which I believe the average American would agree with. However teacher tenure is not the singular problem that is destroying our public education system.

Not once did Guggenheim and Chilcott explore the adverse effect of standardized testing as the sole source of evaluation for our students and schools. Yet standardized testing is a policy that “No Child Left Behind” firmly believes in. What about those students who are excellent students, but simply do not test well? Ultimately the only thing a standardized test measures is how well you did on that particular test. Not once is the students’ ability to describe, debate, or discuss the material in a critical thinking exercise given consideration. Standardized tests are a massive problem for our schools because so much of a school’s funding is dependent on how well students do on the test. Thus many teachers simply teach to the test.

Hidden curriculum from a creative and engaging lesson plan is regularly disregard simply because it will not be on the test. How much of adult life and adult decision determined by multiple choice or true/false? Very little, in fact most of life’s major decisions require critical thinking skills, skills which cannot be evaluated on a standardized test.

Secondly Waiting for Superman does not address the high student teacher ratio in many of our inner city schools, or the high teacher turnover rate at these schools. Last spring I had the pleasure of being in class with two young ladies who were teachers in the Chicago Public School system. One of the young ladies was a teacher at a grade school in the Englewood neighborhood. Her class size was 49 students. The number of teaching assists she had, zero. So her classroom ratio of teacher to student was 1:49. Additional her classroom contained many mainstreamed students who were in need of special assistance because of their learning disabilities. Still she is on her own. What is she to do? How can one teacher maintain a quality-learning environment under such conditions? No wonder so many quality teachers only stay in the profession for about five years. They are not given any assistance. We stack the deck against these teachers and students, yet we expect them to do just as well as schools with plenty of resources and small classroom-learning environment.

Finally Guggenheim and Chilcott never explore how teachers are trained. If there are so many bad teachers out there, what is causing this? How are these individuals trained and who trains them? Unfortunately colleges and universities that train teachers are business too. They have operating costs they need to cover in order to function. If they do not meet a certain student number in the program, they then cannot cover operating budgets. I feel that because of this, many individuals are accepted into teaching programs that have no business being in front of a classroom. Also it seems like once a individual graduates with a diploma to be a teacher, that is it they receive no more training, unless they go for a master’s degree. Why can’t there be more training resources made available to teachers? The better trained a teacher is, the better learning environment.

Overall Waiting for Superman highlights some very valid points. However I feel that they are very biased against teachers, with their views on teacher tenure and teacher unions. They assume that most teachers are bad teachers; charter schools are the solution, and that No Child Left Behind is the best education bill adapted because it had bi-partisan support. Which is fine, they are entitled to their opinion, I just happen to feel that they are wrong!

The use of standardized testing, as the sole source of student and school evaluation is wrong. When you enter adulthood, you are faced with many challenges, which requires an individual to use critical thinking skills. Standardized tests do not foster this development. One final point, all throughout the film, the parents were saying that the reason why they want their children to receive a quality education is so that they can get a good job when they grow up. Which is a wonderful goal, but why can’t we encourage our students to do well in school so that they become a virtuous individual? Education can make a better person. They can then use the knowledge they learned to better the world around them. I know this is a very idealized view of what education can accomplish, but if we can have idealized dreams in education, where can we?

Currently our school system is at a crossroads. At some points our society needs to stop playing Russian roulette with the future of our country, and face the difficult challenges that lay ahead if we are to repair our public school system.


Spudart said...

off topic, but i'd like to see you review "Muppets: The Green Album"

Peter Kreten said...

I will do that for you Matt.