Monday, October 25, 2010

Waiting for Superman -- Cause to Pause

Tonight I watched the movie, Waiting for Superman. Prior to viewing it, I've heard criticism about it as promoting charters and bashing teacher unions. Interestingly, some of the criticism came from people who had not yet seen the movie. The buzz or the hype had a skeptic flavor for what can a "movie" tell, except the agenda of the film's producers.

Trailer for Waiting for Superman

Having watched the movie, and being a school improvement consultant in a county containing 34 school districts and many charter schools, I found the issues and message compatible. An education system based on a 1950's model with an 1890's philosophy has a complexity of problems and multiple stakeholders that share in the responsibility for the perpetuating failures. The movie focuses on three issues:

1. Many public schools are failing to develop students to be competitive with kids from other developed countries.

Sure, the movie throws out a lot of statistics about failing public schools where students' chances of success is depressingly small. These Dropout Factories create hopelessness for students before they enter the school. There's a site that allows you to search your local schools and see how they rate.

Whether we take the movie at face value, or rather lets' be skeptical that the claim might, just might, be exaggerated, the real perception exist by parents who feel their kids are under served by their local schools. Unfortunately, school culture tends to be mystifying to parents and community, which does little to ease concerns. Just ask a child on 3 consecutive days, "What did you learn in class today?" The answer is predictable. When students, the major source for promotion of what schools accomplish, can not describe in depth what they are learning and why that learning is important to know...the negative perceptions are unsurprising.

How do we change the perception? Break the teaching and learning mold while simultaneously changing school culture to one of learner collegiality.

2. Charters serve as an alternative choice for students
The movie acknowledges that only 1 of every 4 charter schools achieve outstanding success. One could point to the 75% that do not do any better, sometimes worse than traditional school systems. Or, we can ask, What makes the 25% so good? It's not money. They get no more than traditional systems. In fact, having fewer resources is a challenge. It is the professionals in the school that reinvented themselves into a school that truly is "student first" focus. Criticize charter schools, and there is much to critique. Even point out that charter schools have flexibility that traditional schools do not. The reality is that good charter schools are successful. Student results prove this out repeatedly.

Yet what charter schools do with limited resources, traditional school districts should be able to do effectively given their greater resources. How can such resources be harnessed so that dropout factories become achievement oasis?

Charter schools must hold a lottery when there are more applicants than there are student spaces. It seems cruel to turn away students. Perhaps the bigger question is why did so many families apply for the limited spots of a charter school, instead of attending their local school district?

3. Unions need to become part of the solution
The movie does critique unions. It sites an example of the teacher's union in Washington D.C. along with the NEA and AFT. Unions serve a purpose to ensure teacher work conditions. There is nothing inappropriate about such a responsibility. Whatever side of the argument about tenure and work conditions, when it comes to children--everyone is on the same side. We, the adults, want all students to be successful. There are many issues for why not all students achieve. There are multiple stakeholders that help or create obstacles to learners learning--parents, administrators, communities, students, organizations, and teachers. Assuming that the responsibilities for support is equally held by all, or even slanted to parents, students, and communities, there are teachers who are ineffective, and should not be in classrooms.

How can the teachers union be a leader for other stakeholders to improve quality teachers are working with our children? It's not just the unions' responsibility, but far better that they lead so as to find that balance for bringing into the fold good teachers, and then keeping them in the profession.

If we agree that the purpose of education is to develop students so that they are all growing developmentally and achieving appropriate academic success, then there is little that can not be achieved in a 21st Century Global Society.

Watch Waiting for Superman. Share your response.

An Introduction to Project-Based Learning (Edutopia)