Waiting for Super Teachers

 Waiting for Super Teachers

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The educational documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman’” that focuses on the sad state of K-12 education in America generated strong reaction among my students in the community college where I teach.

Jeff is one of them. He’s appalled by the statistics. In 1971, the government spent $4,300 on each child’s education. In 2009, it increased to $9,500; yet there has been no improvement in test scores or performances. Less than 40% of all eighth-graders in the U.S. are proficient in math and reading. Of the 60,000 students in Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles, 40,000 dropped out. The cost of bad teachers in New York is $100 million per year and yet, only 1 in 2,500 teachers ever lose their teaching credential!

One of the main problems is the teachers unions and union contracts. There seems to be no accountability for teachers who perform poorly. Another is the practice of tenure. Teachers don't have to do anything to obtain it; they get it automatically after two years and then they stop trying. One solution is charter schools, because they receive public funds but are privately owned and not subject to union compliance. The movie showed five kids with parents who care and are involved in their lives and schools. As a former teacher for a year, Jeff believes that teachers are not all to blame, that the parents are also often at fault.

The theory that students are the reason for poor performance in schools is no longer valid. “Waiting for Superman” shows that it is often the teachers and people in power who are the main hindrance to children’s learning.

For Kevin, it was a shock to learn that schools in America are getting worse. While watching the film, Kevin was able to compare the situation with his own school experience. He remembers high school as being boring. He hated the teachers who didn’t know how to teach. He had one who was terrible at teaching math but because she had taught for five years she had tenure to continue teaching, although she was wrecking the lives of her students. He doesn't remember any subject from high school because he doesn't remember learning anything.

When the California Standardized Testing came along, Kevin remembers many of his classmates blindly filling in the bubbles in the multiple-choice questions because they didn’t know the answers. He feels that high school is a waste of time. Now, he is trying to learn the same thing in college as in high school. A lot of people he knows are stuck in remedial math or English.

“Superman” confirms this: 50% of college students must take remedial classes. Kevin agrees with the film that a solution to the education crisis is to get rid of tenure. This will purge teachers who are not qualified to teach. Many new teachers are being laid off, who are brighter and smarter but are being fired simply because they have no teaching experience. He strongly feels that great teachers should be paid more than mediocre and bad teachers. He hopes that more students will watch the film. “Going to school will give us a career but how will we reach that goal if we cannot learn to our full potential?”

“Superman” brought clarity to questions Julien had about the American educational system. She had always been disturbed by the lack of respect for education in America. Coming from a third world country, she could never understand why minority groups didn’t figure out that education was the answer to most of their problems in America.

Julien comes from a French-speaking Caribbean island and took many years to master the English language. She always believed that learning English was what she needed to do to assimilate. But the film spoke powerfully to her about educational inequality in America. Although she believes in unions to protect the rights of ordinary citizens in a capitalistic society, she has found to her dismay that unions have a tendency to turn mafia-like in America. She wished that she took her 16-year-old daughter to the movie.

Anna wanted to cry after seeing the movie. At the same time, she also felt angry. She is fired up to do something to improve America’s K-12 public schools. She had always thought it was the urban poor and minorities who were left behind. But now she knows that thousands of “dropout factories” are all over America, including in affluent areas.

Anna believes that if the U.S. had a better-educated work force, there would be less crime. “Then we could put the money we use to build jails into our broken school system.” She also agrees that the tenure system should be abolished. While originally it was meant to protect the rights of teachers, it now allows uncaring and incompetent teachers to continue earning at the expense of the students.

Delanie left the movie crying. She has seen first-hand what terrible teachers and a corrupt public school system can do to a young student. From kindergarten to second grade, her brother suffered incompetent teachers who held him back, just like Francisco in the movie.

Delanie finds it unbelievable how much money the state and the federal government spend on prisoners relative to students. The whole public school system needs to be restructured, she says. She feels very fortunate to have had great teachers during her developmental years in elementary school. “Otherwise, I don't think I'd be in college.”