Waiting for Superman

I just watched the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” which was released last year and won some awards at various film festivals (though not even a nomination at the Oscars, which seems strange to me – I liked it far better than the Banksy film).

The film follows several children in the American public school system – some poorer than others – as they attempt to enroll in special charter schools. These schools are forced to hold lottery drawings for applicants because they are so coveted.

Of course the greater picture being painted by these stories is the crumbling state of public education in America. Overcrowded and underfunded schools are quite literally falling apart, but it seems these aren’t the biggest obstacles to school reform according to the film’s director, Davis Guggenheim.

Though he is careful not to vilify America’s teachers for their efforts in the classroom, Guggenheim does point out several times throughout the film that teacher’s unions and their beloved contracts have been a hindrance to education.

The most obvious “smoking gun” I find my self taking away from viewing this film is the idea of tenure among educators. Teachers unions have negotiated contacts that forbid school boards from firing teachers (except in extreme cases of misconduct) after they have tenure – an “achievement” that automatically kicks in after a certain number of years on the job.

As the film shows, this breeds a culture where teachers have been found kicking back and reading the paper (wait people still read the paper?) instead of teaching. These contracts hold back education reform like merit-based pay. The Washington D.C. superintendent attempted to compromise with the unions, offering teachers a choice of tenure or the chance of merit-based pay raises as high as three times the average salary. The proposal wasn’t even allowed to come to a vote.

Guggenheim doesn’t hang ‘em high because not every tenured teacher behaves this way, and merit-based pay alone won’t solve the education problem. That was probably the right decision. On the other hand, I remember one of my best teachers in high-school was tenured. His students loved his English class because he wasn’t afraid (thanks to his tenure) to teach in a bit of an unconventional way.

Thought it’s sad to admit, I usually find myself reminded of how lucky I am when watching documentaries like “Waiting for Superman”. The entire time I was reminded of how lucky I was to have the educational opportunities that I did.

Here I am sitting in my apartment that I pay for with the money I make at my full time job – in Europe, no less – which I was hired for after earning a graduate degree, after attending undergraduate school free of charge thanks to an academic tuition waiver, after attending a high-school my mother hand picked for my brother and I, all after being allowed to enroll at the private school my mother worked at for free for middle school.

That was probably the luckiest moment in my educational development – having the choice to attend private school for three years.

I switched schools a bit before then because we had moved twice in 2 years. 3rd, 4th, 5th and the beginning of 6th grade were all different schools for me. In those first few weeks of 6th grade something clicked in my head. I had a lot of young teachers with shiny new teacher’s certificates and I felt like I was suddenly in classes way below my learning and skill level.

I told my mom about the rampant numbskullery in my classes and the apparent unwillingness of the teachers to do anything about it. The dean of the private school she worked at subsequently did me the greatest favor of my life and allowed me attend for virtually nothing.

I went from having hundreds of kids in my grade to having just 60 at the private school. Class sizes dropped from 30-plus to under 10 in most cases. The teachers were experienced (most of them, anyway) and genuinely cared about our success as students. It didn’t hurt that they could always tip my mother off to my progress in the faculty lounge, but the ratio of kids to teachers was such that the teachers had positive individual relationships with each of their students.

I can remember at least a dozen teachers I studied under by name during those years because they left a lasting impression on me. My guess is the average person doesn’t have that many memories of their junior high teachers.

I was incredibly lucky. If not for those three years in private school, I may not be where I am today. The problem is, it shouldn’t take incredible luck to be a successful student in America.

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