A few years ago, I worked at an urban school in South East San Jose. As a fairly new teacher, I found a group of experienced, skilled mentors who were always willing to help. My first year was enjoyable, but challenging. I remember thinking that someone should make a documentary about the public school system to educate parents and taxpayers and to start a real dialogue on the subject. I was hoping that "Waiting for Superman" was that documentary.
The filmmakers follow several determined parents as they try to find better schools for their children to save them from attending their failing neighborhood schools. "We're stuck. It's not fair, but this is where we live," says one parent. For them, their only option appears to be entering their children in a lottery so that they can attend high performing charter schools. These parents understand that a great education will largely determine their children's futures, and are willing to seek out better opportunities for them. Their children all seem highly motivated and genuinely want to attend schools with high academic standards.
The thesis of the documentary appears to be this: Public schools are failing because unions will not allow administrators to fire bad teachers. If every child had a great teacher, then every child would receive a great education.
According to one expert, Eric Hanushek, "A good teacher is what's working, and a bad teacher is what's not working." He goes on to explain the results of his research:
If, in fact, we could just eliminate the bottom six to ten percent of our teachers and replace them with an average teacher [sic] we could bring the average U.S. student up to the level of Finland, which is at the top of the world today.
If only it were that simple.
First, it is tricky for researchers to isolate what makes someone a "good teacher." According to reformer Geoffrey Canada, who also appears in the film, "It took me three years to become a decent teacher before I really learned my craft, and in about five years I was a master teacher." A new teacher might not turn in the best results in his or her first few years, but with time will become an expert.
Besides the steep learning curve that is part of every teacher's experience, the film does not clarify how these researchers arrived at their results, but I suspect that the data was compiled from government-mandated standardized tests. Simple, right? Good teachers will produce good results, and bad teachers will produce bad results.
Here's the problem, as explained by one of my graduate professors:
Suppose a fourth grade teacher receives a class full of students who read at a first grade level. By the end of the year, those students are reading at a third grade level. That teacher has done a great job, but standardized tests would show that the students are not "proficient." Would this teacher be considered "bad" and lose his or her job?
Teachers need to work with what they have inherited. Many teachers are miracle workers, but even their achievements can be difficult to measure. One of my mentors once told me, "Teaching is an art, but they are trying to make it a science."
I personally do not believe that simplistic and punitive measures are the answer. Like the parent who fought for her child, many teachers also fight for their students, but feel stuck in an unfair system. I don't know anyone who is involved in education simply because it supposedly guarantees a "job for life," but I know many who struggle every day to provide their students with the education they deserve. Perhaps if someone were to ask the people most closely responsible for their students' learning what they need, the public might understand what educators face and maybe even hear some solutions. Will that happen anytime soon? And so, we keep waiting too.