Waiting for Superman debuts this weekend, and it is already attracting a great deal of very deserved attention. I have devoted all of one and part of a second program to the issues raised by the film already, and urge every conservative in the country to see it and take a liberal friend with you. Take a teacher as well.
As Jonathan Alter says in the movie, it is necessary to hold two propositions in your head: Most teachers are great, wonderful national assets, and teachers’ unions are a scourge on the land. The unions have so wrapped the system in bureaucratic malaise that genuine reform seems almost impossible, even as every year another cohort of functionally illiterate students “graduate” from horrible schools in completely dysfunctional school systems. Many on the left simply throw up their hands and walk away, quite willing to accept donations from the NEA to Democratic pols in exchange for acquiescence int he collapse of urban education.
Two of the very best MSMers should be read in conjunction with the film’s release.
I have often had Jay Mathews of the Washington Post on the program, and his Work Hard Be Nice is the first book you should read on the subject of school reform. Mathews is also featured in the film. No one should have an opinion on charter schools until they read Work Hard Be Nice. It is like a pundit holding forth on al Qaeda who hasn’t read Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower. Some conversations are so important that there ought to be an admission ticket required at the door, in this case a serious read of a very good book.
Then there is Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, Nicholas Lemann, among the most readable and rightly influential writers from the left in the land. Lemann essays on Waiting for Superman in this week’s New Yorker, and it leaves me very disappointed, not because Lemann is wrong or misleading, but because he is palpably weary of the subject.
Lemann wants everyone to recognize the great things American education has accomplished, and it has. But his praise for the past slides into complacency at the end, when he writes:
In education, we would do well to appreciate what our country has built, and to try to fix what is undeniably wrong without declaring the entire system to be broken. We have a moral obligation to be precise about what the problems in American education are-like subpar schools for poor and minority children-and to resist heroic ideas about what would solve them, if those ideas don’t demonstrably do that.
In fact Waiting for Superman is very focused, and the Lemann piece’s unfortunate and perhaps unintended suggestion that it isn’t may persuade people that the documentary is a jeremiad and not the scalpel that it truly is.
Waiting for Superman is very much about lousy teachers –mostly in poor school districts, but throughout public education– who are protected by tenure and the unions from dismissal. The central problem is what to do about those teachers –how to get rid of them in short. The film’s sequences on the Dance of the Lemons and the rubber room communicate this central problem very effectively. It cannot be missed. There are plenty of other problems, but none of them matter as much as clearing the system of the soul-destroying, education-retarding bad teachers.
This is the central dilemma, and men and women of the left should weigh in on that particular point. My suggestion is that a lot of the money going into school reform would be better spent coaxing the lemons into retirement. Just buy them out and send them away, but clear the system of their deadening influence and malignant effect on other teachers and of course on their students.
Now a request for bloggers. If you see the film and write about it, send me a link to your post via firstname.lastname@example.org . Please put “Waiting for Superman” in the subject line. I would like to link them all and feature on-air conversations with the bloggers who come up with the best suggestions for how to deal with the problems so powerfully portrayed on the screen.
Every year another many tens of thousands of kids drop out of schools that could not hold their interest. Many other tens of thousands graduate but with education levels far below the minimum necessary to prosper in our society. It doesn’t have to be that way. It is astonishing that this country just spent $850 billion dollars and has nothing to show for it when it comes to public education reform or excellence. That has to be because most people have given up, have grown weary of the problem.
Except of course the teachers themselves –they good ones and the very, very good ones. They would love nothing more than to be supported in their efforts to educate, and that includes in the removal of the incompetent among them.
I am especially mindful of the excellence in the teaching profession because an acquaintance of mine, KJ Bentley, died suddenly in his classroom this week. KJ was a gifted, indeed an extraordinary teacher and coach that any school would have loved to have had on its campus. He is part of a teaching family –both parents teach, his wife teaches, his daughters teach. He was only 46 and his memorial service Friday will be full of grieving friends, colleagues and especially students past and present. KJ is very much an example of what every student in America deserves, and the idea that we should move slowly to figure out how to provide more KJs to especially the urban poor is not only wrong but incredibly callous. You cannot “make up” for years lost in the classroom of a lousy teacher. The left knows that, and should be demanding action to allow for the flushing of the lousy and the hiring of the promising.