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The Stir Over Superman

I’ve been home sick with a horrendous cough and cold this week.  I’ve had to cancel everything for the past three days in an effort to get well.  Needless to say, I got bored very quickly.  However, my boredom has afforded me with an opportunity to learn more about “Waiting for ‘Superman’,” the documentary that’s scheduled to premiere in select cities starting this Friday, September 24th.  If you don’t know about “Waiting for ‘Superman'” yet, then here’s a screen shot of the synopsis from the documentary’s website:

Point your browser to http://film.waitingforsuperman.com/synopsis to read more about the documentary.

I heard about “Waiting for ‘Superman'” late last week when I was reading Amanda Ripley’s article, “What Makes a School Great” in Time Magazine.  According to Ripley, the documentary points out more than what’s wrong with America’s public schools, it presents solutions too.  Fabulous! I initially thought.  This is what we need.  A big budget documentary to shed some light on how to fix American education.  However, by the end of Ripley’s article, it seemed to me the solution “Waiting for ‘Superman'” was proposing to fix America’s public schools was to expand charter schools and to fire “bad teachers.”

On Monday afternoon I was laying in bed, with the scent of Vicks’ Vapo Products permeating the room, remote control in-hand.  I had watched as much CNN and MSNBC as I could handle that day and finally settled on “Oprah,” which gets on at 4:00 p.m.  I was reeled into Oprah’s show on Monday since it focused on education.  Oprah’s guests included Davis Guggenheim, director and co-writer of “Waiting for ‘Superman’,” Bill Gates, Founder of Microsoft, Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public school system, as well as several children who are followed in the documentary.  Guggenheim, Gates, and Rhee spoke eloquently about the problems in America’s public schools.  If I weren’t in education, then I would be right behind them, on the bandwagon with their plan to reform American education.  But I am in education.  I’ve taught in a public school and a charter school, which means I was a member of a union, the UFT, for part of my teaching career.  I taught in classrooms where nearly all of my students qualified for free- or reduced-price lunches.  And because I’m in education, I was dismayed that there were voices missing from the discourse on “Oprah” this past Monday.  You know whose voices weren’t heard?  The voices of educators.

Oprah was smart to state that she and the other guests on the show weren’t talking about “the good teachers” out there, of which they know there are many.  However, why not have some public school teachers on the show?

By the time my husband got home from work on Monday, I was talking with him about what I saw on “Oprah” and the documentary.  I wondered, aloud, if it suggests more than just charter schools and firing ineffective teachers as the ways to fix what’s broken with American education.  While the documentary opens on Friday, Fandango doesn’t have an estimate for when it’s coming to my part of the country, so I have no idea when I’ll get to see it to learn if there’s more offered there.

Let me address the two “fixes” that seem to be the outgrowths of “Waiting for ‘Superman’,” with some personal stuff mixed in:

1)  CHARTER SCHOOLS: My husband moved to Rhode Island for work in July 2006.  (NOTE: My husband and I got engaged in June 2006 and married in December 2007.)  In July 2007, after completing M.A. at Teachers College and my third year of teaching in the New York City Public Schools, I moved to Rhode Island.  When I started looking for jobs in Rhode Island in early 2007, I quickly learned it would be nearly impossible to find a classroom teaching job in the Providence Public School System if I didn’t want to sub for one to two years.   Therefore, I consulted with one of my professors at T.C., who pointed me in the direction of someone who was involved with a public charter school in the City of Central Falls.  The school’s foundation was built upon literacy, which was a perfect match for me.

Were it not for the hiring practices that emphasized seniority in Providence, I would have looked for a job in the public school system.  I believe all children, not just the ones whose families know about and get picked in a lottery for a charter school, are entitled to an excellent education.  Rather than seeing charter schools as the answer to our nation’s public education crisis, I think we should be looking for meaningful ways to work with parents and communities to fix the existing public school system rather than to demonize it.

2)  FIRING INEFFECTIVE TEACHERS: I started teaching in September 2004.  If I had stayed in New York for one more SCHOOL year (i.e., through September 2007), then I would have received tenure.  I didn’t find it appealing to be living apart from my fiance/husband during the 2007-08 school year just so I could get tenure nor did I think it was ethical to start the school year in New York and leave in October to get tenure.  Quite frankly, I felt as though I did a good enough job as a teacher when I was in New York that if I were to move back, I’d be rehired based upon the time I taught.

Many people think tenure is a necessity in the teaching profession.  Quite frankly, I’m not one of them.  If you go in everyday and teach well, impacting students and help them achieve what they’re supposed to learn by the end of the school year, then you should be invited back.  While I understand tenure protects teachers from being fired arbitrarily by administrators who may not like them, I do not think the system is helpful to children who sometimes land up with an ineffective teacher who is in the classroom after 10, 20, or 30 years just because they are tenured.  (By “ineffective,” I mean more than someone who is evaluated using students’ standardized test scores.  To me, ineffective teachers are the ones who don’t want to be there, don’t expect the best out of themselves and their students, or who treat students in ways that prevent them from getting ahead.)

Yes, you can fire ineffective teachers, but that won’t make the system better all by itself.  You know that and I know that.

We need to have a purposeful discourse in this country about ways we can truly change public education.  It’s not going to be easy to fix.  There are so many factors, but I believe the answer is greater than firing ineffective teachers.  To that end, a quote from Diane Ravitch’s March 2010 Huffington Post article:

It would be good if our nation’s education leaders recognized that teachers are not solely responsible for student test scores. Other influences matter, including the students’ effort, the family’s encouragement, the effects of popular culture, and the influence of poverty. A blogger called “Mrs. Mimi” wrote the other day that we fire teachers because “we can’t fire poverty.” Since we can’t fire poverty, we can’t fire students, and we can’t fire families, all that is left is to fire teachers.

Retrieved on 9/22/10 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diane-ravitch/first-lets-fire-all-the-t_b_483074.html.

So back to “Waiting for ‘Superman’.”  This morning I found out about Rethinking Schools’ new Facebook Page entitled NOT ‘Waiting for Superman’, which is a response to the documentary.  On that page I found a link, which was a letter written by Stan Karp on behalf of the editors from Rethinking Schools, which resonated with me.  (Click here to read all of Karp’s letter.)  Here are some excepts from his letter which I think need to be read by as many people as possible:

The message of the film is that public schools are failing because of bad teachers and their unions. The film’s “solution,” to the minimal extent it suggests one, is to replace them with “great” charter schools and teachers who have less power over their schools and classrooms.

The film was made by the Academy-Award winning director of “An Inconvenient Truth,” a documentary that helped awaken millions to the dangers of global warming. But this film misses the mark by light years. Instead of helping people understand the many problems schools face and what it will take to address them, it presents misleading information and simplistic “solutions” that will make it harder for those of us working to improve public education to succeed. We know first hand how urgently change is needed. But by siding with a corporate reform agenda of teacher bashing, union busting, test-based “accountability” and highly selective, privatized charters, the film pours gasoline on the public education bonfire started by No Child Left Behind and Race To the Top.

The film has an undeniably powerful emotional impact, and the stories of the children and families it highlights are compelling to all of us. But the film uses these stories to promote an agenda that will hurt public schools and the communities that depend on them. It’s time to speak up for ourselves, our students, and our schools.

The words “THANK YOU!” came out of my mouth when I finished reading Karp’s letter.  Reading it, along with viewing Rethinking Schools’ NOT Waiting for Superman Page, made me realize I wasn’t alone with my thoughts regarding the way I think “Waiting for ‘Superman'” will impact educators who are part of the public school system.

“Waiting for ‘Superman'” creates a greater sense of urgency to get things done about the crisis in America’s public schools.  NCLB hasn’t helped in the ways it should have.  All it has done is to create a culture where we teach to the test.  I don’t have all of the answers, but I’m pretty sure that working together — teachers, administrators, government officials, parents, and students — is the way to make our schools work so our children are prepared for the demands of living in the global, 21st century world.

RELATED READING:

NOTES:

  • On Friday afternoon, Oprah will have a live show that will serve as a follow-up to Monday’s show.  This time there will be teachers present since there was a call for teachers to be in the studio audience on her website this past Monday.
  • There is a “Share Your Reactions” Page set up on Oprah’s Website, which deals with Monday’s show and the topic of education.  Click here to read what other people are saying.
The curriculum we put into place aligned with the Rhode Island Standards and my students were still given the NECAP ELA, Math, and Science Tests every year.

Stacey Shubitz View All

Literacy Consultant. Author. Former 4th and 5th Grade Classroom Teacher.

11 thoughts on “The Stir Over Superman Leave a comment

  1. I tried all day Sunday to write a Letter to the Editor of TIME regarding their entire education issue. After a couple hours I gave up as there was too much to say in just a little letter. Your post today expresses my thoughts completely. I am planning to take part in the Teacher Town Hall this Sunday so that I can voice my opinion – which seems necessary since teachers are being left out of this conversation. Thank you for this post – I plan to link to it on my blog tonight!

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  2. @Nancy: Well-said!
    If you haven’t seen the trailer for “The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman” yet, then here’s a link to it:

    On another note, sorry to see that you’re home sick (with the baby) too. Hope you both feel better soon.

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  3. Great post. I’m terribly behind on my education news and this was a great way to get myself up to speed.
    Like you, I don’t believe tenure is necessary but only because in NYC, tenure is a farce. If you have “tenure” but your principal wants you out, he/she will find a way. Union support in these cases means more than having tenure.
    Also, if principals and teachers had more autonomy, union protection would be less necessary. I think a majority of conflicts betweens teachers and administrators arises from the incredible pressure to meet unrealistic expectations. If teachers were allowed to do their jobs as they see fit, then principals could base their hire/fire decisions on the merit of the teacher, instead of political motivation. Until then, union protection remains important.
    If any one group should be demonized here, it should be the people attempting to profit off the education of our students and placing undue pressure on students, teachers AND principals. Testing companies have a great scam going!

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  4. @Annie: My pleasure. And yes, I’m starting to feel more human again. In fact, I think I may even leave the house tomorrow! (Granted, it’s to go to the doctor, but I’ve got to start somewhere, right?)

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  5. Stacey,

    I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to put thoughts, feelings, intuitions, and insights (that reflect so many of us) into powerful and beautiful words. So grateful to be part of a thinking and writing community with you and I hope you are feeling better!

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  6. @ms_teacher: Sounds like “permanent status” would be a happy medium across the land. Although, like you said, tenure isn’t the problem seeing as it’s not a part of every failing school’s “problem.”
    @Bonnie: Perhaps it’s because I’m fortunate to have not had any horrible experiences like the ones you mentioned that have led me to my belief.
    That being said, union support is a beautiful thing when something happens on the job and one needs back-up. The UFT served me well the two times I had incidents in the school yard and thought I would need support. (Turns out everything was fine in the end and the situations resolved themselves, but knowing the UFT would be there to support me gave me peace of mind.)
    Thank you for your kind words. I hope you enjoy the links.
    @Lynn & Dollie: Thanks for the compliment. I spent HOURS on this post. I probably should’ve been laying in bed, trying to ride out my cold, but I felt as though I had to say something about this TODAY. I even read part of it to Ruth over the phone before I hit the “publish” button. I’m glad it was received well by you.

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  7. I’m sorry you’re sick, but wow! this post was awesome! I always rely on your blog for ideas for my classroom, but this painted a very clear picture of the problem with corporate and government people making decisions for and about education. We are not a business that should be selecting which children to educate; we should be putting our heads together and figuring out better ways to education everyone. I’m so grateful for educators like you who have strong voices and are true to authentic educational practices. You give me courage and hope!

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  8. Very well said-I have to agree with a loud amen to your comment, ” I don’t have all of the answers, but I’m pretty sure that working together — teachers, administrators, government officials, parents, and students — is the way to make our schools work so our children are prepared for the demands of living in the global, 21st century world.”

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  9. Bravo sick Stacey you did a fantastic job! I do believe in tenure based on my own teaching experiences with some very crazy parents and some very supportive administrators but it was good have the support of my union leadership as well and law behind me.
    As for this documentary, I think you write about it with depth of understanding to the missing elements- educators, public school teachers, and great written analysis as well. I can’t wait to get clicking on your links as well!
    Wonderful,
    Bonnie

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  10. In my state (California) we don’t have tenure. We have “permanent status” which we earn after two years. This status does not mean I have a job guaranteed for life. It does mean that if my administrator is unhappy with the job that I am doing, then they have to follow due process to get me out of my job.

    If “tenure” was an obstacle in getting rid of “bad” teachers, then states in which there are no unions or very weak unions should have higher rates of getting rid of teachers. This is not the case. If unions were the cause of students not doing well, then states in which there are no unions or weak unions should have better test scores (if that’s the criteria that you want to use). Again, this is not the case.

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