My wife and I saw the very good documentary “Waiting for Superman” recently and agreed the film has a lot to say. She has worked in our local school district for nearly a decade as both a teacher and counselor, so I can appreciate her take on the different issues the film presented. And while the film is not perfect, and focuses primarily on inner city school challenges, one thing is certain: The filmmakers focus on the common ground Americans have behind education reform.
To start with, there are the obvious shared educational goals that we have that are no-brainers, such as improving literacy, raising academic standards, and improving the performance of our students. But this all starts with teachers and schools, and the need to have a better functioning system. That’s where there seems to be hundreds of different ideas. Still, I think most of us can agree on some key elements of education reform, such as:
1. We want the best teachers in our schools, and we want the ability to reward and encourage these great teachers.
2. We want high performing schools – not just one in our community, but all of them.
3. We believe control over schools should be done at the local level (at the district and state level) because that way we can better address specific community challenges.
4. We want school districts to have the ability to fairly evaluate our teachers and schools, and do what it takes to improve the performance of both.
5. We want the ability to get rid of poor, underperforming teachers.
The question, of course, is HOW to accomplish these objectives – but the dialog needs to start from the understanding that we really all want the same thing. From here the discussion needs to look at different approaches, and there are many. The “Waiting for Superman” website alone shows how many different paths are being taken in the name of their motto “Together We Can Fix Education.” But what is admirable about the dialog on their site is that it is not angry or accusatory – just insistent on taking action. Most of the action steps are credible individual suggestions we can take.
We need to let go of the rhetoric and focus on building bridges. As an example, let’s look at just one issue exposed in the documentary, the problem of getting rid of bad teachers. We all want to get rid of bad apples – I don’t know ONE teacher who wouldn’t agree the system needs to allow districts to dismiss lousy teachers – but I also don’t know one teacher who wouldn’t say that their union plays an important role in making sure their rights are protected. It’s a popular framing mechanism to “love the teachers” but “attack the unions,” as if those bad and nasty unions are in some way an outside third party. They’re an easy target, because it is the union contract agreements that have made it nearly impossible to get rid of poor instructors.
But here’s the thing: The teachers ARE the unions! They vote for their elected leadership, and like everything else in our democracy, their voted representatives act on their behalf in contract negotiations. So even though the vast majority of teachers would agree in “rewarding the good and getting rid of the bad,” they are NOT demanding this collectively at the bargaining table.
So when it comes to teacher evaluation, this is where we need to start. Obviously there must be pretty sensitive issues at stake when teachers talk about changing tenure and the ability to jettison unwanted faculty — no teacher wants to be part of a witch hunt if the school boards were given Absolute Power. They’ll want to know their protections; they’ll want to see how evaluations will play in both high and low performing schools; they’ll want to know that “testing” isn’t the magic answer to everything; etc. As the “Superman” website suggests, if this an important issue to you, then take it upon yourself to know your school board and find out what is being done on a local level about making sure we have great teachers. Like anything else in a democracy, if we want change, we have to be willing to roll up our sleeves and get involved.
This is not the space to play out the education discussion, but I do know that good ideas and solid proposals can be heard and calmly evaluated by those willing to find solutions. And we need to make darn sure that those we put into school boards AND union boards are the type of individuals who WILL listen and evaluate good proposals.