Waiting for Education Reform

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.

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About Chris Perez

Business counselor and educator
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One Response to Waiting for Education Reform

  1. Thank you Chris for a great post on education. Like many issues, there are complexities and valid points on both sides of the political divide and a lot of places to find purple ground.
    We definitely agree that education decisions are best made at the local level:
    1. Because a school in a poor neighborhood in Duarte, CA does not have the same challenges as a school in small town Wilmington, OH.
    2. Because schools can be a great testing ground for proof of concept ideas to be tried out in one area and then adopted or rejected in other areas based on their success or failure

    Federal programs like “Head Start” and “No Child Left Behind” may have great intentions, but treating education as one large national challenge with one large national solution ignores the fundamental fact that local decisions will always be more effective based on their understanding of the area’s demographics and needs.

    Also, we might agree on the idea that unions exist to fight for teachers, workers, and their own power and revenue. I was appalled to learn about “New York’s infamous rubber rooms, where bad teachers literally spent years waiting, at full pay, for the hearings that would determine whether they could be fired.” [http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/13/business/13nocera.html?src=busln]
    Unions, by their very nature don’t fight for better education, they fight for educators and the members of their union. Given that their pension funds are woefully underfunded, they are also fighting for their own financial survival.
    I highly recommend spending some time on the website of “Waiting for Superman”. I have not seen the film yet, but the website seems like a rare place for honest and sincere discourse around education solutions, rather than partisan hyperbole and Kool Aide drinking. The forum on Unions has some interesting points of view from current union leaders and ex union members, both on the harm that unions can cause to education results and the valid concerns that unions respresent on teachers’ behalves, such as the pitfalls of standardized evaluations for teachers. [http://www.waitingforsuperman.com/action/forum/forum-topic/are-unions-helping-education-system]

    A couple other points that I think we can agree on:
    1. Competition and options for students and parents are good things. Solutions like vouchers and charter schools should be evaluated to promote new options. Pilot programs in areas with failing schools can and do provide good evidence of the success or failure of these types of solutions
    2. No amount of good teachers and education reform can replace the value of parental involvement. As a culture, we need to promote the idea that parents are key to their children’s education. Some schools have taken to banning certain food items from kid’s lunch boxes. I worry that this perpetuates the idea that the school, not the parent, is in charge of making decisions for the kids. At the end of the day, parents have the responsibility to be involved with their kid’s education (and diet). Schools should not seek to replace the role of the parent, even if the parent is not doing a good job. The message needs to be that parents have a duty to be parents.

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