Education: Waiting for Superman and Dissent

Thanks to Jim Van Pelt, I have a link to a counter viewpoint regarding Waiting for Superman, Davis Guggenheim’s new film.

Rick Ayers writes the article What Superman Got Wrong, Point by Point. in The Washington Post. It’s an article that you should read before accepting Guggenheim’s word as the final one.

I’ve been a teacher for 24 years. For five years, I taught high school and junior high. I spent a few months in that time frame subbing in various schools in a rural area, but I did my student teaching in suburbia and my full-time work in rural areas.

My husband is still teaching high school, and is in his 25th year of doing so. He’s taught in tiny schools and now teaches in an urban school. Urban means something a little different in Iowa. We still have corn in Cedar Rapids. But it’s a large school with an increasingly diverse population.

Ayers’ article would be what Bryon and I would write if we were to summarize 20 years of “getting ready for school over toothpaste and breakfast” talks.

Education is perhaps the only profession where the people who know the most about it (teachers) are demonized rather than consulted about what makes schools work. If you listen to the media, we are all hanging onto our jobs while practicing mediocre teaching methods. There are good teachers that every school district can point you to, who do their jobs, but you don’t really hear about us in the media. We’d just as soon have an education crisis. It’s more dramatic.

School reform isn’t a bad idea. Improving any situation is a good idea. All Guggenheim’s film does is regurgitate the same old chestnuts about what’s wrong with schools that have dubious support.

Like number 2 on Ayer’s list: Waiting for Superman implies that standardized testing is a reasonable way to assess student progress.

Actually, a norm-based test can’t show criterion-based improvement, which is the emphasis of No-Child Left Behind. Standardized tests continue to be culturally biased on loads of levels. Education is a little more complicated than a number that a scantron can produce for you. Standardized tests don’t touch skill sets or performance outcomes. The reason policy-makers love them is because they want an easy measurement. Triangulating data is hard work. It’s easier to make a faulty judgment based on one measure.

I believe money continues to be the largest problem schools face, both in the lives of their students and individual school budgets. Perhaps we should prioritize funding education and ending poverty? How about lengthening the school year to slow down educational attrition (which would take money)? How about parents being involved more in the children’s educations (which means the parents might need money to take the time to do this)? How about allowing teachers autonomy and the ability to practice professionally, rather than cobbling them with antiquated top-down systems of management that use the 19th-century factory as their model, or paying them a salary that meant the best and brightest would want to become teachers?

How about not holding up the charter school as the model for what it takes to meet success? I think any school could produce good results if it had an elite student base and a large pool of money. Comparing charter schools and public schools isn’t even comparing apples and oranges. It’s comparing apples and dodge balls because both are round.

Of course, this is about the point that readers not inclined toward my ideas will say that I am biased because I am vested in the system. I have been one of those mediocre teachers. I won’t even try to correct your view with credibility statements. You go out there; teach for about twenty years; take a few classes in psychology, education, and methodology; and then come back and talk to me.

I wouldn’t want a doctor to practice on me without experience and training. No one thinks that because they’ve taken medicine or had an operation that they’re a doctor. Just because you’ve had an education doesn’t make you as qualified as someone who’s studied and taught to make decisions about it. I’m talking to you, Congress. You too, Barry. I love you, but this is one area in which every politician I know is full of fail.

Realistically, no one wants to tell parents they’re doing a bad job. If you’re a middle- or upper-class parent, and you’re very involved in your child’s education, your child’s education is probably supplemented and supported by you, and your kid’s gonna be okay.

The rest of you? Believe it or not, in spite of what the media tells you, we do want you to get a good education, and most of us teachers want the society you’re in to give you a fair shake. Which is why most of us teachers will advocate against standardized tests as a measure of your worth, and why most of us will fight for child rights, social justice, and an end to poverty. Because we’re trying to get the uninformed to understand that the issue is not simple.

Another thing? I’m in Iowa. I know our schools are fairly good, compared to those across the nation. I saw on the news in Washington this morning that four schools were closed and many teachers were fired because they didn’t meet district standards on standardized tests. A Congresswoman this morning said that this would send a clear message to teachers that no kids could fail.

Don’t the kids, and their parents, and their backgrounds, and their innate abilities have something to do with that? Wishing ever so hard that every child could be smart won’t make it happen. Most teachers want students to do the best that they can.

Real reform means thinking about the business of how we do school. Let the teachers inform your decisions, rather than deciding they have nothing to contribute, and their persecution is an easy fix to a complicated problem. Work on creating a culture that values education and children first. Stop passing laws that keep kids in poverty, deny their parents jobs, and take health care away from them. Invest in the future.

Stop using teachers as a scape goat so you don’t solve the real problem.

And you, Davis Guggenhiem, go make a real film instead of pandering to an ill-informed electorate and riding the political wave. I loved your work on An Inconvenient Truth. Get crackin’.


Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.

3 thoughts on “Education: Waiting for Superman and Dissent”

  1. “Work on creating a culture that values education and children first.”

    YES – exactly!

    I’m not a teacher, just a parent of two kids in public school. Teachers are NOT the problem. In fact, my kids have been fortunate to have many, MANY good teachers over the course of their education. A few bad ones, sure, but overall, I’m pleased with the education they’ve received.

    Firing teachers because kids didn’t pass the tests makes no sense to me. There are so many other variables in the equation!! How can all the blame go to the teachers?

    I’m so tired of living in a society where people just want to point fingers instead of trying to work together, REALLY work together, to come up with good solutions.

  2. I see that there are some good tests and bad standardized tests. Good as in not biased and measuring several standards to give a balanced assesment. But sometimes I notice student responses that are obviously coached by the teacher. The teacher is teaching for the test. You see this in essay responses that are from students probably from lower income brackets. The teacher is trying to hold onto his/her job through getting the kid to pass the test. Maybe there’s some benefit to the student if they learn some mechanics of writing, but they don’t seem to put thought into it. It’s just survival.

  3. And this is one of the largest problems with standardized testing–teaching to the test for survival. it’s another very compelling reason to not use standardized testing as a benchmark.

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