Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Nov 12 2010

Waiting for Superman

I finally saw Waiting for Superman. It’s an education documentary worth seeing, and I appreciate that it’s bringing so much public attention to our public schools. First and foremost, this is a recommendation that you should go see the movie.

But just because I love raising awareness doesn’t mean I actually agree with many of the things he says. Obviously I support his glorification of Michelle Rhee and his attack on teacher tenure, but beyond that he started to lose me. It felt like his main point was that unions are the problem and charter schools are the answer, and I can’t tell you how much I disagree with both counts.

First, I actually really support unions. I hate teacher tenure and I know that unions are responsible for that, but there are unions in plenty of other industries that don’t have tenure, and I refuse to believe that we must have both or neither. I think a strong union balanced by strong politicians and school governing boards and parents could figure out a way to dismiss bad teachers while still protecting good ones, and I’d be all for that. My friend teaches in a charter school here, and his principal literally cut teacher salaries in the middle of the year without warning. He’d signed a contract to be paid a certain salary, and that didn’t matter and no one stood up for them. I have this fear that teaching would become a volunteer job without unions. (Okay, I know that’s too extreme, but I already work before school, after school, on my lunch break, and on my weekends for no pay. You know if they cut my salary, I’d still be doing it anyway.) I want to know that someone’s working to get me a decent salary and good benefits. If I get sued for something in my classroom, I need someone to have my back. It’s amazing how often schools don’t follow education laws, and if that started to be a problem in my life, I wouldn’t want to confront my administration alone. The answer to bad teachers isn’t to take away support for all teachers. It’s to find someone who can say no when the unions start asking for rubber rooms.

Second, I strongly disagree that charter schools are the answer. Whether you support them or not, by definition charter schools will never serve the entire public school population. This means that no matter how many amazing charter schools we create (and don’t even get me started on how much I dislike most charter schools), there will always be kids in the public school system. These kids are likely going to be disproportionately the ones with the fewest resources, since it takes time and energy and motivation to go to a charter school and not all families can provide that. (Sure, the schools are free and public, but someone in the family needs to do the work to find out about them. And they need to have figured out that their current school isn’t good. Then someone needs to register/apply to the lottery. Someone needs to follow up on results. Someone needs to get the kid to and from a new school that is not necessarily as close as the neighborhood school. Someone needs to cover the kid’s home duties if the school runs longer hours. Watch the families in Waiting for Superman, and admire how much they know and how much time they spend trying to get their kids into these schools. Not everyone can do that.) If we put our focus on charter schools, then we’re basically just tossing life boats to some kids while we leave other kids on the sinking ship to drown. If anything, we’re actually just making that ship sink faster, since charter schools take funding and motivated students away from public schools and just concentrate the problem those schools already face. I’m generalizing, but I hope you know what I mean. I don’t like that he’s throwing up his hands at the public schools and moving on to a new idea. Let’s fix the existing schools instead of just starting a bunch of new ones.

3 Responses

  1. Michael

    I’ve become quite a fan of life boats, if they make enough of a difference to those few people and *don’t detract from efforts to fix the broken system*
    If you won’t change the system, perhaps you can get them into changemaking positions and then they can…

    But of course that’s simplifying things.

  2. As an employee at a non-union charter school I refuse to see “Waiting for Superman.” I began working at my school my first year as a TFA corps member, and I have stayed an additional 2 years, but the lack of a union leads to really horrible treatment. We are required to be at work for 9 hours a day, we get paid for 8, (not couting all the work teachers take home) we also have required weekly meetings for an hour and 15 minutes that are unpaid. We have to monitor students at lunch, so we don’t get lunch breaks. When a parent wants to meet before or after school we cannot refuse their request, even if they want to meet on our personal time. When a child makes an accusation or somebody wants to sue, 50% of the time they fire the teacher. Nobody supports you. We were just at happy hour yesterday joking about starting a union.

  3. Charlotte

    I disagree that the film actually puts forth that charter schools are the answer. It’s just not a reasonable solution, as you point out. I think most folks are getting caught up in the lottery drama and not actually thinking about the subtext of that story – that our traditional public schools are failing our students to the extent that they, and their parents, are pinning their hopes on an alternative that will never be able to serve every child.

    Just because Guggenheim praises the solutions and approaches of charter schools – and the success they see – does not mean that he is saying that it’s a scalable solution that should take over our traditional system. Or at least that’s not what I took from it.

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