The enraged teacher lifted the misbehaving nine year old boy off the ground and tossed him over a desk, shattering the student’s leg. I could hear the boy’s screams down the hallway at the Brooklyn inner city school where I taught 6th grade many years ago.
Chaos followed. Parents threatened the life of the teacher, who disappeared from the classroom for months.
The teacher’s eventual punishment? Being placed in a different district, in a better school.
I thought of this incident while watching the provocative documentary “Waiting For Superman,” by the same filmmaker (David Guggenheim) who made the Oscar-winning “An Inconvenient Truth.” While the film tends to romanticize charter schools a bit too much, it does make strong points about what’s wrong with education in America today.
One of the problems is the virtual impossibility of getting rid of incompetent or sometimes outright dangerous teachers. As an ex-teacher, I can tell you that there is no more challenging profession. Blaming teachers is never the answer, and most work hard, care about their students and know that when there is no parental involvement, their job is next to impossible.
Teachers also have a right to fair negotiations, and I believe what’s being done in Wisconsin is nothing more than union busting.
That being said, I have known too many teachers who think they are entitled to a job for life, who have never been out of a school setting (first student, then teacher) and have distorted views about how the real world works.
Two striking examples of this mentality are tenure and LIFO, the “last in, first out” way of laying off teachers based on seniority instead of competence. “This is an absolutely indefensible policy,” says Michelle Rhee, former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor who is featured in the film. “LIFO is not good for children, for schools or for the nation.”
Budget cuts are painful and real, and New York City is feeling the effects. Some 6,000 teaching positions will be cut in New York City, and Mayor Bloomberg is pushing the NY State Legislature to repeal LIFO.
In the past, teachers could be indiscriminately fired by vindictive principals, and it is understandable why tenure would be close to teachers’ hearts. But the fact is that while one of 100 lawyers lose their license to practice law and one in about 60 doctors lose his or her license to practice medicine, only one of 1,000 teachers ever is fired for incompetence.
According to the New York Daily News, just 88 of 80,000 city schoolteachers lost their jobs in the past three years due to poor performance. But when Rhee came to the union in Washington and offered teachers the chance to double the national average in pay (to $132,000 a year!) if they would accept merit-based paychecks (those who decided to keep their tenure would get modest raises) the union was so freaked out they wouldn’t even let it come up for a vote.
When Guggenheim made “An Inconvenient Truth,” many conservatives dismissed it as left wing propaganda, and now many liberals are dismissing “Waiting for Superman” as right wing propaganda. But the truth is that Guggenheim is an open-minded filmmaker who calls things as he finds them, and both issues he addresses (climate change and our failing schools) are too important to be reduced to simplistic ideology.
While far from a perfect movie, Waiting for Superman is well-made, moving, and raises issues that are vital to the future of this nation. The five children featured in the film have been invited by President Obama to the White House to further the movie’s objective of raising awareness about our failing schools and the dynamic options available to alter this lamentable situation.
So why wasn’t this film one of the five nominees for Best Documentary?
(+ see Sports Page: Don’t Get Too “Melo”, Knicks Fans)