Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Waiting for Superman

I've got a lot to blog about, but there's just too much to summarize, so let me start with the one that's most on my mind.

I've just seen the documentary film, 'Waiting for Superman.' It's about the plight of the failings of our public school system, and what can be done to fix it. As someone working to become a teacher, I knew this was a film I probably wanted to see. So I put it in my Netflix cue and finally got around to viewing it.

Twenty minutes in, I was furiously taking notes.

I knew things were bad, but I had no idea that they were this bad. And the film illustrated the problem in the best possible way, by following the lives of a few kids, and their caring parents. One kid, an adorable Hispanic girl who said she wanted to be a doctor, broke my (and indeed, everyone's) heart when she didn't get into the school she wanted.

The interviews were enlightening, and the facts, staggering. I've long heard Charlie Sykes rant about the situation in public schools in Milwaukee, but one of the interviewees was none other than Howard Fuller, former Superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools. In an event which took place many years ago (apparently, while I was paying attention to something else), a kid walked into an MPS school with a hidden camera, taking pictures of teachers who were doing nothing, reading newspapers, with whole classrooms full of kids doing absolutely nothing. Fuller, when shown the video, yelled, "I'm gonna fire these people!"

The teacher's union stopped him. After he'd fired them, he was later forced to hire them back, with one year's back-pay.

Realizing he wasn't in charge, he resigned.

This acute Milwaukee connection got my attention. And there were plenty of other figures which blew me away. Here's just a small sample of what I wrote down in the notes I took from the film:

In Pennsylvania, 67% of all prison inmates are high school dropouts.
There, it costs $33,000 per year to incarcerate one inmate. Over the average period of incarceration, four years, that's $132,000 dollars.
A private school in PA costs $8,300 per year. So for K through 12th grade, the state could have put the same inmate through a quality school for 13 years. 13 times 83K is $107,000.
If they did, they'd still have $24,000 left over for that person to go to college.

Where is all the money going?

Here's another stunning fact: There are 14,000 separate, autonomous school boards in the U.S. That's a lot of cooks to spoil the broth! Any reform efforts must face fourteen thousand individual bureaucracies!

(This same multiplicity of school boards is also what allows creationism to thrive in science classrooms below the radar.)

This one really blew me away: A bad teacher retards a student's development by 50% of an entire year. By contrast, a good teacher can bring students up by 150% or more! And here's a juicy tidbit: If we were to eliminate only the bottom 10% of bad teachers, and replace them with only average teachers, our overall school performance would jump to the level of Finland, which has the best academic measurements in the world!

We've got to get rid of those bad teachers! But firing a teacher is harder than curing herpes these days.

In Illinois, for example, there are 876 school districts. Only 61 of them even tried to fire a teacher. Only 38 were successful. Ever.

Compare this with other professions. On average, 1 in 57 doctors will lose their license. One lawyer in 97 will be disbarred. But among teachers, only 1 out of every 2,500 will lose their teaching license.

Why is this? Well, Howard Fuller found that teachers had something called "Tenure." Interesting, that. Tenure was originally meant for college professors, and was designed to prevent them from being fired for arbitrary or political reasons. Even today, professors can teach college classes for years before they qualify, and many never even get tenure.

Tenure for high school teachers? And it's automatic after only two years? When the hell did that happen?

I've always held the opinion that you can't pay a good teacher enough, while you can't fire a bad teacher fast enough.

Sadly, teacher's unions have stood in the way of both these things.

This brings me to the subject of the unions, and the power they've had. I've recently put my good name on the line defending these unions, while simultaneously hedging my defense by advocating that these unions be reformed. I now know just how deep that reform needs to run. Unions need reform, and not just for public sector unions. The whole thing needs to be reworked.

A few blog posts ago, I detailed some needed overall union reforms. I errantly left out one BIG one, and for that, I apologize. The one I left out, the most important one of all, is this:

UNIONS MUST FIRE SLACKERS!!!

I don't think I can overemphasize this enough. The survival of unions depends upon this more than anything else. Over and over again, those who oppose unions cite the inevitable lazy son-of-a-bitch who doesn't produce, gets over-paid, and who can't be fired. Why is it that union leadership doesn't realize that if they could just change that one thing, and then change the perception of it, if they could just get that damned pro-laziness albatross off from around their collective necks, they could have complete political acceptance? Why do unions not realize they need to fire lazy jerk-offs more than they need oxygen?

The answer, I fear, is poor leadership within unions. A good union, with wise leadership, can be a sound system which benefits all. A bad union is worse than no union at all.

Which might explain why Walker went after the unions.

The secret-camera episode is what Walker should have cited when attacking the teachers unions, instead of listing all of the bullshit union "offenses" which I debunked in my blog post from March 13 of this year (yet another example of his overall incompetence). He probably didn't because it was an episode from back in the early 90's. But so what? The need to be able to fire bad teachers is still essential.

(Where was Howard Fuller during this whole Madison budget-battle, by the way?)

The film cited Michelle Rhee, who was given broad powers to reform schools in Washington, D.C., which has the worst performing public schools in the nation. She started to make progress, but she knew she needed to make sure the bad teachers were gotten rid of. Her proposal to the teachers union during a collective bargaining session was brilliant: Either teachers could accept "tenure" with modest pay increases, or they could relinquish tenure and potentially receive massive pay increases based on performance. It was a brilliant masterstroke! I must say, I think this Michelle Rhee is one hell of a woman!

The union didn't even let her measure come up for a vote, fearing it would pass.

Meanwhile, enterprising charter schools, such as the Kipp academy, and boarding schools such as SEED in New York, are working -- operating outside the sphere of influence of the teachers unions.

David Guggenheim, the director of the film, told it like it is, and really targeted the fact that most political contributions from teachers unions go to Democrats. He wasn't being political, he was merely telling the truth. As such, we're greatly indebted to him. This is the same guy who directed the film, An Inconvenient Truth! He's certainly no raging conservative nut-job!

So here's my new position, and I don't think it's too radically different from my old one: I intend to really pound hard upon the leadership of the Milwaukee teachers union to push for the firing of poor teachers, and to drop any attempts to defend residency rules. Those unions should be defending the quality of education just as much, if not more, than the teachers themselves. I'll watch them like a hawk! After that, it depends on what the union itself does or has to say. If they do the right thing, all's well. If they don't...

Well, then I'll be forced to eat my slice of humble pie, and admit that, in his sheer incompetence, and primarily out of political malice, Scott Walker may just have accidentally done the right thing in breaking the teachers' union.

And I'll be there afterwards to help with the work of putting the union back together again, only better this time.

Eric

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