I just finished watching “Waiting for Superman” and decided I’d write a couple of my thoughts. My first thought was “how did I ever survive growing up in the ghettos of Dunbar?” (note for my international readers, that’s a middle-class neighbourhood in Vancouver. It’s a joke you see… because it’s not a bad neighbourhood, and as the more I explain the joke, the funnier it will get!)
Actually one of my first thoughts was, how did I manage to avoid all those horrible teachers the film talks about? I’m sure I had some teachers that weren’t spectacular and I was a very average student up until grade 10 when I decided to take things a little more seriously. Actually, my Dad told me I couldn’t play any sports until I showed that I could maintain a “B” average. I went from a lifetime “C” student to “B” student in a month. Did my teachers all of a sudden get better?
I have a thought here but I’m having trouble deciding how to express it… I guess it’s that while I certainly agree with the thesis of the film that great teachers can make a difference, students also need to be self-motivated. I remember lots of classes where I would walk out of the class (especially math, sometimes physics) and have no clue what we just did for an hour but I’d go home, read the examples in the textbook and do the problem sets, and eventually after some serious mental anguish I’d get it. Of course sometimes I wouldn’t be able to do it and I’d call a classmate for help but more often than not I’d struggle with it until I figured it out. So, part of what I’m trying to say is that while it’s fine and dandy to point the finger at teachers, learning takes effort. The teacher cannot learn for you.
STOP! I just had a revelation: I’m old. Ya know how I know? Cuz in this next paragraph I’m going to bemoan “kids these days”. Seriously, kids these days want everything to come easy. Everything is too hard. Boohoo. It seems everywhere I look, this is the attitude of the times. Can I say the zeitgeist of the times? I like that phrase and don’t get to use it often enough…It seems the kids want all the success and wealth with none of the sacrifice and hard work. They only want to do what they like to do when they want to do it. Ok, I know it’s not every kid but I seem to encounter this attitude a lot.
This kind of leads to my next point about the movie which is they don’t ask what are the 20 something other countries’ education systems that are out-competing the US doing differently? Well, as someone who has taught high school kids in Japan I can tell you that the difference does not lie in the quality of the teaching. In fact, given my experience teaching in Japan, (and I’m sure anyone else who’s taught in Japan can back me up on this) if we extend the “it’s the teachers’ fault hypothesis” to Japan I’d say it’s a freakin’ miracle Japanese kids can tie their shoelaces. Oh! Little Johnny can’t learn because his teacher doesn’t make learning FUN! He doesn’t encourage him enough! Really!? Try sitting in a Japanese high school class. Johnny’s class will seem like a field trip to Disneyland with all the candy he can eat with his own cheer-leading squad (Mmm…cheerleading squad……)
You know why the other countries are out-perfoming US students? As a world renowned expert I will tell you: 1. The students do their freakin’ homework; 2. Those societies still show some modicum of respect for teachers so when a teacher disciplines a child, the parent backs up the teacher not the student; 3. It’s not “cool” to be a failure and/or ignorant in those countries; 4. The culture values education (unlike the US where science is chased out of the classrooms in place of religious superstition) 5. Again, the teachers know that the parents back them 100% so if a kid is being disrespectful/not doing their work the teacher can enforce discipline rather than what happens here, i.e. the parent thinks their kid is perfect and how dare the teacher be “mean” to their child. 6. The kids are expected to work hard and do well. 7. The teacher is not expected to be a cheerleader for the kids, praising them for every minor thing they do well. Here’s a wacky idea…you’re supposed to do your homework and do well in school–that’s the norm! Why should we praise people for achieving the norm?
Despite all the reasons why these other countries are out-performing the US, US culture is not going to become like Japan’s. The film makers are correct to say changes need to be made in how education is carried out in the US, especially in the inner cities. We’re going to have to accept that maybe the teachers will have to act as cheerleaders and will have to make leaning “fun”. The fact of the matter is that what works in one culture might not work in another and that current educational policies aren’t working. We (or just me, I’m fine with that) can blame the kids until we’re blue in the face but it’s actually the adults that failed them long ago. …the children! save the children! (I probably shouldn’t make light of these things but how can I pass up an opportunity to use a cliche)
One important idea that emerged from the film was that teachers’ unions are a major part of the problem. This relates back to how I started this post, wondering how it is that I magically by passed all the “lemon” teachers. It could be that in Canada the education system and socio-economic circumstances are quite different, or at least they are at the 1 elementary and 3 high schools I went to. I find it hard to believe that the amount of crappy teachers out there is so great as to so greatly negatively effect the level of education. Were there no crappy teachers in the US in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s when the US was leading the world in education?
Also, the amount of education required for someone to be a teacher now is significantly greater than what it was back in the golden age of US education. Tonnes of research has been carried out on effective methods, which teachers learn as part of teacher training. So, how can poor teaching be such a problem if teacher now has at least 2 extra years of education specific to teaching methods? It just doesn’t add up. The film hinted at one possible explanation, which was that the US did so well comparatively because the other nations didn’t have education systems to speak of. Ok, that would make sense but when you compare 1960s US metrics to current US metrics, the 1960 students performed much better. Did all the extra teacher training lead to crappier teaching? Unlikely.
Getting back to the crappy teacher hypothesis, I felt that there was a compelling argument for at least reducing the facility with which teachers attain tenure and for allowing better performers to be better paid. To be sure there are problems with changing these things but I think some flexibility on the part of the teachers union might be helpful–if a teacher has been proven to suck definitively he should be fired just like in any other job.
Regarding granting tenure to teachers after only 2 years, when compared to what university professors have to go through it seems a bit easy. A university professor must endure on average 10 years of post secondary education, writing, researching, and publishing articles (for free), and working on committees (for free). At the end of it all there is not guarantee of tenure. I do however feel that tenure is important because if someone is going to invest 5 or 6 years of their life getting an education for a career path that pays very little, they deserve a little security. How else are we going to attract any talent? Also, it is very easy to imagine a situation in the US and A where a good biology teacher in the South wants to teach evolution but can’t because he knows he’ll get chased out of town with torches and pitchforks.
Furthermore, there will be complications with performance based pay because the demographics of your school have a significant effect on student abilities/behavioural problems/parent support/etc… Nevertheless, I don’t think these problems are irresolvable and remember we are doing it for the children! How can you argue with that?
All this bickering of educational policy and methodology…tsk tsk. The solution is sooooooo simple. Haven’t you read “The Power of Now” or “The Secret”? These kids are failing because they are not willing the universe hard enough to give them “A”s. Clearly, they and their parents just don’t want it badly enough. It’s all their fault. Those silly inner city kids. If they just wanted it badly enough the universe would conspire to give them A’s. To quote Hansel, “it’s so simple”.
Anyway, I’d love to hear what other people think about this…