Waiting for an education

Katy Grimes: In a mostly empty movie theater in Davis, CA, Monday evening, I saw the new documentary “Waiting For Superman.” But I didn’t just watch the movie as a spectator, I had the distinct privilege of watching the movie with one of the stars!

Superman” has only been out for one week, but is getting rave reviews, and not for being a happy or entertaining film. “Waiting For Superman” chronicles the devastating state of education in America today.

Lance Izumi, Senior Director of Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute (CalWatchdog’s parent organization), and a colleague and friend, is interviewed in the movie about the myth that middle class public schools are always good. I went to the movie with Izumi, and enjoyed hearing more about his interview with the movie’s directors, later in the evening.

The title of the film comes from one of the primary educators in the film, Geoffrey Canada, who is the founder and CEO of Harlem’s Children Zone, a consortium of three charter schools and other educational entities, for poor families. “One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me ‘Superman’ did not exist. ‘Cause even in the depths of the ghetto you just thought he was coming…. She thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real. I was crying because no one was coming with enough power to save us.”

“Waiting for Superman” also features and profiles Michelle Rhee, an outstanding education reformer, and most recently, the School Chancellor of Washington, D.C. Rhee took on D.C. school boards, superintendents, teachers, and the NEA for putting the needs of teachers before the children, and refusing to renegotiate contracts and teacher tenure.

Rhee made drastic changes to the D.C. schools, firing hundreds of bad teachers, as well as the principals that ignored or protected them. She closed down dangerous and failing schools.

Rhee stirred up a nest of very angry hornets in the teachers’ union, but her primary focus, and the one lost on most of these teachers and union members, was only so that children could get the education American promised, and use to deliver.

Izumi is the author of the book and film, “Not as Good as You Think: Why the Middle Class Needs School Choice,” which shatters the myth that good schools are found in nice neighborhoods.

I can attest to that after having to move my son from a “nice” neighborhood public school, to an inner city Catholic school, during his elementary years. The public school was raved about and in one of Sacramento’s more affluent areas, but it was a horrible place, with miserable, angry and vindictive teachers, and more miserable students. The Catholic school I chose was located in one of Sacramento’s least affluent, crime ridden neighborhoods, was filled with kids from group homes, but had hired caring teachers and a Principal who made everyone – students and parents – toe the line.

Even the highly acclaimed, special academic program in my son’s public high school, was just equivalent to the high school education available when I was in high school in the 1970’s. But today’s education standards have sunk so low, that a big deal is made of any school that gets “back to basics.”

But the rest of the high school was another bad social experiment, and inner-city nightmare, which hadn’t been painted for 40 years. The school finally received a historic landmark designation, and was cleaned up and painted inside and out.

In “Superman,” schools highlighted were referred to as “academic sinkholes,” and looked more like prisons than places of education.

Rhee summed it up the best when she said that public education has become all about the adults, and what’s “fair for them, with no consideration for the kids who are failing at an alarming rate.

A statistic was given in the movie that only proves the deplorable state of education: Every year, 1 in 57 doctors loses a license, 1 in 97 attorneys lose a license, but only 1 in 2500 teachers loses a license to teach, due to poor performance or misconduct.

The Los Angeles Weekly reported earlier in the year, “the far larger problem in L.A. is one of “performance cases” — the teachers who cannot teach, yet cannot be fired. Their ranks are believed to be sizable — perhaps 1,000 teachers, responsible for 30,000 children.”

The Weekly reported, “In the past decade, LAUSD officials spent $3.5 million trying to fire just seven of the district’s 33,000 teachers for poor classroom performance — and only four were fired, during legal struggles that wore on, on average, for five years each. Two of the three others were paid large settlements, and one was reinstated. The average cost of each battle is $500,000.”

Read the Weekly story. See “Waiting for Superman.” And be thankful that Michelle Rhee is engaged to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson – maybe California will benefit from Rhee’s amazing experience and guts.

OCT. 20, 2010

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