Monday, April 11, 2011

Waiting for Superman

I watched the movie "Waiting for Superman" last night, and found it to be a fascinating....if lacking...look at our public education system.  The movie uses the stories of several elementary aged students in failing schools to wrap around the explanation of why our schools are failing.  The main point being the lack of good teachers, and the inability to fire poor performing teachers due to tenure.  These are good points, but I personally felt the film didn't go far enough.  There are multiple reasons why schools are failing today, and I am unwilling to lay the sole reason at the feet of poor teachers.  In fact, there are times when I feel sorry for teachers for being stuck within the same broken system which their students find themselves trapped in.

The film failed to point to other, equally important causes of failure, and directed our attention toward lower income families whose children we find ourselves rooting for as they await word about whether they will win spots in various charter schools as lotteries are held.  These tender young children really grab our compassion as we see them, bright eyed with dreams as big as any middle class kid's dreams.  It is hard not to get drawn into the drama, and the disappointment one feels when some of the children get "left behind" when they are not able to secure a spot in a preferred school is touching.

However, the film seems to see charter schools as the panacea, but a quick search through Wikipedia garners information that shows that while charter schools do reflect a little improvement, overall the results are still abysmal.  Check out this chart from the Wikipedia article:

While I do think there are charter schools whose success is well above the norm, overall charter schools are obviously not the perfect solution either.  Those charter schools whose results are far superior usually rely on a model where students are in school many more hours a week, including Saturdays, and have little time to pursue other interests beyond academic.

Another key point that "Waiting for Superman" failed to make was that many students come from homes where learning is not supported, where parents simply don't care enough to read to their children, to encourage them with homework, or where lives are stable enough that learning is able to take place.  The families shown in the film were hard working, decent American folks who desperately wanted their children to succeed and were willing to work extra hours to earn tuition money or were shown spending time with their children and helping with homework.  If only this were the norm, and not an exception in many communities. 

Teachers can't teach children who don't come to school ready to learn, and to omit this key component from the movie is leaving out a very critical point.  Sitting in my own sons' classrooms many mornings, it was clear which kids would be able to succeed and which ones would be dropping out eventually, even if you hated to classify them that way at 9 or 10 years old.  It was almost impossible not to see it, as clearly there were kids whose learning was supported at home, and there were those for whom Cheetos and hours alone with the TV were the daily routine.  That doesn't even begin to tackle the more difficult home lives of some children where drugs and alcohol were rampant, where Dads were in jail and moms were trying to hold it together, where children were sleeping on Aunties couch or were being raised by grandparents because parents had dumped them there or were incapable of parenting any longer.

To blame teachers 100% for the failure of our children to learn would be unfair.

After viewing the film, I was curious what the standing was for our local schools.  How were they doing?  Was I imagining it that it was as bad as I had thought it was?  Five minutes and I had my answers thanks to the internet.  Want to know why we are homeschooling?  Let me share, and I'll bet for many of you this is no surprise for your own local public schools just might be in the same shape.

Olathe High School, where our children would attend, has a graduation rate of 89%.  Doesn't sound half bad, does it?  But let's see exactly what the performance level is of the students they are allowing to graduate...

I checked the state CSAP scores for 10th graders for 2010 for Olathe and Montrose High Schools, which is the last grade level required to take the annual state achievement tests.  These are the tests our kids just finished taking a couple weeks ago.  The percentages provided reflect the percent of students considered proficient at their grade able to read, write and compute at a 10th grade level.  Our kids would have attended Olathe High, but we had the option of moving them to the "better" school in Montrose should we have so desired.  Here were the scores:

Olathe High School                                 Montrose High School

Reading     59%                                      Reading     73%
Writing      34%                                      Writing       48%
Science     41%                                      Science      53%
Math         30%                                      Math          33%

Stunning, isn't it?  70% of the 10th graders at the school our kids would have attended are incapable of calculating math problems at a 10th grade level, and 66% are incapable of writing at a 10th grade level.  Even the highest score in reading is sickening.  No wonder it is said that the average news article today is written at the 5-7th grade level, it is because we as a society are incapable of reading anything of a much higher level!  When Matthew told me that more than half his class couldn't read and he was bored because things were moving so slowly, he was not exaggerating at all.  Any child working merely at grade level and not being a gifted reader would find it hard to remain engaged with classes filled with kids who can't read or write at the most basic level.

Even if we were to look at the stats for our other high school option, it is unfathomable to see how poorly overall these students are performing...when 52% of the children from the supposedly "better" school  still can't write at grade level and their math and science scores are so low it is pitiful...and that, my friends are the options we have before us here.  Oh, I almost forgot, we have the charter school option for pregnant teens.  that's it.

So, our local schools are graduating the vast majority of their students, but what exactly do those students know upon graduation?  It is no surprise that colleges are now reporting they have to offer remedial classes to most of the incoming freshmen. 

This is proof of exactly what we encountered with Kenny, an unwillingness to STOP and make sure our child knew how to read well, even when we asked two years in a row for him to be held back.  What I thought would happen is reflected in these statistics.  Kenny would have graduated high school, but he would have been functionally illiterate.  The girls?  I shudder to think of it...

Looking at this, I must admit, is a confidence builder, because there is no way I can fail at teaching my kids compared to this.  The next time someone asks me why I would think I could possible be qualified to teach my kids, I will find it hard not to laugh out loud.  How can I do worse than this???  Every time I feel concerned that we aren't teaching enough, aren't making enough progress, etc. I am going to remember these statistics and realize that we are not failing our kids by bringing them home, we just might be saving them.

What are the answers?  I don't have them, but someone needs to look at our system and start over.  Public education is not effectively teaching our children anymore.  Public education is a massive failure.  Notice I do not say the teachers are a failure, because I do think there are outstanding teachers in a system that is broken, as the movie suggests.  Good teachers are stifled and not rewarded, bad teachers have a free ride to retirement.  Materials used in classrooms are flat out bad and don't work, new fangled textbooks are created every year and test scores continue to drop.  And let's not leave out families who don't support learning, who don't value education, who don't care.

"Waiting for Superman" is only a starting point, a good one, but it doesn't dig deep enough.  We decided not to wait for Superman any longer, as are millions of other families who are desperate to see to it that their kids can, at the very least, read and write when they graduate high school.  I never imagined having to take it into my own hands, but our sons and daughters are NOT going to graduate high school unable to to read or write at a 12th grade level, they will NOT be pushed through a system like cattle even when we beg to get help.  We are blessed beyond measure that somehow we are able to have me home to take on this challenge, but what about those families for whom homeschooling is impossible?  What about the hard working folks who love their children deeply and want the best for them, who spend night after night helping with homework and reading to their kids in an effort to provide them a better education?  What about those who have kids like ours, who are English language learners but whose parents are incapable of teaching them the skills they need in English?  Those families don't want their kids to fail, but they have no options. 

I think the time has come to forget about Superman, and recognize that the entire Justice League itself would have a difficult time saving the educational day.


Dee said...

You are absolutely right. Schools are not good enough. I don't know the solution, though. I can't even fathom it. When my mother was teaching in the late 1950's, she would buy milk for many of her kids every day so they would stay awake during the morning. They came to school hungry and there were no federal free meal programs. You're right about them not getting what they need at home - a problem now for several generations.

My mom was a dedicated and wonderful teacher, and her career was cut short because in those days when you got pregnant you had to quit as soon as you were "showing." She wanted several kids and couldn't bear the thought of being forced to resign after the first baby. My aunt quit teaching because all she was doing was paperwork, and had no time to really teach. So many teachers are disgusted and/or forced out because of idiotic systems. It's a shame.

Anonymous said...

Just one thing, If Colorado is the same as our state, kids can take the graduation exam starting at 10th grade but a lot of the material is actualy covered in 11th and 12th grade. Some kids are ready some are not, but not too many of us at that age could be two years ahead of the game.

Cindy LaJoy said...

Anonymous, you have missed my point or perhaps I didn't express it well. These are 10th grade students of whom, for example in math, there are 70% not at grade level for TENTH GRADE. This is NOT testing for 12th grade level, but for 10th grade. That means that more than 2/3rds of the students in 10th grade in our town can not do math at their own grade level...that is a crying shame and not expecting them to be 2 years ahead of the game at all, merely working at their respective grade level. 70% not proficient, are you going to tell me that in 2 years those kids will suddenly make up the ground that during 11 years of education they have fallen behind in? I highly doubt it. Hence my comment that I can not believe we are graduating students that are obviously this far behind, as they will not be caught up by 12th grade. Looking at previous years's statistics math remains that far behind all the way through school.

minime0910 said...

Just watched that this weekend. The Dance of the Lemons or the Turkey Trot appalled me. How is it a 23 step 3 year process to fire a teacher? People get fired from my work all the time and we work with food, not kids. Also, i thought it was crazy that they tried to double the teacher's salaries if they would agree to performance based pay and the teachers union doesn't even take it to a vote??? where is the accountability? Okay I better get off my soapbox now. And I guess I really have no basis for saying this, as I have never even been inside a public school, but this movie was an eye opener!! Can I post your blog link on mine?

Laura said...

Here's one 30 year public teaching veteran who still has hope.I have 4 children-2 from Kaz-all different learning styles- who have been products of the public schools here. The California system is not perfect but I can attest to some fabulous families, teachers, volunteers and learning going on! I truly believe that public education is critical for the betterment of all society and many families are not in a situation to go another route.

Anonymous said...

My friends who teach tell me of overcrowded classrooms whose students come from backgrounds of poverty, drugs, alcohol, non-English speaking, or apathetic. Children with their own addictions, mental health issues, learning disabilities are placed with children of average or superior capabilities of learning. The teacher is asked to teach toward the performance test. There is no room or time for creativity and spontenity. Yet, whether you can homeschool or not, we must all be concerned. The cliche that these children are our future is also a truth that must be recognized. They are not only our future, but they are God's children given majestic potentials, grand possibilities, and yet some, from even before birth, have the possibilities diminished, the potentials narrowed.

You are right, Cindy, there are teachers that are magnificent. They continue year after year attempting to surmount incredible odds. How many survive only because tenure keeps them there? I don't know. When I was teaching, I think out of the whole high school faculty there was only one that really needed to be fired.

Tenure was instituted, at least in part, to counteract politics and preferences and give teachers some stability. Tenure does not take place for three years. Surely this gives us time to weed out some of the ill-equipped, indifferent teachers.

Teaching 4-H I knew which kids would succeed in their projects and have fun doing it by the interest of the parents. Competative parents made the experience hell. Indifferent parents almost always insured lack of success.

I too have no answers, but programs which strengthen families and education starting with preschool, kindergarten, and the first three grades will help ensure greater success later.


Laura said...

and......I love your blog Cindy and think you are doing a fabulous job teaching your kids! Ever think of doing an online degree and teaching other people's kids when yours are grown? :)

Cindy LaJoy said...

Laura, like you I believe that public ed is a must for our future, and countries where there is no solid public ed program fail to thrive. How do we achieve this? I have no idea. I do NOT like to see all the blame laid at the feet of teachers, for there are numerous reasons we are in our current situation and often it has nothing to do with talented teachers. As in every profession, of course there are some who ought to be shown the door, but I also see poor curriculum being used, too wide a spread of skill levels in classrooms, and much more as I have already stated.

As for getting a degree in that spare time I currently have? Not a chance, and if I did pursue higher ed I'd be at the very beginning, leaving me with 4 years plus necessary. And teaching would not be the direction I'd go, it would most definitely be ministry :-)

But either is pretty much impossible with 5 mouths to feed and teach, which leaves precious little money for my own personal desires. And I am thankful every single moment for that fact!!

Nice to know you think I ought to though!

Anonymous said...

Teachers, parents . . . it's bigger than that. Our whole society undervalues education, and I don't know where to begin to fix that. Scary stuff, really. How can we hope to have a functioning democracy, especially in today's complicated world, without a well educated populace?

Don said...

Hello! I enjoyed your article very much. Having been a teacher most of my life and a Principal until most recently, I can add to your comments about public education. Teachers work hard--very hard. However, they are ruled by administrators(Central Office) that are so left-wing liberal that most any pet project is a great thing to "add" to teachers' overflowing plates. This is true in every district in which I have worked. To be able to add, subtract, multiply, divide, read, write and work with fractions to mastery is a reach these days (our mission?"). Why? Because every month, day, and year, the administration is trying to please the state and varied community constituents with pet projects that are "nice to do" but not are not "need to do's." Our mission in public schools is to teach to standards (see above) and achieve a modicum of competency at each level (elementary, middle and high). Can't quite get to it because the day is so broken up with sex education (coed in elementary these days with curriculum includes the "need" to teach students (co-ed) about boy's nocturnal emissions (think I'm kidding?), 7 period days in the high school, state assessment testing and getting ready for state assessment testing, figuring out how to get more Federal funding (that comes with lots of strings), spending money in every place but the classroom (new buildings for upper-level administrators, pavement for administration buildings, non-building level administrator salaries, bloated maintenance (don't get me wrong--lots of good people here ) that cannot do projects for schools, (Principals have to "sub-out" projects to improve our buildings) "progressive" causes, and the next piece of paperwork we just "really have to do" to please some bureaucrat with the end result being that we just can't quite keep the "main thing the main thing." It's really pretty simple, folks. The three R's are just as important today as they were "back in the day." Teach to all core competencies to achieve mastery. Remove the "nice to do's" even if they are really terrific sounding politically expedient causes, and get down to business. If students do not master objectives, then they must stay put until they do--no free rides or social promotion. Teachers should not be the only ones who are held accountable (I can tell you some pretty heinous stories about parental neglect). Pretty soon they (parents, kids, and staff) will get the picture. This district needs one district-level leader, a human relations person (doesn't have to be a high-priced individual), a bookkeeper, and building level leadership. All high-priced "Assistant "this and thats" need to go bye-bye! We need leadership at the state level that will eschew Federal funds and "advice." We need local school-board control over educational quality. We need to deregulate "big brother" who continues to look over local shoulders in education and begin to police ourselves. Remember what personal responsibility used to look like? Assistant Superintendents, Assistant's to assistant's, fancy "digs," etc, are all wastes of taxpayer monies-period! Hire good teachers, relieve the social pressure to do "nice things" and concentrate on doing what needs to be done. Too many cooks spoil the pot. Simple goals. Required results.

Anne said...

Home school or private school, some of us (involved parents who care if our kids' learn the 3 Rs) have decided that we can't wait for Superman - we have to BE SuperWOman. My kids' education is too important to "wait" for "the system" to fix itself - if that is even possible this far down the road.