Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Oh, Oprah! Waiting for Superman

Did you see the Oprah program that aired on September 20th, "Waiting for Superman:  The Movie that Could Revolutionize Schools?"  What did you think?

Let me preface this post by noting that I am a huge fan of Oprah Winfrey and respect her as a mentor to American women, a leader and a fellow Chicagoan.  I feel that I have gotten so much information from her show that has improved my knowledge and my life; I consider her a teacher.  But she is an adult educator.  I would never underestimate the influence Oprah can have on popular opinion, and so I am concerned that it seemed to me she was swayed in a almost sentimental way and will in turn sway others in a direction that, for all good intention, will veer us off the path of progress.  I have not yet seen the movie that was being promoted (but neither have most viewers, since it is not released until the end of the week), but even out of context there were a few ideas and attitudes being purported that I do not necessarily agree with, were uncharacteristically oversimplified for her show, and that, frankly, perplexed me.

Odd thing number one:  Oprah's incredulity that a teacher would not necessarily vie for a a fixed six-figure salary, as was being offered by some charter schools, in exchange for tenure.  While the transcripts are not yet available online, I will paraphrase that I recall her response to be something along the lines of "just for maintaining excellence?" She was suggesting to successful teachers, why wouldn't you just want to be paid more for being as successful as you know you are?   Never mind that "excellence" is likely going to be narrowly defined by performance on standardized tests, which, while may be an administrator's measuring stick of excellence, it is rarely the kind of measure that intrinsically motivates teachers...threatens, more like it.  When is the last time you heard a teacher say "I wanted to be a self-contained classroom teacher to help the kids kick the shizzle out of those ISATS!"  Or, "boy, I hope I'm measured by how well a child performs on a standardized test!"  

Well, why not?  Why don't we?  We get better and better at teaching to the test, there certainly are enough materials to support us in that endeavor.  It becomes clearer why it still reads like a deal with the devil when we compare measuring performance in education to measuring performance in another profession.  Health care, let's say.  Would a doctor be willing to gamble his/her licensure or livelihood based on whether or not an unknown group of sick patients gets well?  Even a good doctor would probably take a pass, because when the patient gets home, who knows if they are still taking their medicine as directed?  Who knows if they have a particularly aggressive form of a disease? Who knows what other variables could interfere with the outcome?  Likewise, if, as a teacher, your excellence was being measured by performance on standardized tests, what happens to your "excellence" when you help a child come up two grade levels in a year, but they were four grade levels behind to begin with?  When you get a child who just transferred into your classroom a month before the test, and doesn't speak the language or know how to read or who just came from a violent home situation that is creating a distraction?  Teachers face these challenges all the time, and often handle them with what could be defined as a form of excellence, but it is not always an excellence measured in stanines.  To many teachers, achievement on tests is peripheral to the critical and creative thinking skills that they are trying like gangbusters to impart, and such an agreement could color their best work with a dulling shade of corporate gray.  And sometimes children do not "succeed" academically the way we would hope, but they leave us better off than when they came (perhaps akin to the physician's credo, "do no harm").  Regardless, the outcome is not always within the complete domain of the teacher, much to the chagrin of administrators who, like teachers, are perpetually asked to answer for the performance of others.  Which beings me to...

Odd thing number two:  the creepy panacea of charter schools.  "I'm a great supporter of unions, but..."  filmmaker Davis Guggenheim began.  I couldn't help roll my eyes. As Pee-Wee Herman said, "there's always a big 'but.'"  The butts that I know are the ones I remember as child in 1980's Chicago, walking in picket lines for weeks, trying to get the working conditions we can take for granted, and I invite any union teacher to work outside of a union for a year and say how well they like it.  I tried it, and I did not like it.  I did not like not knowing when my day would end, and neither did my family.  I did not like feeling like if I got on the wrong side of a parent, I could lose my job.  I did not like taking a pay cut when the school was hurting, or paying so much more for health benefits.  Though there are many inspirational stories,  I think charter schools as they stand can be impervious to the reasonable personal boundaries of teachers. Many an American has managed to succeed in the world without making six figures and many teachers have managed to make a difference without taking calls at 11:30 at night. All I'll say is, those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it, and there are a lot of young teachers out there who don't realize how hard won the rights of workers have been, and I'm afraid maybe there a few television producers who don't get it, either. Teacher retention continues to be a concern across all strata of school; there needs to be a model that is not poised  to take advantage of inexperienced young teachers, working them until they are as fried as scrambled eggs, or until they dare to try to achieve a balance in their lives and then questioning their commitment.    I will always remember the sacrifices made by my fellow professionals in my interest.  I do not feel I am setting a bad example for children when I appreciate and refuse to forgo these strides.  I would want and expect nothing less of my students in their future lives as adults.

Odd thing number three:  I can't remember the last time I heard the facile words "good" and "bad" used so often since I did a second grade writer's workshop.  "Good teacher," "bad teacher."  Know what would be good?  More first year teacher support.  More professional development.  More asking teachers, "what is it that would motivate you to do your best?"  "What grade or subject would you really like to teach?"  "What works for you?"  In determining what is good and bad, what exactly are we measuring? Can we be specific: falling asleep repeatedly in class, hitting kids, yes, not acceptable. Having a transient population that doesn't perform well on a standardized test...would you really fire someone over that?  Oh, and one more thing that would be good: impressive as John Legend and Davis Guggenheim and Bill Gates are, how about including a public school teacher on a nationally aired panel on education?  That would definitely be good.  Oprah tried to represent our best side by saying that there are "good" teachers out there, she certainly didn't mean us when applauding the firing practices of Michelle Rhee, the DC Chancellor of Schools.  But I think we are hungry for more representation than that

A teacher on the panel wasn't the only thing missing. I wonder if we will ever, as a nation (and before it's too late), address the industrial base:  if this country doesn't learn how to MAKE things again, we're going to be up a creek.  It seems to be a dirty little secret that public education in the 20th century was borne of industrialists, even naughty ones like Ford who wanted to create better workers.  It begs the question, what are we working toward now, in the 21st century...and for whom?  Who benefits economically as decisions are made about education?  Who benefits from the success of children, and from failure?  Hard and ugly questions to contemplate, in a time when corporations are legally treated like individuals, economic interests are increasingly short-term, budgets are desperately anemic and we increasingly privatize what once was public, but education was never divorced from industry and economy. It doesn't get easier to know what we are working toward while at the same time we are also missing a national idea of success, another word that was bandied about a bit.  Success is a high score on a standardized test.  Success is an acceptance letter from a prestigious college (or, these days, having your number drawn in an elementary school lottery).  Success is a roof overhead with bills that are paid.  But success is also sewing your own clothes, growing or cooking your own food, painting your own picture...if you've ever done any of these tangible things, you know it's true.  And that's what real teachers are trying to do:  paint a picture of a beautiful year. Teachers need support toward that success as much as children do.  They are both artists working on the same canvas.

Though some may care on a personal level, CEO's are not hired to defend children.  They are there to protect business interests.  They make things look good on paper for investors, and they are good at talking...they have to be.  Parents know their children very well, and work from the best of intentions, including film-making parents who drive by public schools and feel so sorry for the kids who go there. The buck stops with administrators, who have to be accountable and so like outcomes they can count.  Everyone has a contribution to make from unique perspectives.  But until we include teachers as experts and professionals in conversations about education, we've got a soup without salt.  A friend of mine put it very well on-line: "Everybody thinks they know best about education because they went to school...There's so much more that goes on in schools than the layman understands. It's easy to criticize, but much more complicated to DO." In this complicated world of practice, naturally, it is exciting and so hopeful for everyone when possible solutions are presented, and when there is the promise of longitudinal change.  Oprah is a staunch and tireless protector and defender of the interests of children, and seemed, naturally, inspired by this prospect of opportunity through education. I hope, with Oprah's mighty platform, she will exercise discretion on what she advocates,  and is wary of the zeal with which single models may be sold. 

Thanks for reading my reflection.  Please share your views!