By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Teachers today are facing a wave of criticism from the media like never before, being made scapegoats for the deficiencies of the public school system. Films like Waiting for Superman and The Lottery, along with magazine cover stories from major news outlets like Time and Newsweek, and “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” portray educators as the problem and are backing reforms that weaken the school system they seek to help. In the following article, California Educator writer Sherry Posnick-Goodwin examines some of the reasons behind this new trend of teacher bashing and its impact on the profession.
I’m not a teacher, but I grew up wanting to be one. I was in college when Proposition 13 passed and teaching jobs dried up in California. So instead I became a journalist. When newspaper jobs began to dry up, I was fortunate to land a position at CTA writing about teachers and public education. In a roundabout way it was coming full circle, working in a different way on behalf of public education.
I have had conversations with thousands of teachers through this job and volunteering in my children’s schools. I can truthfully say I haven’t met one teacher who seemed to have signed on for the money, for the glory, or because it was easy. Those I’ve met believe they are making the world a better place and care deeply about helping their students achieve their full potential. They may work long hours, take work home with them, and pay for school supplies out of their own pockets, but they love what they do. I am constantly amazed at how they are able to do so much with so little. In the classrooms I visit, I see meaningful teaching and learning taking place.
When I first started covering public education, it was assumed that teachers were the good guys. (To me they still are.) But these days it seems like teachers are under attack like never before. A few months ago, the cover of Newsweek showed 11 sentences repeated on a blackboard that said: “We must fire bad teachers.” Next to that in big yellow text were the words “The Key to Saving American Education.”
Recently the Los Angeles Times published stories about teachers deemed “ineffective” based solely on their students’ test scores, accompanied by an online data base with the names of thousands of teachers and their ratings based on those test scores. It was public humiliation so cruel that it reminded me of medieval times when people were put in stocks for villagers to gawk at.
Now U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is calling for all states and school districts to make teachers accountable and reveal to the public whether teachers are raising students’ test scores — even though the “value-added” analysis of evaluating teachers based on test scores is flawed. (Editor’s note: A new Economic Policy Institute report by leading testing experts concludes that value-added methods are still inaccurate, so test scores should not dominate the information used by school officials in making high-stakes decisions about the evaluation, discipline and compensation of teachers.)
The real question is this: Why is there so much teacher bashing? And why is it happening on so many levels and more intensely than ever before? Why aren’t teachers being given the support they need instead of being attacked? And why are we not focusing on what makes good teachers, instead of blaming everything on a few bad ones?
These are complicated questions, but ultimately, I think, it boils down to this: Attacking teachers is a way of attacking unions. And once unions are destroyed, private enterprise can take over public education, running schools like a for-profit business.
Those on the attack make it sound as if all of our schools are filled with incompetent teachers who would not have their jobs without union protection. Most of the CTA members I visit in their classrooms are competent, hardworking and doing their very best.
The fact is, every profession has some bad apples. There are bad journalists, accountants and doctors. But from my perspective, schools are not overrun with bad teachers who would be fired without union protection. As I see it, bad teachers are the exception and not the rule. And systems are in place to fire ineffective teachers.
We are told that unions make it impossible to fire bad teachers, but that’s simply not true. In fact, for the first two years of employment, teachers can be fired without any reason at all. Unions provide due process — the right to a hearing before being fired — which keeps both sides honest and relies on facts, not accusations. Without unions, teachers could be fired for their politics, for their religion, or for being outspoken or gay. In the past, teachers were fired for such things as getting married or becoming pregnant; they were not paid a livable wage. Administrators are the key to determining good teachers and bad teachers in California’s current evaluation system. Evaluations take time, paperwork and meetings, but are essential to improving teaching and identifying those that are struggling. The current method of teacher evaluation admittedly needs improvement, and CTA has started a new workgroup on teacher evaluation to look at ways of improving the process.
So why is it that teachers are being bashed on the one hand and seen as rescuers on the other? The trend of teacher bashing also seems to coincide with teachers being viewed as “superheroes” that can raise student achievement in a single bound. Never mind the fact that teachers are mere mortals. As superheroes they should be able to singlehandedly close the achievement gap. The reasoning is this, says Diane Ravitch, author of Death and Life of the Great American School System: If students succeed, it is the teacher who did it. If students get low scores, it is the teacher’s fault. If teachers are both the cause of low performance and the cure for low performance, nobody has to focus on poverty, housing, unemployment, health care, immigration or other societal issues. Then again, it’s easier to play the blame game than to have a real discussion about the complex issues facing today’s students.
‘Waiting for Superman’
Recently, I was invited to a media screening in San Francisco of the film Waiting for Superman, along with the opportunity to interview the director, Davis Guggenheim, who won an Oscar for another documentary, An Inconvenient Truth (see Q&A). His newest movie hits the theaters this month and is sure to generate lots more interest, along with a similar film, The Lottery.
In the beginning of the film, Guggenheim tells the audience that every day he drives by three “bad” public schools on his way to taking his children to private school. We are never shown the inside of these so-called bad schools. Why are they bad? According to Guggenheim, it’s because of test scores.
“I’m lucky. I have a choice,” he tells the audience.
The film looks at the lives of several mostly low-income students — two of them in California — and their hardworking, nurturing parents, who desperately want what is best for them. Salvation comes in the form of charter schools, even though the filmmaker admits that studies show only one in five charter schools is doing a better job than traditional public schools. Getting into charters is determined by a lottery system, and students and their families wait in anguish as the bingo balls bounce. It’s as if their very lives hang in the balance. One of the students seen crying with happiness would have had to otherwise attend Woodside High school, a school with above-average test scores in a wealthy area. There is also a dramatic scene where a student in a private school is not allowed to graduate on stage because her mother hasn’t paid full tuition, as if that’s the fault of the public school system.
The movie’s message, stated throughout the film by so-called reformers, is that teachers unions are a “menace” and an obstacle to reform, and that charter schools are the silver bullet — even though research doesn’t correlate with that. Some charter schools, based on the movie, have even adopted a new slogan, “We are Superman,” according to Education Week.
“We’ve tried throwing money at public schools, and it hasn’t worked,” Guggenheim tells the audience.
But that’s not the case in California. We’ve cut $17 billion from public schools in the last two years. Teachers have been laid off, classrooms are overcrowded, programs have been cut, and we are nearly last in the nation when it comes to funding. Ask any California teacher and they’ll tell you their budgetary needs are not being met.
The movie also seems to portray No Child Left Behind as being a good thing for making schools “accountable,” despite the fact that it has turned them into testing factories and punishes struggling schools instead of helping them. Guggenheim offers lots of flashy graphics, music and sound bites, but he’s got it all wrong. The film seems to imply that “super teachers” are the only solution to what ails public schools, ignoring other issues such as poverty, second-language acquisition, resources and parental involvement.
Waiting for Superman ultimately fails as a discussion about the public school system because it spends hardly any time looking at traditional public schools. By focusing almost entirely on charters, it simply tells the story the filmmaker wished to tell about charters. Guggenheim shows one brief instance of a positive example in a traditional public school, a teacher who does rapping math lessons. It never shows the “bad” neighborhood schools or teachers that supposedly doom the children in the film to lifetime failure.
The movie also doesn’t show one example of unions, administrators, school board members and parents working together as partners to improve public education. I have visited many school districts where a spirit of cooperation prevails, and a lot can get accomplished when factions work together instead of fighting one another. It’s not uncommon for principals to walk out of their offices and welcome me personally to their schools, and thank me and CTA for working to improve public education. Yes, that actually happens.
The movie tugs at the heart strings, but it is also oversimplified, manipulative journalism that portrays teachers unions as the primary obstacle to reform. However, it’s a compelling drama; the children in Waiting for Superman are adorable, the parents are dedicated, and the audience can’t help but root for them to receive the education they rightfully deserve.
As I sat there in the theater, I couldn’t help but wonder if the public relations firm that invited me to the screening realized that the California Educator is published by CTA and represents the “teachers union,” portrayed as a villain in this film. Obviously not, I decided, as a staff member of the PR firm asked for my reaction upon exiting.
“What did you think?” she asked, smiling anxiously.
“It’s very thought-provoking and very emotional,” I replied.
It’s the truth. Waiting for Superman is indeed thought-provoking and emotional. It correctly portrays access to quality education as a right and not a privilege, and one that is essential to achieving racial and economic equality in this country. I hope it will generate meaningful discussion and dialogue about how we can improve our schools. And it makes many valid points about the problems facing our schools and the need to take action. We’ve been saying for years that our schools need help, students need help, teachers need help.
Unfortunately, Waiting for Superman offers no solutions. Instead, it leaves viewers with a sense of hopelessness. There’s no talk of finding ways to improve traditional schools through such things as lowering class size, after-school programs, parent involvement programs, rallying the community, technology in the classroom, hiring school counselors, school nurses and classroom aides, or offering meaningful professional development or mentoring programs for teachers.
“I’m careful not to present myself as an expert,” Guggenheim told Education Week. “My point of view is an observer and a parent who has kids. I don’t want to come off as someone who himself offers answers.”
But you don’t have to offer answers to show a more complete picture of education. A filmmaker with Guggenheim’s influence has the responsibility to present this complex issue in an evenhanded manner. It’s clear that he set out to tell the story of charter schools — one that will probably appeal to a greater audience and sell more tickets — rather than the more sobering story of public education as a whole.
It’s easy to just say “Fire the bad teachers,” but it takes time, resources, support, and yes, money to cultivate good teachers. Unfortunately, that’s not as compelling a story for viewers. Interestingly enough, Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone and charter advocate featured in the film, tells Guggenheim that he was a terrible teacher for the first three years of his career, before he became a great teacher. It takes time and investing in teachers to makes them better.
It also requires investing time and money to do the research necessary to even begin to talk about the complex issues facing public education today. A conversation based on anything less is just shortsighted and harmful.
Our schools need help. Superman is not coming to save us. We can’t depend on private enterprise to rescue us. Ultimately we need to rescue ourselves. It’s not going to be easy. And teachers, even super teachers, can’t do it alone. But united we can.
THE FACTS ABOUT DUE PROCESS
Teachers unions provide due process so that teachers cannot be fired arbitrarily or for no reason. Under the state’s Education Code, teachers may be dismissed for the following causes:
- Immoral conduct
- Unprofessional conduct
- Addiction to the use of controlled substances
- Failure or refusal to perform the normal and reasonable duties of the position
- Conviction of a felony or conviction of any misdemeanor involving moral turpitude
- Fraud in securing appointment
- Drunkenness on duty
In addition, any permanent or probationary employee who is physically or mentally unfit for the position occupied may be suspended, demoted or dismissed. Teachers have a right to due process and a hearing before being fired.