This is a departure from my usual article but once in a while, I watch a movie that’s worth telling people about. This one involves the future of our country. Now playing in theaters, “Waiting for Superman,” is a documentary about the state of education in the United States. It does not bode well for American students.
As we all know, it’s imperative that our educational systems meet the needs of our children who hold our country’s future in their hands.
After seeing this movie I was disturbed enough to ask several educators about how they see education in grades K-12, and there’s disparity on what they believe has gone wrong. The educators I spoke to were a retired school counselor, two elementary school teachers and a new high school teacher. Here are some observations I received:
- Although American students rank poorly in reading and math proficiency, compared to the rest of the world, we can’t judge solely on the test scores because the tests are constantly changing and they’re not all the same. There are only a few nation-wide testing companies that, for the most part, set their own criteria.
- The bureaucracy built around the programs established by every incoming U.S. president has not helped. It was interesting that each clip in the film shows a president presenting himself as “THE Education President.” Such well-meaning pronouncements are usually followed by a catchy, easy-to-remember slogan and yet another government agency created to implement the program.
- It is possible that we are now the country of “Each Child Left Behind.” Sadly, the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) program corresponds to a steep decline in our rankings. I gathered it is not a popular program. Some say the hidden truth, not talked about, is the complexity and constant flux of the tests. Specialized testing companies create the NCLB tests. School districts in turn purchase these tests and, depending on the changes in the tests, teachers are required to attend workshops, some lasting up to two days, to learn how to administer the tests.
- Administration of the tests poses the question of whether the lag results from the testing or the teachers. Precise and fair assessments of teachers have forever been a complex issue in American education. We are all aware of good teachers, worthy of merit pay, and of poor teachers, protected by tenure, who seem to hang on forever.
- Tenure, often called the Holy Grail of the profession, protects teachers from indiscriminate termination; however, it also discourages the conscientious teacher who is aware of receiving approximately the same pay as those who “retire in place” and continue to receive paychecks. The issue is complicated by the fact that it is part politics, part unions, with all the attendant bureaucracy.
- The problem might lie in our continued reliance on outdated systems. Our days were simpler and less stressful, and most of us did well in school. The student who didn’t graduate from high school was an oddity. Now, it’s not unusual and (shockingly) accepted.
Today’s child is restless, easily distracted, with great sensory overload. The constant need for stimulation and the dreams of leaving school to become athletic heroes or rock stars almost make education seem boring.
Understanding today’s student who is used to texting, video games, movies with car chases, random killing, and over-sexed teenagers is a huge challenge for teachers. With so much stimuli in their stressful lives, it becomes difficult to learn.
Then there’s the media play into the minds of these immature beings with more violence, thrills and models of superhuman beings. Stories of wealth and fame touted by inarticulate “athletic heroes” are deceptive and give false hope to each child who wants to get to the top without the necessary work.
Our educational systems seem to be mired in the past. There’s certainly evidence that something needs to change. But what is it? Maybe it’s time to rethink the system, get more educators and fewer politicians to run the school systems and school boards. There’s no reason that tax dollars intended for education keep getting cut back to “balance” a budget full of waste. This would require that we cut back layers of bureaucracy, so it’s doubtful that this will happen.
Almost all states are realizing deep cuts in their educational budgets due to what we all refer to simply as “The Economy.” Having to jettison many of America’s dedicated, seasoned teachers certainly does little to bolster our confidence that we will rise from our undistinguished rank among schools across the globe.
As a side note, Michelle Rhee, School Superintendent of Washington, D.C., has drawn considerable attention and reaction by publicly proposing that teachers be offered contracts up to $130,000 a year. The catch? They must give up tenure. Teachers’ salaries in Rhee’s district average $48,000, and most begin at $32,000.
Rhee is featured in “Waiting for Superman,” and her fight for better schools is eye-opening.
If you’re wondering what you can do, you can start by getting more information at http://www.waitingforsuperman.com/action/.