Waiting for “Superman” directed by Davis Guggenheim (Electric Kinney Films, Participant Media, Walden Media, PG, 111 minutes)

Starring: Geoffrey Canada, Michelle Rhee, and Bill Strickland

A Good Teacher Is Hard to Find

I’m a teacher and I consider myself a decent one. I care about my students, work hard, and push myself constantly so that I can stay ahead of the curve. One would think that this mindset would be the norm for education professionals, but it isn’t. Reality suggests that good teachers are few and far between; this state should not exist. Geoffrey Canada says it this way in Waiting for “Superman”,

“No matter where we live, or what we believe in, when we believe in our school systems, we take a leap of faith.”

In the documentary, Geoffrey Canada (CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone), Michelle Rhee (former chancellor of the Washington D.C. public schools), and Bill Strickland (CEO of the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild) look at the failing American school system, and why it isn’t working. For the sake of brevity, I’ll outline two of their reasons for you in this review: teachers and unions.

Good and Bad Teachers

Unbeknownst to me, there is a kind of school termed a “dropout factory” where over forty percent of students fail to graduate. The film used Theodore Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles as an example, where two thousand students annually don’t graduate. Most place the blame of this terrible dropout rate on the marginalized neighborhood, but the opposite of this statement is true. Failing neighborhoods result from failing schools, and failing schools are based on failing teachers. Canada states,

“You simply cannot have great schools without great teachers.”

While it might seem obvious, most have ignored this simple fact. Terrible teachers impede both the success of a school and a student’s life. Waiting for “Superman” discusses this fact in great depth, mourning the notion that bad teachers are allowed to have job, mainly due to tenure and the teacher’s union.

A bad teacher is characterized as a teacher who only covers fifty percent of the material, while a good teacher covers one hundred and fifty percent of the required curriculum (curriculum that is required by the district and general education standards). Sadly, the documentary reveals that these bad teachers effect the U.S. education tremendously. Canada argues,

“If we replaced the bottom six to ten percent of teachers with average teachers, we would bring the level of U.S. education up to the level of Finland.”

Finland currently leads the world in education, and the U.S. could find itself level if it replaced the lowest of our teachers. It doesn’t require huge educational reform, just getting better teachers.

Getting Better Teachers

If I had a dollar for every time I considered leaving the teaching profession for better pay, I could retire right now. Teachers get paid terribly, and that seems to be part of the problem.

Michelle Rhee, when she was acting chancellor of the Washington D.C. public school system derived a way to get better teachers—give them better pay. The catch was that if they denied tenure, they would get a six figure salary (any teacher reading this blog now is assuredly drooling).

If the teacher chose to keep tenure, they would only get a modest pay increase. That way good teachers would flourish financially and push themselves to be better teachers for fear of losing their jobs due to lack of tenure, and the bad teachers could remain with modest pay.

To me, this idea sounded like a brilliant solution: better pay attracts good teachers. And, with the better pay came a price, the teachers actually had to work for it. But, the unions shot it down, and wouldn’t even raise the proposal for a vote.

Unions: An Utter Failure

The NEA and the AFT (the two biggest teachers unions) believe that distinctions shouldn’t be made among teachers. Frankly, as a teacher who works hard to improve, I don’t want to be lumped in with the mediocre and terrible. According to Michelle Rhee, teachers unions won’t even allow the increase in teacher pay so that all can be somewhat equal around the country.

Therefore, Waiting for “Superman” states that unions have become an impediment to reform in education. Until unions allow the education profession to be performance based like the rest of the job market, reform simply won’t happen.

Though it is my profession, I teach in private schools, and haven’t been really involved in the policies of public education. This movie is saddening, bewildering, and frightening at every level. It reveals through poor teaching quality, low pay, and stubborn unions how a society has given up on the one thing in life that can never take away from us: our education. I recommend this documentary for anyone wanting to see the inner workings of our educational system, and how it might be reformed.

Verdict: 5 out of 5

Posted by: Andrew Jacobson
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4 Comments Leave a comment
  • Andrew Jacobson

    In a discussion with a friend of mine regarding this post, it should be noted that this documentary is somewhat biased. Though it went through teachers and unions as a few factors that negatively effect the educational profession, there are other factors as well that come into play.

  • Sam (Tiny Library)

    This is an interesting post for me to read right now. I teach in the UK and the Education Secretary has just announced new measures to enable schools to quickly get rid of bad teachers.

    I teach in a 'challenging' area in inner-London and whilst I think great teachers are essential to great schools, I don't necessarily agree that schools are responsible for certain communities failing. You can feel up against a brick wall with some children when their parents are downright abusive, or the child wants to live on benefits forever, or the complete lack of rules at home makes a child violently aggressive. You try and try but schools can't always override parental norms and attitudes.

    What is tenure? Here you are on a permanent or fixed term contract from the moment you start.

  • Andrew Jacobson

    In America, we also are contracted employees based on the year. I work in the private school system, so my contract is renewed each year based on if the school felt I did a good job and if there are enough students registered to take the classes I teach.

    In the public school system, it's largely the same. However, they can acquire tenure, and will basically be guaranteed a position barring any large misconduct.

    Tenure was originally a higher academic institution and was granted by peers, which made it so that a senior academic couldn't have his or her position terminated without just cause. It was to assure that people that were worth it could stay in academia because they proved themselves worthy of the postion. However, that evolved into standard practice, even if they didn't deserve it (somewhat like an encore at a concert). So, now, when teachers acquire tenure simply by working at an institution long enough, it can cause problems because it wasn't earned, and they no longer deserve the honor.

  • LDiracDelta

    Consider this and this.

    Who your parents are *really* matters and American public schools are actually doing pretty well with what they have. I still believe the money is misallocated since we're spending more per student than any other industrial nation per pupil, which is why I favor the private solution – vouchers. ( I can't find a source for that statement, but it still stands even if we're in the top decile or quartile.)

    With regard to international P.I.S.A scores, Steve Sailer writes, “American students did reasonably well compared to the countries from which their ancestors came.”

    – Ross

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