Here to Stay

by Matthew Stollak on Friday, June 3, 2011

I watched the film Waiting for Superman with great expectations, and, not surprisingly, those expectations were not met.  Directed by Davis Guggenheim (director of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and husband of actress Elizabeth Shue) , the documentary focuses on the failing U.S. school system, placing the blame on teacher unions coddling poor performing teachers and a system of tracking that makes it impossible for lower performing students to ever catch up with their higher performing peers.   Interspersed with these attacks is a look at 5 children hoping to stake their claim on one of the coveted spots in a charter school, the alternative which Guggenheim appears to champion.  While the film is to be applauded for raising questions about the state of education, and its heartbreaking to watch dedicated students suffer, the film has a number of flaws, particularly from a human resource perspective.

First, the film never explores what exactly defines "good teaching."  Guggenheim never mentions what turns people into better teachers what is the superior content that they deliver, as well as how they teach.  We are presented with two excellent teachers who are frustrated with their current school, start up a charter, and suddenly everything was hunky-dory.  But, it never demonstrates how and why they are better, and what barriers existed that made being superior so difficult in their former school.

Second, the process of hiring teachers is never explored.  How are charter schools hiring "better" teachers?  Are they offering a better salary? Better benefits?  Greater autonomy?  I checked out US Charters: Staffing for Success to see what the recommended approach to recruitment and selection might be and they offer 10 steps:
  1. Write a role description for each staff role.
  2. Identify required and desired qualifications and characteristics.
  3. Identify potential sources of staff.
  4. Promote your school.
  5. Recruit 
  6. Determine how you will screen candidates.
  7. Prepare materials and organize assistance. 
  8. Make initial selections.
  9. Notify all candidates of outcomes.  
  10. Draw up the contract
So, where is the magic?  What are charter schools doing differently in hiring than their public and private school counterparts in identifying and selecting superior candidates?

Finally, the last 20 minutes focuses on the lotteries for the 5 families mentioned above.  For the charter schools those families, Guggenheim cites that the school has "x applicants for y slots" (i.e., 142 applicants for 40 slots).   You can feel the tension in the air as the ping pong ball exits the hopper, and the families await their fate.   However, the scene ultimately fails in that Guggenheim doesn't tell us how many applicants did NOT apply for the lottery.  What is the percent of applicants to the total pool of students?  

Given that each lottery applicant represents a dedicated parent or set of parents (they would not have applied if they did not care about their child's education), the untold reason for the success of charter schools may very well be the 85, 90, 95% plus of involved caring parents.  As a result, are teacher unions and tracking really to blame when public school educators  are dealing with students whose parents are too busy or indifferent?


Assuming each student is a unique individual then the determination of what is a "good" teacher is dependent on the learning of each individual student. It is likely that some teachers do help a larger number of students learn and retain the learning than other teachers. Extinction and generalization of what is learned is one more variable needing to be evaluated in determining "effective" education. I assume (without evidence) that every teacher positively affects at least one or several students in his/her class whatever the age of the child/adolescent/young adult or whatever the subject matter. It is more than anything, a matching problem when teaching groups of students. Individual instruction and individual supervision (more often called "tutoring" is almost impossible without wealth but cost will decrease with increases in technology.

by Anonymous on June 5, 2011 at 4:38 AM. #

While I have not seen the movie, I agree with much of what you assert. It sounds like there needs to be more clarity around what role involved parenting plays in a successful charter school. I will say that I both agree and disagree with Guggenheim.

As a parent of 7 year olds who are in a public school system, I see that there are most certainly poor performing teachers who are "coddled" by the system. It's disheartening and quite upsetting that the parent will have to actually try to make up for the shortfall each night and weekend if their child is unfortunate enough to have one of these teachers. Like any job, there are the high performers, those who just want to be average and then those barely hanging on. I guess we can't expect teaching to live up to any higher standard, but somehow that doesn't alleviate the feelings I have when I witness moments that negatively impact my children or my friends' children.

I disagree with him asserting that it's impossible for lower performing students to ever catch up. For many students, with focus and time spent studying, they can improve drastically. It also doesn't mention what happens to the higher performers who are continually held captive mentally and brought down by some teachers who teach to the lowest common denominator.

Ok, now I want to see the movie...
So glad you shared.

by Trish McFarlane on June 6, 2011 at 12:21 PM. #

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