I usually do not use this column to talk about individual motion pictures or to actually recommend one, but the movie discussed herein deserves some of my time and yours. Last Saturday night I was sifting through my Academy Screeners and nothing much caught my eye. I had already watched, “The Social Network,”, “The Fighter”, “127 Hours”, “True Grit”, and “Black Swan,” as well as a myriad of movies that nobody has heard of and nobody will ever hear of. After much deliberating, I decided to watch a movie I had never heard of entitled “Waiting for Superman.” Prior to my putting the DVD into the DVD player, I did not even know whether this was a feature film or a documentary.
The movie started and I immediately got the impression I was about to watch some typical Hollywood liberal documentary; in this instance the subject matter being education. The movie started with the usual poverty stricken minority groups complaining about the education system and that America has failed its youth. There was the obligatory mention of the failure of “No Child Left Behind” and how every president since Johnson has claimed they wanted to be the education president and remembered for it. In the end, the movie implies they have all been failures in their presidential dream as standardized tests show American education at the bottom of the curve against most developed and some developing countries.
At that point, the movie took an unexpected turn. When it came time to really start laying the blame, it did not blame conservatives at all. The movie stated that over the past decades real spending per child after inflation had increased dramatically. The problems within the education system were not just in the lower socio-economic areas, but in the elite upper middle class neighborhoods as well. The film then put the blame almost entirely on “tenure” and the teachers’ unions. Imagine my shock when I saw really this was where the movie was really going. It was not going to blame “uncaring conservatives” for all of the evil in the world.
For those of you that are not aware, tenure is a policy in which school teachers, after a probationary period, cannot be fired without extreme difficulty by the school district. Once the probationary period is passed, the teacher is guaranteed employment forever; no matter how incompetent or stupid the teacher actually is.
The film delves deeply into the history of tenure and its origins. It then goes on to give examples of how bad teachers continue to be employed because of tenure. In some cases, teachers are so bad that they do not even bother to teach at all. They just read to themselves while the students do whatever they want.
The sad part about all this is the school district cannot do anything about it. The process to fire a tenured teacher is long, difficult and sometimes impossible. First, a grievance must be given to the union, then depending on the school district and its union agreement other administrative procedures must be followed. In New York, for example, there are some teachers awaiting their disciplinary hearing for upwards of four years. During that whole time, they are on full salary and, although not teaching, must go to work and basically sit in a room with other teachers who are also awaiting their disciplinary hearings. After the waiting period is exhausted, the teachers are usually reinstated. The statistics for the discharge of a tenured teacher are laughable at best. The cost to New York schools because of this is in the tens of millions of dollars per year. This is money that could actually be spent on education.
The movie then proceeds to paint the American Federation of Teachers (“AFT”) and its sister union as the evil behind tenure and other problems in the schools. Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT comes across as your usual union self-righteous bleeding heart liberal elite. She argues only about the horrible path of the teachers and is never seen addressing the concerns of the students. I can almost guarantee you; she has not had one thought about a student since she became an administrator at the union. Union leaders never care about anything except how to increase their influence by contributing to and getting elected Democratic candidates. At least, that has been my personal experience.
After spending a considerable amount of time analyzing the administration of Michelle Rhee as the Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. school district and her war with the AFT in a fruitless attempt to change to a system in which teachers are compensated based upon merit, the film ends by painting charter schools and magnet schools as the potential saviors of the public school system; albeit at a cost to our children. The movie then points at that there is not enough spots in these schools to accommodate all of the children that want and/or need to attend them.
Unfortunately, the movie does not leave hope for our children or our country because of the control upon the system of the two major teachers’ unions. They are afraid to eliminate tenure even if teachers would receive big raises to give it up as Michelle Rhee try to get through in a new union contract. The union would not even allow this proposal of Ms. Rhee to come to a vote. In the end Ms. Rhee ended up leaving her job and starting a web page, Facebook page and Twitter account to continue what she started in Washington, D.C.
Unfortunately, only two of the children used in the film as representations of the problems will be in the charter or magnet schools because of the lottery system to accomodate the demand. The rest will be in their run-down useless public schools and will be unprepared for the world ahead.
© 2010 by Frank T. DeMartini. Permission to copy will be granted freely upon request.