‘Waiting for Superman’ incomplete on education

If hospitals didn’t provide scalpels to surgeons or if contractors prohibited plumbers from using wrenches, would we get out the pitchforks and torches to storm operating rooms and basements? That’s unclear after seeing the new documentary from Oscar-winning director David Guggenheim, whose film is an unflinching but incomplete look at U.S. education.

The movie, which recently showed in Peoria and will come out on video in 2011, follows five kids and their parents as they enter lotteries for acceptance into charter schools that operate in public districts freed from some rules. The film is heartbreaking, frustrating and, finally, more about effective narrative than concrete data.

More serious data comes from University of Washington professor Dick Startz, whose new book, “Profit of Education” (Praeger) shows that for a national investment of about $90 billion a year, the country could get a return 10 times that big – annually.

If schools like District 150 attract and keep above-average teachers instructing kids between kindergarten and high school graduation, pupils would acquire what amounts to an extra year of education, Startz shows. According to economists, each additional year of schooling raises lifetime earnings an average of 10%, so if students received the equivalent of an extra year of school, it would enhance gross domestic product by about $900 billion annually.

“Taxes from the increase in productivity will not only pay for the program,” Startz says. “in the long run, they’ll pay about half the national debt.”

Startz’ book and Guggenheim’s film have rekindled a hot topic. Oprah featured education in September; NBC-TV convened a summit and premiered a reality show, “School Pride;” actor Tony Danza is starring in an A&E show, “Teach;” and other current documentaries include “Race to Nowhere” and “The Lottery.” But the problems aren’t new. The federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is an unwieldy unfunded mandate; too many pupils are promoted despite a lack of learning until they drop out; schools relying on property taxes are enriched or impoverished by the luck of location; and accountability of parents, teachers, administrators and children themselves is lax.

Impotence, impatience and anger can lead to a look for villains, and teachers and their unions are set up in “Waiting for Superman” as scapegoats. Lousy teachers exist – like bad surgeons and plumbers – but Guggenheim says that tenured teachers are guaranteed “jobs for life,” which is false. In fact, one of the country’s two big teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers (full disclosure: I’m a member of AFT’s college-level local), has said it’s open to ideas on performance reviews, job security, and pay – as long as criteria are set, due process provided, and teachers don’t have to shoulder sacrifices alone.

But that’s complicated. It’s easier to try to persuade the caring but uninformed that answers are simple: Fire teachers whose students didn’t do well on others’ tests; let corporations profit from private schools with no better track record; and threaten surviving teachers that they must somehow inspire and educate uninterested children with no support system at home to achieve arbitrary scores or else subjective and changing standards will be used to fire them, too.

Guggenheim’s assertion that Illinois’ 876 school districts have tried to fire 61 teachers and succeeded 38 times – and his claim that teachers’ odds of being fired is 1 in 2,500 compared to 1 in 97 for lawyers and 1 in 57 for doctors – neglects two conclusions. Some superintendents aren’t discharging employees for cause under contracts, and a lot of teachers are good – despite scores of tests composed elsewhere, administrated badly, with unrealistic standards.

Consider the 2010 Illinois State Board of Education “report cards” for schools in the Peoria area. In Peoria County, Limestone, Peoria Heights High and Pleasant Hill Elementary failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP); Peoria District 150 (on the state’s Academic Watch Status) had Central, Columbia, Franklin, Garfield, Glen Oak, Harrison, Irving, Jefferson, Lindbergh, Lincoln, Manual, Richwoods, Rolling Acres, Sterling and Trewyn all fail AYP.. East Peoria High also failed; in Pekin, 5 out of 14 schools failed.

This can’t be blamed just on teaching, of course. Former Bush administration assistant secretary of education Diane Ravitch in her new book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” notes that research suggests that teachers judged excellent or effective one year often fall out of the category the next, and vice versa. Further, this one-time NCLB supporter says it hasn’t worked, and that Obama’s “Race to the Top” competition mistakenly encourages charter schools, which she says don’t serve student any better.

Startz argues that the investment needed is in teacher pay. A 40% raise would move the average teacher from earning at the 37th percentile of the college-educated labor force to the 57th percentile – a bit above average. Teachers need a 31% raise, Startz says, to just catch up with those with similar training, experience and job demands. In the last 50 years, teaching has lost salary ground compared to similar professions, which hurts in recruiting the best college graduates.

“Teacher evaluation makes sense only when linked to meaningful financial rewards,” he says. “You get a great team by paying appropriate salaries, and then rewarding people financially for being really good at their work.”

Those who only blame teachers may learn something soon since a third of all teachers are expected to leave education in the next few years, according to Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Clearly, children must be given the opportunity to learn. Left to chance, too many will be left behind. And teachers must be given the tools – and the pay – to work and work well.

“We have to start treating teaching as a profession, not an act of sainthood,” Startz says.

Contact Bill at: bill.knight@hotmail.com.

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