Sunday, October 10, 2010

waiting for "superman"

i went to see waiting for "superman" last night. it was an interesting take on things. what i got out of it was that, basically, there is too much bureaucracy in the institution. all of the institutions that we have created are getting in the way of teachers (literally) filling students' brains with knowledge. teacher's unions are another main impediment to educational progress as they stand in the way of a lot of reform, namely firing teachers. the movie spent some time addressing tenure and its implications on the quality of teachers in our schools.

but, have no fear. there are charter schools. and some of them are making great gains. they have the model and practices that can save our broken system. unfortunately, very few people get to attend them. they also are not scalable within the system that we have.

which, i think, is a fair perspective. i agree that we have gone pretty far down the rabbit hole of hierarchy and institution and paperwork and it is getting in the way of teachers doing what they know needs to be done. i feel this all the time at school. i can't speak about tenure/unions as i know very little about them, so i won't. i would like to see their case presented.

as for charter schools, some of them are doing awesome things. i think it is definitely worth looking into what they are doing that is working and could be taken to scale.

overall, i think the movie was a bit one-sided and i would like to see a counter that shows the position of the unions and teachers. i also think that, while it is definitely worth analyzing charter schools, they are not necessarily the only solution. a range of things need to be considered. i do think the movie has the potential to be a sounding board for some good discussion. it by no means encompasses all of the discussion that needs to happen, but it gets some things out there.

for instance, the idea of looking to charter schools for inspiration is not without merit. the problem comes in trying to scale them. i don't know about all of the charter schools mentioned in the movie, but i do know a little about KIPP schools. they definitely have some great things going and i think the mentality in the schools would be a good thing to spread. they also have extended the school day by a couple hours and hold classes every other saturday. this means that they can include things that would normally be after-school enrichment activities as part of the school day, so that all kids are getting access to arts, music, and team sports, on top of the extra emphasis on academic performance. additionally, there is a lot of time and emphasis on the professional development of the teachers.

i think this is great, especially for students in low-economic areas. most of them are not getting the enrichment at home that wealthier kids are getting and the extra time at school could go a long way to shrinking that achievement gap. however, i also see that the extra work can be really hard on the teachers. from what i understand, the burnout rate is fairly high. KIPP demands a lot of its teachers, which translates into having great teachers in great schools. but i don't think it is sustainable.

i think that if we want to create a system like KIPP for public schools nationwide, we need to rethink how we hire, schedule and pay teachers. maybe there is a way to use block scheduling/hiring so that each teacher is hired and paid based on the hours/classes they teach. that way the school day for the students might be 10-11 hours long, but each teacher is only working 8 or so hours a day. that would also leave room for part-time teachers and for community members to come in and teach one class a day. the logistics of such a system would require a lot of thinking and planning. it may or may not work. but my point is that, if we want to make these changes, we are going to have to start thinking outside the existing structure that we have.

i think that this problem of scalability is a very big one. i have come across lots of models of schools that i like. there are several alternative/charter school ideas that i think are great. but every time i think about scaling one of these great ideas, it just seems like it would be a giant disaster. the trick, i think, is to create a system that is open enough to be really adaptable on a local scale, so that schools can meet the needs of the kids they serve, but that also has enough constraints/controls to make it hard to really screw up. i have no idea how to go about doing that.

in the end, i think that waiting for "superman" got some things kind of right and missed some other things. it is no way the end-all, be-all movie about education reform, though i do think it presents a valid perspective. the real question is what we do with that perspective. so long as we use it as a place to begin one piece of the discussion, great. we definitely still have a long way to go, though.

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