There are very few certainties in Hollywood. But after seeing the new documentary Waiting for 'Superman' I am willing to state two for the record:
Number 1: Davis Guggenheim, the director and producer of An Inconvenient Truth will earn his second Oscar nomination for Best Documentary for Waiting for 'Superman'.
Number 2: American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten is about to join Osama bin Laden on the list of Most Despised People in America. And if even one tenth of Guggenheim's film is to be believed, then this distinction is well earned and well deserved.
Even without seeing this film, anyone with half a brain knows that our country's education system is not working. But while most adults can agree that the system is failing too many of our kids, we have long been unable to come to an agreement on why. But Waiting for 'Superman' seems to settle the debate once and for all. Making it crystal clear just who and what is most at fault for depriving so many American kids of their rightful shot at the American Dream: It's not class sizes. It's not teachers but it is the union bosses who lead them.
As I watched American Federation of Teachers union president Randi Weingarten deflect question, after question about failing and at times abusive teachers (in the film and on MSNBCs recent education special), I found myself overcome by a feeling of deja vu. Her denial, sense of entitlement and talking points all felt awfully familiar. Then I realized why. It was as though she and Pope Benedict, head of the Catholic Church, are operating from the same playbook; a playbook that has hurt untold numbers of children while the adults entrusted to protect them shamelessly cover their own backsides. A playbook in which the primary play is this: Defend and protect the very worst in our profession at all costs, even if it costs all of us our reputation and the trust of the masses in the long run.
Well, mission accomplished.
In a scene that will make every person's skin crawl, Guggenheim interviews a former superintendent who recounts attempting to fire teachers who were caught on video reading the newspaper as their students sat waiting to learn, and another who placed a child's head in a urinal. After firing the teachers in question -- like any normal person would -- the superintendent and district were forced to rehire them -- with back pay -- due to tenure.
As we learn in the film, unlike college professors who must endure a rigorous review process to achieve tenure status, as Geoffrey Canada, a charter school pioneer and the hero of the film, says, to obtain tenure a public school teacher just has to essentially "not stop breathing for two years straight." Even more disturbing, Guggenheim reveals that principals and superintendents nationwide have simply given up being able to do anything about this, instead attempting to find clever ways to try to protect kids in their schools from the very worst in the profession, often with limited results. Insiders in the profession in just about every state even have a nickname for their efforts. Some call it "The Dance of the Lemons." Others call it "the Turkey Trot." Others call it "Taking out the Trash." But the end result is the same. Just like the Catholic Church used to move abusive priests from one parish to another, schools do the same, often trading their very worst teachers amongst each other and simply hoping that the teacher they get in the trade won't be as bad as the teacher they traded away.
Though I had read about it before, there's something chilling about actually seeing the teacher's union refuse to allow a proposal that would end tenure in the District of Columbia, but would leave teachers better compensated than they are now, to even come up for a vote. The scene calls to mind the kind of mob mentality usually only seen in true crime specials on the mafia. (No doubt owing to anticipation of the press scrutiny Waiting for 'Superman' would bring, the union eventually acquiesced on some of District Chancellor Michelle Rhee's proposals, although with Mayor Adrien Fenty on his way out, and a question mark now hovering above Rhee's future who knows what this will mean in the long run.)
Despite the criticism this post will undoubtedly provoke from progressive corners (including from many well-to-do liberals reading this site, who see no irony in sending their own children to quality private schools while poor, predominantly minority kids are left to flail in the public schools their union friends control) I want to reiterate for the record that I don't blame all teachers for the mess that we're in. Goodness knows I've had some of the most wonderful teachers I could have ever hoped for, the kind every child deserves.
But when expert after expert says that the only thing standing between our country having one of the best education systems in the world as opposed to a barely adequate one are the 6 percent of teachers who represent the worst our education system has to offer, but whom we are unable to fire, that should make every American outraged.
Outraged not by the tax dollars being flushed down the toilet, but by the futures of our nation's children being flushed down the toilet.
Waiting for 'Superman' puts real life faces on the statistics we have all heard a million times. Over the course of the film you become so invested in the stories of these children filled with hope, promise and dreams, that your heart breaks along with them and the people who love them when you see them deprived of their shot at the American Dream because the adults they trust are failing them, including you and me, those of us who sit back and continue to do nothing as this crisis continues to unfold.
So what are the solutions? Well below are a few things that we, along with our elected officials, can do:
1) Start Offering Great Teachers Great Compensation. Despite the angry accusations of anti-teacher bias that I'm sure this piece will elicit in cyberspace, I do believe that our best teachers must be compensated accordingly. In other countries teaching is not treated as a fallback or safety profession for those who have failed at others, but as a profession treated with the reverence that those entrusted with society's most valuable commodities (our future leaders) should. As I said before, I had some wonderful teachers growing up. (Shout out to Mrs. Jay, Mrs. Fernelius, Mrs. Haley, Mrs. Ellington and others if you're reading this.) They teach because they love it and that's apparent to anyone who sees them in action. But in an age in which many graduate college with endless student loan debt it will become harder and harder to recruit our best and brightest to go into a profession that needs them unless we compensate them accordingly. Of course this would be a lot easier to do if we stop throwing resources at terrible teachers. Which brings me to number two....
2) Get Rid Bulletproof Tenure for Teachers. I think this one speaks for itself. (See the rest of this post above.)
3) Hold Elected Officials Accountable for Being Beholden to Teachers Unions. I had no idea until seeing this film that Teacher's Unions give more money to political parties and politicians than the NRA. Yes, you read that correctly. So the next time a politician asks for your vote and claims to be "for the children" ask them if they are also for the teachers' unions, specifically tenure protections. Because you can't be for both, plain and simple.
4) Lobby the President to Appoint Michelle Rhee or Geoffrey Canada as the next Secretary of Education. Geoffrey Canada is someone I have long admired, but after seeing the film I now consider him education's very own "Superman." His passion for kids, classroom experience and understanding of the bureaucracy in which our education system has become hopelessly entangled makes him one of the most knowledgeable people on the planet when it comes to fixing our broken system, (and based on this video it looks like he already has a super-duper influential champion inside the White House, who probably has more sway with the president than anyone else.) Michelle Rhee, the controversial Chancellor of D.C.'s public school system (and the person outgoing Mayor Adrien Fenty can probably thank for now being out of a job) is not nearly as cuddly and likable as Mr. Canada, which is why she may be just perfect for filling Secretary Duncan's shoes. The woman could care less if a million adults hate her if it will help her save a half a million kids. So telling a few hundred members of Congress (who are terrified of a teachers union backlash), where to go and how quickly they can get there, would be a walk in the park for her. And a pleasure to witness.
5) Contribute to Charter Schools that Are Working. As I said before, Geoffrey Canada has done some extraordinary work at charter schools operating in some of the most at-risk communities in the nation. Under his direction the children in his Harlem Children's Zone schools have eliminated the achievement gap in mathematics that long existed between black and white students. Our education system didn't fall apart overnight and won't be fixed overnight, so in the meantime we must support those providing viable alternatives to low-income families. Canada's schools are one of them and each year they must turn away hundreds of families due to a lack of space and resources. Your financial support can make a difference. Here's a link to give to Canada's schools and here's a link to other great charter schools. If you come across one in your community, click on the link and google that school to visit its website to see how you can donate -- even if it's just a few dollar or extra books or school supplies -- to help.
Because our kids can't wait for "Superman" to save them. It's up to us.
This post originally appeared on TheLoop21.com for which Goff is a political blogger.
Follow Keli Goff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/keligoff