Waiting for Superman: The Human Cost of Bad Education

Holidays, travel, blah blah blah… I’m back. I missed you. We’re getting ready to go back to work, and kids are gearing up to return to school. But when these kids get dropped off, where are they going, really? Where do they spend most of their days?

So I’ve been meaning to watch this movie for a while. I knew our public school system was in peril, and I knew that schools were keeping bad teachers because of union contracts, but I didn’t know just how bad bad was.

If you haven’t seem this film or aren’t an educator, let me tell you: it’s beyond bad. Overwhelmingly shameful, staggeringly inept, purposefully broken, this system is in ruins and has little chances of turning around.

Here are some statistics from the film:

Of the 30 most developed countries on the planet, American students rank 25th in math and 21st in science… that’s out of 30.

But when these same students were asked how they felt they performed in math and science, American students ranked number one in confidence.

And reading skills aren’t any better… just twenty to thirty percent of American public school students are reading at their grade levels.

So we look to the teachers. What’s going on?

In Illinois,

one is 57 doctors will lose their medical license for being a “bad physician”

one in 97 lawyers will lose their law license for being a “bad lawyer”

but only one in 2500 teachers will lose their job if they are deemed a “bad teacher”*

Public school teachers enjoy the same tenure that college professors earn, only at the university level a professor must be on a tenure track for years, contributing to her field of study through teaching, research, and active participation. Public school teachers must simply show up for work for two years… and they have guaranteed jobs for life. Teachers don’t have to teach, they simply have to show up.

Now reform has been attempted. What about performance-based salary increases for excellent teachers? What about removing tenure in favor of incentivizing? The teachers’ unions won’t even discuss the matter, and given their multi-million dollar contributions to political parties, they won’t be asked to anytime soon.

So this antiquated, ruinous public policy continues to push ill-prepared students through “dropout factory” schools, and sure enough, these kids don’t make it to graduation.

A high school dropout is eight times more likely to end up in prison.

By the year 2020, 123 million jobs will be available, but require a college degree. America will only produce about 20 million qualified candidates.

So it’s no wonder companies are going overseas to recruit engineers and scientists.

It’s a complicated problem. Often parents are unaccountable, and drop their kids off at school, rolling the dice, because really, they have no choice. Private school is not an option, and with disengaged public school teachers providing less than the full amount of required education for those kids to move forward, students are pushed through and cannot test up to their levels. Frustrated and uninspired, those kids check out.

7000 students drop out every day.

As a teacher for a college preparatory company I’m in an interesting position because I get kids from both public and private schools. And there’s a difference in how these kids perform. I hate to say it out loud. A couple of personal  and general observations… this isn’t true for every single student but:

  • Private school students are more likely to participate in class. They ask more questions. They have a greater tendency to show me what they can do… they push harder.
  • Public school students are more likely to “hide” from me. They’d rather try to push through half-efforts or misunderstood assignments in the hopes that I’ll simply accept the work they’ve produced.
  • When a private school kid doesn’t understand, they ask for clarification.
  • When a public school kid doesn’t understand, they say nothing and hope I don’t notice.
  • Private school kids tend to read more for fun. As a result, these students comprehend assigned reading in a more profound way, and have better diction and syntax in their writing.

Having students of drastically varying levels is challenging for any teacher, and I’m not talking about a single underperforming student, or a”star” achiever. I’m talking about a gaping chasm in attitude towards school and cognitive development between public and private school kids.

So what is the solution? Charter schools are a start. These new public schools are not governed by the same rules as traditional public school, and have given the system dire resuscitation. They are funded through both public and private means but are held to standards as set forth in their charters. These schools are accountable, they hire engaging teachers, and consistently work hard to ensure that every student is keeping up, not simply being passed on. Charter schools are working, but because they are still a relatively nascent development, the space available is limited. So parents scramble and again, roll the dice, entering their children in charter lotteries for one of the very few and coveted spots. A heartbreaking moment in the film, to literally watch a child’s future path be determined by a bingo ball.

Want to fix the economy? Our kids need to be educated to contribute. Want to decrease crime? Our kids need to feel successful every day in school. Want to keep America employed?

Watch this film now. Today.

* The statistics in the film have been widely disputed. Some sources claim they’re inaccurate and that the film scapegoats teachers. I’m not suggesting that all public school teachers are milking tenure, but the numbers (and the film) as a whole prove a point: public school tenure can be abused and while adults are protecting their jobs they are damaging kids every day.

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