WHAT KIND OF DAMN FOOLS make movies about education? And what kind of damn fools review them?
Those were my thoughts when I picked up the New York Times recently and saw Frank Bruni’s column, “Teachers on the Defensive.”
Bruni has no children and normally writes about food. Now he had decided to go all “two thumbs up” and review the forthcoming movie, “Won’t Back Down” (in theaters starting September 28). He calls it a David and Goliath story about a mother fighting to save her daughter from being required to attend a failing public elementary school. Randi Weingarten, “powerful president of the American Federation of Teachers,” gets a brief mention in his column. But no practicing teacher (Weingarten last spent a day in a classroom in 1997) appears in the story.
Bruni admits the people backing the film are sworn enemies of teachers’ unions. He brushes that aside. As he sees it, teachers unions have lost their way and represent the great impediment to needed change. He’s surprised to discover teachers and their unions are less than pleased with U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (who, if Bruni interviewed me, I might label an “insufferable ass”). He mentions “Race to the Top,” Duncan’s bold initiative to save America’s schools. He mentions unanimous agreement, cutting across party lines, at a recent conference of mayors, endorsing “parent trigger legislation.”
These trigger laws, Bruni explains:
…recently passed in only a few states but being considered in more, abet parent take-overs of underperforming schools, which may then be replaced with charter schools run by private entities. Parent trigger hasn’t yet led to a new school, so no one can really know the sense or efficacy of the scenario. But it informs “Won’t Back Down,” which envisions [actor Maggie] Gyllenhaal’s trigger-pulling parent as an Erin Brockovich in education.
“It gives parents an opportunity to weigh in,” said Antonio Villaraigosa, the Los Angeles mayor, who supports it, in an interview here on Thursday. He believes that new approaches are vital and that teachers’ unions are “the most powerful defenders of a broken system.”
SO, WHERE DO WE STAND IN U. S. EDUCATION TODAY? Apparently, we all accept the premise that public education is failing, even when evidence is as thin as a Vogue model. Then, like assorted Chicken Littles, critics go running about, warning readers that the sky is falling, when actually it’s not.
And why is the sky falling (when it’s not)? Unions. Teacher seniority. Unions. Tenure. Unions. Greed for pension benefits. Unions. Even Randi Weingarten is quoted as saying unions have focused too much on fairness for members and ignored matters of quality. (To be frank, every time I hear her talk on TV or read what she says in interviews, I find myself thinking, “This poor woman couldn’t defend teachers if you gave her a baseball bat.”)
Bruni hammers home what he believes is the critical point–and if you’re a dedicated educator his column may make you a little sick: “Better teachers, better teachers, better teachers. That’s the mantra of the moment, and implicit in it is the notion that the ones we’ve got aren’t nearly good enough.”
“Won’t Back Down,” he says, raises important questions. “It’s ultimately about the impact of superior teaching, the need to foster more of it and the importance of school accountability. Who could quibble with any of that?”
I could, for one.
I’ve noticed something odd while doing research for what I hope will be my first book about American education. And I wonder why Weingarten and Bruni and all the experts never bring this up. If unions are the problem, how come unions in some places are so much more of a problem than in others.
How did Vermont graduate 83% of its students in four years, and Wisconsin 81%, and North Dakota 80%, and why did Mississippi come in at 61% in 2008? If Louisiana was at 60% and South Carolina and Georgia were at 59%, maybe it wasn’t unions. Maybe it was some strange phenomenon related to flying the Confederate flag.
If that theory sounds ridiculous, what about lack of trees? Because there’s a huge gap in graduation rates between suburban and urban districts within states. A study done in 2005 noted that 38% of Cleveland, Ohio high school students graduated in four years. Yet, in surrounding suburbs, the rate was 80%. It was the same all over the country. The gap for the Baltimore region was 40 percentage points, for Milwaukee 35, in New York City environs 29.
For Chicago, where Duncan was then wrapping up his fourth year at the helm of city schools, the difference was 28 points.
Here, in the Cincinnati area, you can easily uncover evidence of the same. Loveland City Schools, the suburban district where I once taught, has held an “excellent” rating from the State of Ohio for eleven years straight. In 2012 Loveland graduated 96.7% of seniors and 84% of the class planned to go on to college.
I could climb behind the wheel of my car this minute and drive three miles south and be in the district of the Wyoming City Schools, ranked 86th best in the nation in 2011, according to Newsweek magazine. Teachers in Wyoming, like those in Loveland, are unionized. Yet, in 2011, Wyoming graduated 100% of its senior class.
How was that possible? What variables besides union membership might apply? In Loveland, to cite just one explanation, student attendance in 2012 was 95.4%. Wyoming City did even better the year before, with 96.4%.
Still, there’s no time for nuance when discussing the failure of America’s public schools. The only variable is teacher quality. If we’re going to win the “Race to the Top,” Mr. Duncan knows all that matters is better teachers.
No questions asked.
Yet, I find myself asking questions, as I once did in the classroom. Why is it we think teachers are failing in Chicago, the district Duncan gained credit for fixing, if 258 school-age kids were shot in gang-related violence in one year, and 245 the next? Why is it we think we have a school crisis if a study shows that the 10,000 kids most at risk of being victims, or acting as perpetrators, missed an average of 71 school days per year? I wish Mr. Bruni had considered that issue, because I’m not a food critic. I’m a retired teacher and know what almost all teachers know.
When I worked in Loveland, I certainly found most parents were supportive and committed. But when you looked at kids who struggled, it wasn’t ever because I had tenure, or because, eventually I had so much seniority I couldn’t have been laid off unless the district suffered a direct hit in a nuclear attack.
Back in the 90s, for example, a previous generation of Chicken Littles screamed bloody murder and said we needed to hand out vouchers to parents and let them send their kids off to “superior” private schools.We we had to “measure” how students were faring on state standardized tests (those didn’t work, by the way). One day I caught an editorial in the Cincinnati Enquirer, blasting teachers because test scores were low. The writer was for vouchers, for “school choice,” for parental triggers before triggers were invented. He grumbled that there was “ample time” in the school year to teach what ought to be taught. He implied (oh, that word again) that lazy teachers were the real issue. But I didn’t feel lazy. I saw what Elliot was like the year I had him in class, the same year that stupid editorial came out.
I saw what it was like to try to work with a seventh grader who was absent or tardy 107 times.
One day, when Elliot fell asleep for a third time during history class, I called him back to my desk. Elliot admitted Mom allowed him to stay up till 4 a.m., the night before, playing video games. Here’s how I describe the scene:
I have him take a seat on the floor, hoping cold, hard linoleum will jump start his cognitive functions. I answer several questions from classmates and then glance in his direction. His head is twisted to one side, resting against the concrete block wall. His mouth gapes wide. His history papers have slipped from his grasp and he lets out a loud snort.
Elliot comes late again Tuesday when we have a test. He doesn’t have supplies. So I waste my “ample time” to fetch him a pencil. Five minutes later Elliot is done. He just colors in answers. Then he lays down his pencil—my pencil—and lays down his head and is soon fast asleep, no doubt dreaming about what he would do if only he had a voucher.
Unlike Bruni, in other words, unlike movie producers who make shallow films, I know what it was like to work with parents like Elliot’s mom. (It almost goes without saying dad was no longer around.) I discovered what it was like when she got arrested for fighting with our school resource officer after Elliot’s older brother got suspended for fighting on the bus.
I saw what happened when Elliot, by then an eighth grader, got arrested for selling drugs on school grounds. So: I’m telling you now, you could get rid of teachers’ unions tomorrow, and you wouldn’t begin to touch the most serious issues in our schools.
I’m sorry to have to say this, but Mr. Bruni should stick to telling us what’s wrong with how most of us eat.