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By now, many education reporters and experts have had the chance to see “Waiting for ‘Superman'” and weigh in on it. The general consensus, reflected by the likes of The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss and well-known education critic Diane Ravitch is that it unfairly represents all public schools as bad and places undue emphasis on charter schools as the only alternative.
The movie opens in Honolulu Friday, but several members of the Civil Beat team had the opportunity to attend a screening and panel discussion Tuesday night, sponsored by the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation. The grant-making foundation packed one of the screening rooms in Kahala Theatre with people and popcorn.
The documentary highlights a lot of problems with the public education system and is well worth seeing. But don’t leave your thinking cap at the door. Hawaii has examples of almost, if not all, of the challenges and shortcomings of public education. The question is, what do we do about it?
The last (almost interminable!) segment of the documentary focuses on its five subjects as they wait in tense anticipation through the legendary lottery selection process used for charter schools. The implication is that all hope for their futures would be dashed if they didn’t get into the charter schools of their choice.
But it should go without saying that not all public schools are bad, and not all charter schools are good.
I submit that those who think “‘Superman'” is about public versus charter schools may be overlooking an underlying thesis: teachers unions have become the kryptonite of the public education system. It was implied, because charters, which were portrayed as the “Superman” in these scenarios, typically have more flexibility than traditional schools when it comes to collective bargaining requirements.
Although the film portrayed the difficulty unions pose for public schools, it stopped short of calling for a reform of the union system. Because it’s easier to spotlight the one-fifth of charter schools that outperform regular public schools.
To be clear: I have the utmost respect and admiration for teachers and their important work, and I believe the effective ones should be compensated accordingly. Questioning the value of having a union does not translate into questioning the value of teachers themselves.
We shouldn’t ignore the fact that three of five states (in a study of 16) whose charter schools showed better student growth than traditional schools, do not bind their charter schools to collective bargaining agreements — based on data from Stanford University’s oft-cited CREDO charter schools study and this handy resource from the Education Commission of the States in Colorado. Incidentally, collective bargaining agreements in Hawaii do apply to charter school employees, although supplemental agreements are allowed for items that can help decentralize decision-making.
Unions can hold up reform. In Washington, D.C. the teachers union stonewalled major education changes that were supported by data indicating they would improve student achievement. Its members even protested ones that did in fact work. The failure to re-elect D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty was at least in part a vote of no confidence in the mayorally appointed superintendent, Michelle Rhee, who fought for the changes.
To bring it a little closer to home: As much as HSTA hates for us to bring it up, the union’s stubbornness only escalated last year’s Furlough Fridays fiasco. (In fairness, the teachers union was not alone. Two other workers unions were involved. And the governor and the board of education made their own mistakes.)
Of course unions are not the only drag on education. Ravitch says 60 percent of student outcomes are determined by non-school — and therefore non-teacher — factors. But the challenges and merits of unions are worth discussing. Along with those of charter schools, performance pay, decentralization and anything that could have an impact, positive or negative, on student achievement.
As someone who tries to be well-versed in education issues, I was a little disappointed by the movie. It’s easier to talk about the few charter schools that are doing well than it is to talk straight (for too long) and run the risk of having to tell roughly 3.2 million teachers that their unions are a big part of the problem.
Unfortunately, the panel discussion after the movie was lackluster and relied on generalities. After a film like that, it felt like the audience was ready to knuckle down on specific problems and concrete solutions.
You can listen to their responses to audience questions by clicking the icon above.
It seems like in Hawaii, at least (and maybe everywhere), the teachers union is the sacred cow of education. It is a given that it will exist, as it is, and that we will have to work with it to make better schools. But let us not fear touching this subject and at least examining it with some intellectual honesty. The same goes for any other issue that could pose either a ‘Superman’ or a kryptonite for the students’ futures.
Because at the end of the day, it’s about the kids. Not the adults.
I encourage you to go see “Waiting for ‘Superman.'” And let the discussion begin.
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