“Waiting for Superman” is a powerful film with a message crucial to our nation’s future. The movie follows five students trying to get out of destructive public schools (or “dropout factories,” as one expert calls them); it builds up to the moment when the five students sit through their lotteries in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, their names will be called and they’ll be able to escape public school.
What makes these public schools so awful? Waiting for “Superman” points out a number of reasons. For one, we have the tangle of national, state, and local education regulations that give every American school mixed agendas. Every teacher in every public school is caught up in the mess of teaching to conflicting standards.
That problem is only compounded by poor teaching—and by the fact that poor teachers are contractually home free. It is incredibly difficult to get a bad teacher fired. “Superman” explains that if Americans were able to fire only the lowest performing 6-10% of teachers, and replace them with teachers performing at a mere average level, American education would be caught up to that of Finland. This is because bad teachers fail so monstrously: while a good teacher will teach his or her class 150% of the information they need to know for that grade level, a bad teacher will only teach 50%. Bad teachers do a lot of damage, according to the film. And yet, the movie points out, while 1 in 57 doctors get their medical licenses revoked, and 1 in 97 attorneys get their law licenses revoked, only 1 in 2500 public school teachers do. It’s a staggering statistic.
A lot of this problem comes from the teachers’ unions, which feature prominently in the film. These unions place teacher ease over student wellbeing, and have led to an environment where it’s nearly impossible to fire a teacher for any reason, no matter how destructive that teacher is. The film shows clips of a “rubber room” in New York, where bad teachers are sent—teachers who molest their students, for example, or chronically lazy teachers who have caused more problems than they’ve solved at public schools. The average stay in these “rubber rooms” is three years, and these lapsed teachers are paid their full salary plus benefits while they’re there, even though they spend their time playing cards and doing other things of no worth to society.
The film also explains a system called the “Lemon Dance,” used in other states as a way of dealing with bad teachers. Every year, schools trade their “lemons,” or chronically awful teachers, with the other schools in their district, in the hopes that maybe the incoming lemons will be a little better than the last ones. The “dance” goes on and on, a futile merry-go-round, because it is so hard to circumvent the teachers’ unions and related contracts in order to get bad teachers fired.
Allie Duzett is the Director of Strategic Operations for Accuracy in Media , Accuracy in Academia’s big sister group.
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