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J. Patrick Coolican:

Coolican: A pointed look at why our schools are failing

‘Superman’ film’s ideas are worth studying

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

If you care about the future of our country and our community, I implore you to watch the riveting documentary about education reform, “Waiting for Superman,” which was recently released on DVD. Invite friends and family and neighbors and host a discussion after you watch.

Wednesday night I watched it with Dr. Ken Turner, special assistant to new Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones; teachers Shirley Webb and Marc Hechter, and Zhan Okuda-Lim and William Johnson, students at Valley High School and Las Vegas High School, respectively.

“Waiting for Superman” was made by Davis Guggenheim, a progressive filmmaker who also directed the documentary about Al Gore and global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth.”

“Waiting for Superman” has excited education reformers for its stark portrayal of a failing education system and the role of teacher unions in that failure.

With its tough portrayal of unions, the film has drawn praise from conservatives — some genuinely interested in education, others rank opportunists.

Here are some facts — and a key question — that come out of the movie:

• We spend increasing amounts of money on education per student but aren’t getting better results, with per-pupil spending in the United States having increased from $4,300 per student in 1971 to more than $9,000 today (adjusted for inflation). This is obviously not as glaringly true in Clark County, where we spend $7,842 per pupil — with cuts expected due to the budget crisis.

• Certain children are condemned to terrible schools and never given much chance in life (although we don’t play a starring role in the movie, many schools in Clark County would fit in this category).

• A few schools, sometimes but not always charter schools, have shown tremendous results in tough neighborhoods — in some cases outperforming their suburban peers — which can usually be attributed to outstanding teachers and administrators.

• If children, including poor and minority children, can be taught at those select schools, why can’t we achieve the same success everywhere?

The film is told with poignancy as families struggle to achieve a good education and make it to college.

Among the most film’s most compelling data points:

• A top-notch instructor teaches three times the material of a bad teacher in an academic year. To put it another way: The good teacher imparts a year-and-a-half of instruction during a single school year, while a bad teacher teaches just one half year.

• If we were to eliminate 6 to 10 percent of our worst teachers and replace them with merely average teachers, we would suddenly have one of the best education systems in the world, rather than lagging near the bottom of industrialized nations.

What conclusions are we to draw from these facts?

We need to reward the best teachers and dump the worst. In most other professions, merit is rewarded with better pay and benefits, and failure is punished with termination.

Keep this in mind: As progressive commentator Matthew Yglesias of ThinkProgress has pointed out, it’s incorrect to say we don’t have merit pay for teachers. We do pay teachers different salaries, but based on extremely odd metrics for merit — longevity and advanced degrees in education, which don’t seem like good measures of performance.

So we need to build incentives into our pay structure to reward performance. (The question of what constitutes good performance is a knotty one and would have to be perfected over many years. It would seem to include some mix of standardized test score successes and more intangible measures.)

We also need to part ways with the worst teachers. By now, the stories of barriers to firing based on performance are legendary — in Illinois, one in 57 doctors and one in 97 lawyers lose their licenses, while one in 2,500 teachers loses his credentials. Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval and Democrats in the Legislature have introduced legislation on this front.

That the teachers unions would protect their members isn’t notable — that’s the job of a union. But their Democratic allies should recognize — and many, including President Barack Obama have — that obstructing reform is a long-term policy and political loser.

Education reform is impossibly complex, too complex for a 111-minute film, and “Waiting for Superman” is imperfect, so it’s worth bearing in mind a few additional facts:

• Per-pupil costs have risen over the decades largely because teachers were so badly underpaid in the past. Female teachers were also victims of gender discrimination; men were paid more because it was assumed they had to support families, while women had husbands. As the film notes, this is why teachers unionized. They have a right to celebrate and defend that legacy in the face of an assault from Republicans whose long-standing goal is to destroy not just public employee unions, but all of organized labor. Finally, given that such a small number of teachers — 6 to 10 percent — drag down our whole education system, it’s worth noting that most teachers are doing a good job, or at the very least, are committed to their students and crave the tools to get better. Enough teacher bashing already.

• Charter schools are no panacea: As Richard Kahlenberg recently noted in Slate, the most comprehensive study of charter schools to date found that charters outperformed regular public schools 17 percent of the time and performed worse 37 percent of the time.

• Michelle Rhee, who is highlighted in the film, is something of a flawed hero. She resigned as superintendent of Washington, D.C.’s schools after three years, just a few months after the film hit theaters. Rhee, who recently visited with Sandoval, was a deeply polarizing figure, reviled by many parents, and some of the successes she achieved appear to be illusory. USA Today reported recently, for instance, that a school that achieved remarkable improvements in standardized test scores almost certainly did so by cheating.

• The story of another hero of “Waiting for Superman,” Geoffrey Canada, is also more complex than is portrayed. Canada is trying to transform a 97-block area of Harlem with an intense focus on its children, from the womb through college. His effort is inspiring, and incredibly well-funded, as The New York Times reported last year. The cost of his charter school is $16,000 per pupil, supplemented with much more out-of-the-classroom spending on such things as health and dental care, asthma treatment, after-school programs, investment in parks and playgrounds, healthy meals and trips given as rewards to good students.

Last time I checked, our community had little of that, and given Sandoval’s budget of what he calls “shared sacrifice,” what we do have will be cut. That’s in addition to teacher pay cuts and a reduction in overall education funding.

The narrative arc of “Waiting for Superman” travels with five children as they await the results of a lottery — a literal lottery — that will determine if they get into top-flight schools.

The technique is manipulative, almost annoyingly so, but also deeply affecting. I’ve seen the movie three times, and each time during the final scenes I’ve felt a rush of emotion, from sadness to anger.

That so many children, especially here in Clark County, face such unfair odds, is an outrage.

See Tuesday's Sun or check back online for a transcript of the conversation that followed the movie screening, as well as Coolican's column on the subject.

Coolican’s column appears Tuesdays and Fridays.

CORRECTION: Clark County spends $7,842 per pupil. The story originally reported the number was $5,035. | (April 11, 2011)

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