Superman's Nemesis Has Tenure

Waiting for Superman is a heart-breaking and anger-inciting documentary about American public schools. Heart-breaking because of the injustice this system is inflicting upon innocent children and anger-inducing because the perpetrators of this outrage are its self-styled saviors.

The film follows five children, each of whom wants to attend a private charter school that is vastly superior to their local public school. The problem is that there are up to twenty times more applicants than there are open desks.

The decline of American public schools since the 1970s is irrefutable; American children score a fraction of what their non-American counterparts score in reading and math. And even with the No Child Left Behind Act, a nationwide average of less than thirty percent reach the Act’s academic standards.

Billions of dollars have been spent to improve education, but studies reveal an achievement flat line, no matter how much money is spent or how small classes are.

Who is to blame?

The documentary focuses upon those who have achieved success in educating children and those who oppose them. Yes, there are those who oppose education reform, and shockingly, it is the teacher’s unions. The old canard that teachers are overworked and underpaid is graphically exposed as a lie, and contrasted with charter schools like Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Success Academy, which graduates and sends over ninety percent of its students to college.

Yes, you read right: ninety percent.

Canada’s school, with its uniforms, extended hours, mandatory and intensive parent involvement, and results-based teacher pay, is the model for success, but the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the two largest teachers’ unions, vigorously oppose charter schools like his.

In addition, tenure, which takes college professors years to acquire, is granted almost immediately to elementary and secondary teachers across the country, making them nearly impossible to fire for incompetence. This results in New York’s famous “Rubber Room,” where six hundred teachers under suspension are warehoused for years pending outcome of their cases, all the while receiving full pay for literally doing nothing all day.

In 2008, Michelle Rhee, chancellor of Washington, D.C. public schools (the seventh in ten years) presented the unions with a choice: they could either retain tenure and receive a small pay increase (to $80,000 per year) or forego tenure and receive merit pay, which could result in an annual income over $140,000. The unions refused to even allow their members to vote on the proposal.

But teachers are not entirely to blame. A student is not a tabula rasa; they are the beneficiaries or victims of their environments, and their situations both in life and school are a direct result of their social and economic status. Three of the five children in the film are apparently without fathers, supported by single mothers in low-paying jobs who are unable to move elsewhere to provide better educational opportunities for their kids. The charter school lotteries are a salvation long shot.

While I agree with the filmmakers’ that teachers unions are a prime reason students are not being taught, I would add that parents are just as important, if not more so. When I was in elementary school in the early 60s, my teachers were dedicated and competent. But my parents were also an integral part of the equation. My father worked hard to support a family of nine. My mother, freed from income production, was able to act as our teacher as well, and I remember her relentlessly drilling me using vocabulary, spelling and math flashcards. When 8:30 P.M. rolled around, it was bedtime. I would complain that I wasn’t tired, but my frazzled mother would say, “But I am,” and tuck me in. “If you can’t sleep, read,” she would say.

That single fact alone may explain why I’m an author today.

In short, I had good schools growing up, but I also had excellent parents, and, most importantly, a father who worked to free my mother to fulfill her important crucial role as a teacher. Waiting for Superman makes the solid case that schools could be just as good today if the excessive power of the teachers’ unions were scaled back. I would add that a two-parent household is the other indispensable requirement for a child’s education, and that the power to retain fathers in the home lies squarely in the possession of women.

I’ll make that case in my next post.

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