By Brian Prisco | Film | September 28, 2010 |
By Brian Prisco | Film | September 28, 2010 |
I live in constant fear of morons. When the planes struck the Twin Towers, after watching coverage for a few hours, my initial instinct was that someone, somewhere was going to beat up either a 7-11 manager or a cab driver. And lo and behold, I was right. Because for the most part, as Americans, we’re fucking idiots. We think in the broadest terms, the simplest reactionary thoughts, with little more research than catching a soundbite on our respective medium of choice, and regurgitating it ad nauseum. And we either choose to believe, or to blindly deny. We’ve beaten people over the head with the idea that processed foods are terrible for you, that Wall Street has its fingers so deep into the American Government’s pockets they can count individual ball hairs, and that yes, we did fucking evolve from monkeys. There are still folks who don’t care. Which helps to temper my fears slightly about the reaction to Davis Guggenheim’s latest political-cause documentary Waiting for “Superman.” It’s a powerful indictment of the broken state of America’s education system that offers a scathing swipe at all sides. It even offers possible solutions, ones that I agree with in principle, but disagree with in practice. Yet, my great fear is that most people are going to see this and get fired up at the wrong people. But, then again, the folks that are that stupid won’t see this in the first place, because “Dancing with the Stars” is on.
Guggenheim does for education what he did for the environment in An Inconvenient Truth, which is to neatly package statistics and studies in easy-to-appreciate animations and bar graphs. Building off his 1999 documentary The First Year, Guggenheim takes five statistics and turns them into real students. We follow these five kids as they basically struggle to get a decent education, fighting against the very system that proclaims to want to leave none of them behind. Meanwhile, Guggenheim deftly delivers crushing body blow after body blow to the busted system. The most heinous part of the whole situation is the total and overwhelming awareness of all the parties involved. Yes, we know the system is completely fucked, and we are flushing most of your children to save a rare and fortunate few, but what are we gonna do?
I’d rather you watch the film and grunt, scowl, and shake your head in disgust like I did when you hear the various statistics, rather than sort through all of them repeated and paraphrased here. But here’s one that tickled me endlessly: Something like 68 percent of prison inmates in Pennsylvania are high school dropouts. The state pays $33,000 to house one inmate for a year, which if averaging sentences comes to $132,000 for a 4 year stay. Private schooling in PA costs $8,300 a year. To pay for 13 years of private schooling for one student would actually cost less, leaving over $24,000 aside as a payment for a 4-year state college education. Just something to keep in mind.
Most states are drastically low in basic reading and math comprehension levels. Our high schools, especially ones in the inner cities have turned into “drop-out factories.” I knew it was bad, but actually hearing the numbers is physically painful. Yet, every president (on both sides of the aisle), including our beloved Obama who currently sits upon high, has declared he would be the president to fix education. I’m talking back as far as LBJ. Yet no one has come up with a satisfactory solution. Other than one disastrous attempt which is called No Child Left Behind, the principle of which seems to be that if you get abuse and ignore the children long enough, they’ll quit, which doesn’t count as being left behind.
Guggenheim follows our five children as they attempt to actually get into the good schools — the charter and magnet schools. In the American school system, there are children that can get a decent education, one-on-one assistance, and proper class size. They just have to win the lottery. We watch these poor children’s futures decided on the spin of a bingo caller’s reel or a digitally randomized computer program. That’s not just disgusting, it’s sad. It’s not a matter of, sorry kids, we’ll try again next year. It’s a matter of, “well, maybe your kids will get a good education, try not to die in your high school with teachers who don’t care.”
That’s the part of Waiting for “Superman” that upsets me a little. The problem is with teacher unions for the most part protecting bad teachers with tenure and contracts. Once a teacher gets tenure, which happens after two years of simply surviving and “breathing,” it practically takes an act of God to remove them. Even then, he best borrow some lawyers from Satan. Bad teachers are the problem, and if you could even cull the lowest six to twelve percent of bad teachers, you would improve things. Studies have shown that no matter how much money you throw at the problem, bad teachers and lack of parental involvement will always be the root of the problem. As long as there are teacher unions like the NEA and the ATF, bad teachers will be able to dig in and stick it out.
My concern is how exactly you gauge what makes a bad teacher? Who would be responsible for that decision making? Should it be through the school boards, the school administration, or through student evaluations, or peer evaluations? My fear is that they’d base it on test scores, the very same tests created by No Child Left Behind that are ruining classrooms. Because teachers don’t teach curricula anymore, they teach to the tests. Students don’t learn, they memorize to fill in circles. And that’s just as dangerous. Personally, I blame the insane bureaucracy that the various governments have instituted to allocate funds. Each arm: federal, state, local, and individual, have their own rules and regulations and standards, which are often contradictory and constrictive. They prevent teachers from doing what they are supposed to do: put knowledge in the children’s heads. Being constantly hamstrung and beaten down by the very system put there to help you is going to turn the most inspired teacher into a scowling menace.
That’s what scares me; that people might watch this film and think: it’s the teachers! I knew it! Get the teachers! Those sonsofbitches! And why do I feel this way? Listen to the news if there is ever a teacher’s strike. Most of the time, teachers are asking for a simple 1-2 percent raise for cost of living, and the school boards are demonizing greedy teachers for raising taxes. Then the locals get all up in arms about the monstrous teachers who are trying to take money out of their pockets, and how they should be glad they are lucky enough to even have jobs.
Many of my friends and family are school teachers. My brother teaches first grade. In a decent year, he has something like 25 kids in his classroom. Now, we assume the average daycare cost $20 a day, considering he watches the kids for 6-8 hours. That’s $500 a day for his classroom. The average school year runs 180 days. So, if he were running a daycare, where he wouldn’t even have to teach them anything, just make sure nobody gets bitten or rubs too much poop in their hair, and he’d be pulling down $90,000 a year. You don’t think he’d rather take that paycheck than get shat on by a bunch of angry parents day in and day out? Or a school administration who thinks the teachers are greedy fiends? My brother doesn’t even come close to that, and he’s a male first-grade teacher with a Master’s degree and additional credits. In the classroom, he’s not sitting around reading Maxim while the kids set Andy Panda on fire and stab each other in the eyes with safety scissors.
But there are teachers who do that. And they are the problem. Yes, the unions protect the slackers. The union representatives in the film even say they don’t want teachers considered good or bad, but that a teacher is a teacher is a teacher and they are all heroes. When Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of schools in Washington D.C. came to the union offering them the chance to make double the national average — $132,000 a year — if they would accept merit-based paychecks and get rid of tenure, the union was so freaked out they didn’t even vote on it.
The outmoded bureaucracy currently in place needs to be shredded first. The layers of red tape and checks and balances need to be negated and the teachers need to be free to teach. Then, and only then, can you start working on weeding out the bad teachers. Tenure should be renewable, because some teachers have expiration dates. This is the same practice for doctors, lawyers and most other state licensed career paths. It’s not unreasonable to expect the same, particularly when they are shaping the minds of future doctors and lawyers and lawmakers. But not film critics, because we learn on the streets.
Guggenheim’s documentary is heart-crushing but hopeful. It points out there is a terrible problem, and then uses a shit-ton of emotional manipulation to demonstrate how horrible it really is. That a child’s mind is about as valuable as a scratch lottery ticket is embarrassing. This will assuredly be received like his An Inconvenient Truth, with Oscar nominations, including one for the even better song by John Legend at the end of the film. I refuse to refer to this film as “important,” because that is such a ridiculously overwrought cliche, but people should see this. If only because I’d like to see people get as fired up about the education problem in this country as they did about a bunch of fucking dolphins getting harpooned to death. I also feel like Obama’s the kind of president who wouldn’t just give a speech if he saw people really angry about education, he’d goddamn do something about it, even if he had to go all Bruce Lee and kung fu the fucking Board of Education in half with his bare hands. So go see it, cry like I did, and then get fucking mad as hell and don’t take it anymore.