BY L. JENKINS - I would like to thank The Friends of Boca Grande for hosting the Film Forum at the Boca Grande Community Center on January 20 that discussed the public education system.
The 2010 film, Waiting For Superman, and the 2011 film, American Teacher, were truly "something worth talking about."
The films highlighted the plight of students, families, teachers, and reformers in navigating the complex morass that is the American public school system. In addition to the emotions evoked by the dramatic and heroic stories of the films’ real characters, the numbers alone tell their own compelling story.
The statistics put forth were truly alarming in their magnitude and implications, and they warrant repeating. After the forum, I viewed the film a second time and took notes. In case you were unfortunate enough to miss the films and the forum, the following contains at least the staggering numbers presented.
To give a flavor for the film, Waiting for Superman, I will report on just one character for whom the most statistics were given. Daisy, an elementary school student in Los Angeles, aspires to go into the medical profession. Motivated to achieve this goal, she has already applied to college for admission. But first she must pass through Stevenson Middle School.
By the time she finishes Stevenson, only 13% of her classmates will be proficient in math. She must then attend Roosevelt High School. Only three of 100 students at Roosevelt will graduate with the classes necessary for admission to a 4-year college.
Of Daisy's classmates, 57% will not graduate. Daisy's family is of humble means. Their only option is to apply to the charter school, KIPP LA Prep, for which there are only 10 spaces per 135 applicants. By the time students finish eighth grade at KIPP LA, "they will have doubled their math and reading scores."
The film defines charter schools as "provisional schools that weren't bound by the rules of the district or union contracts... when there is limited space, by law, the school must hold a lottery."
At the end of the film, the viewer discovers that Daisy is not one of the children chosen in the lottery. A similar tragic tale unfolds for several children and families in mostly poor and minority neighborhoods.
According to the film, "In Alabama only 18% of eighth graders are proficient in math." When eighth grade students were tested for reading, most scored between 20-35% of grade level (D.C. was the worst at 12%.) Up until the 1970's, U.S. schools were the best in the world. Since the 1970's, we have fallen in the rankings dramatically.
Among 30 developed countries, we ranked 25th in math and 21st in science. The top 5% of our students ranked 23rd out of 29 developed countries.
The only area in a 2003 survey where the United States ranked number one was in their level of confidence regarding how well they felt they had performed in math (in actuality, they performed last out of the eight countries tested.)
Since 1971, reading and math scores have virtually "flat-lined." Student spending in 1971 was $4,300/student. In 2007, spending was over $9,000/student (adjusted for inflation.) We doubled what was spent on each child.
"Drop-out factories" were defined in the film, as schools "where over 40% of students don't graduate on time." A Hopkins professor estimated that over 2,000 of the schools exist nationwide. In state correctional institutions in Pennsylvania, 68% of inmates are dropouts. The state spends $33,000 per year on each prisoner ($132,000 for four years). The average private school costs $8,300 per year ($107,900 for 13 years, leaving $24,100 for college, when compared to above prison expenditures).
In the film, a Stanford researcher states that the difference between a very good teacher and a bad teacher is one year of learning per academic year.
The narrator states, "Students with high performing teachers progressed three times as fast as those with low performing teachers, yet they cost the same to the school."
The film states that Michelle Rhee was the seventh superintendant of D.C. public schools in 10 years. She was given broad authority to shift resources. She cut 100 jobs from Central Office (a vast administrative bureaucracy with "complete and utter lack of accountability for the job we are suppose to be doing"), closed 23 schools, and fired 25% of the principals. She attempted to reallocate the money to remaining schools and teachers. She offered teachers the choice: Keep tenure and receive a moderate raise from $56,000 to $73,000, or give up tenure and earn potentially twice as much in merit pay of $122,000. The union would not allow the proposal to come up for a vote.
The film goes on to say that the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, taken together, are the largest campaign contributors in the U.S. over the last 20 years. They have given over $55 million to federal candidates (more than "any other individual organization"). More than 90% of this goes to Democrats. Though numbers are not given, the film subsequently suggests that neither party is immune from the corrupting influence of the financial contributions and the dangled union votes.
The film reports that Illinois has 876 school districts. Only 61 of them have ever attempted to fire a tenured teacher (only 38 were successful.) When comparing professions: One in 57 doctors lose their medical licenses, one in 97 lawyers lose their law licenses, and one in 2500 teachers ever lose their teaching credentials. The process for firing a teacher is governed by exceedingly strict and onerous rules. Former superintendent of Milwaukee, after publicized, videotaped evidence of neglect and abuse in the classroom, was forced to rehire the offenders with back pay, "because of a provision in the teachers contract, called tenure, which guaranteed their jobs for life."
The narrator states that if you live in a district with 100 public schools, likely one fifth will be failing ("and more will be hovering between mediocre and failing.") Usually there will be one school that produces exceptional results. One can only attend that school if one lives in the neighborhood. One out of 5 charter schools produces excellent results. Bill Gates stated, "The top charter schools are sending over 90% of their kids to 4-year colleges."
The film states that Woodside HS, in an affluent neighborhood in the heart of Silicon Valley, was ranked in the top 6% of US high schools by Newsweek. Out of 100 ninth grade students, 62 will graduate, and only 32 will be prepared for a 4 year college. At nearby Summit Prep Public Charter School ( 110 spaces for 455 applicants) 96 out of 100 will graduate. And all of them will be ready for college. The CA University system is designed to accept the top third of HS graduates. They must remediate 50-60% of all incoming freshman, before they are ready for college level classes. It was estimated that by the year 2020, 123 million US jobs will be high pay and skill jobs, but only 50 million Americans will be qualified to fill them. Bill Gates stated that how "strong" (and "equitable") America is 20 years hence, will largely be determined by the education issue.
The film showed a 2007 graph that demonstrated a consistent achievement gap between children above and below the poverty line over the past decade. Nothing seemed to have an impact. But the data from the first 1000 children who have gone through 4 years of KIPP schools (82 schools nationwide), indicate that their low income students have gone from 32nd to the 60th percentile in reading, and from 40th to 82nd percentile in math. In one Harlem program, 9 out of 10 students are proficient in math and are on track to attend a 4-year college. What do they do differently from traditional public schools? See the film! But, to put it simply, what works is "...quality teachers, more classroom time, world class standards, high expectations, real accountability ... It starts with teachers becoming the very best, leaders removing the barriers to change, neighbors committed to their school, you willing to act ..."
The film, American Teacher, was not available in our library system for review. The film followed several dedicated teachers in the difficulties they face, particularly with regards to financial compensation and the emotional challenges. The film presented some information on Finland's educational system, as Finland ranked highest on international tests. The following information was obtained online.
Finland recruits their top university graduates to be teachers (vs. the bottom third in the US.) Only 1 of 8-10 applicants to teacher programs is accepted. The program is free. Teachers have a masters degree. Spending per pupil in Finland is a third of US spending. Teaching is the most respected profession in Finland. Teachers have a high level of authority. In Finland, teachers work less hours than US teachers (one source sites 570 hours per year vs. 1,100 hours.) Most online sites describe teacher pay as "comparable" between the two countries. One article reported pay in Finland as $45-80/hour.
Adjusting for cost of living and price differences between the countries, one panelist stated that a Finland teacher's salary had twice the purchasing power, vs. a Forbes article that stated it had half the purchasing power of a US teacher's salary. A typical class load in Finland is 18-20 students.
Testing is infrequent. Homework is less. But, beyond the numbers, what becomes strikingly apparent in researching Finland, is that the Finnish people as a whole make high quality education a cultural value with all the players on board. The citizenry share responsibility for ensuring that the system works. Most students expect to go to school to learn, and most respect their teachers. Parents emphasize the importance of education to their children and support the teachers. Teachers are highly competent, dedicated, trustworthy, innovative, and emphasize how to think and learn in what is seemingly a pleasant work environment. Politicians and bureaucrats do not micromanage, and stay out of the way of what works. Pandering to special interests for votes and funds does not seem to supersede the goal of maintaining quality education. According to Finland's Minister of Education, unions share the same goal. The smaller collective of teachers works to promote the advancement of the larger collective (i.e., the children and the society as a whole.) Professionalism and excellence in education is a priority of the culture.
Numbers do not always tell the whole story. Some numbers have likely changed since the release of the films. Perhaps important numbers were not included. But the data presented were profound, and allowed for some summary that is not pure opinion or emotion. For the full emotional impact, the films dramatize the devastating toll on individual families, dedicated professionals, and heroic educational reformers (who make monumental efforts to confront a "system with infinite power to resist and defeat reforms.")
It was suggested by one individual at the forum, that many who would seek reform are motivated by profit and are attempting to capitalize on the billions of dollars flowing into the system. As in the rest of life, perhaps some are. But when you consider the backgrounds of those interviewed and involved in the film, objective people will conclude that the nonpartisan "agenda" of these reformers is to sound the alarm and seek meaningful solutions on what appears to be a serious national crisis in American education. We can no longer afford to sugarcoat the issue and tinker around the edges of reform. We can no longer accept bureaucratic solutions like devising and distributing manuals, containing the correct jargon, that often serve merely to give the appearance of seriousness. Substantive change, not rhetoric, is what matters now.
A member of the audience asked if tenure existed in FL? The response was that it did not. In the spirit of full disclosure, Reuters indicates that only recently, in March 2011, did the FL Governor sign a law such that, "Teachers hired after July 1, 2014, will work under annual contracts instead of receiving tenure after three years. Existing teachers could opt to stay in the seniority- based system or have the ability to earn more money by shifting to annual contracts." The article indicates that the Governor and the Legislature were "pitted" against the largest teachers union in the state. The film states, "What reformers will tell you, under their breath, is that the biggest obstacle to real reform is the contract with the teachers union which ties their hands."
I do not believe that teachers have an easy job. Likely, some reform efforts add to their angst. I believe that those teachers who promote excellence in the classroom are national treasures and deserve to be compensated accordingly. They deserve our utmost respect and gratitude. They should be given more authority. They should be alleviated from the burden of excessive and ineffectual regulations and paperwork, that the bureaucracy puts in place to give the illusion of dealing with problems. But data, like those presented in the film, actively and justifiably invite attempts to impose higher standards and strict accountability. The data, and the human toll illuminated, absolutely scream for serious intervention.
I respect the desire to avoid "acrimony" in this debate, but the issue pleads for some passion and determination. To quote Bill Gates, towards the end of the film, "You know the status quo can be changed. But it takes a lot of outrage, and a lot of good examples, leading people to say, 'Yes. We can do this. We control that this is different.'" Many of us come to Boca Grande to relax, play, and imbibe. But if you can stomach a bit of intense outrage, on a topic that has vast implications on poverty in America, on racial disparity, on jobs, on the economy, on prosperity, and on the plight of some of our most vulnerable citizens, please see the films! More than "something worth talking about," it is something worth acting upon. If you believe the statement, "Our children are our future," then when it comes to reform, "We can't wait!"
To inspirational little Daisy from L.A. (and to the countless children who share similar dreams); I laud your aspirations, I celebrate your beautiful spirit, and I wish that I could make your voice heard beyond reiterating your plight in my little neck of the woods.
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