October 24, 2010

“Waiting for Superman” Exposes Public Education Gaps, Features Rhee ’92

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In 2020, there will be 123 million high-skilled, high-paying jobs in America, but only a projected 50 million citizens will have the technical skills to fill the positions. According to director David Guggenheim, this statistic is one of many pointing towards a failing public school system that perpetuates racial and socioeconomic inequalities, a topic he explores in his newest documentary,  Waiting for Superman

The film, which was shown this past weekend at Cinemapolis through the African Latino Asian Native American Students Programming Board’s 2010 Race in Education Series, chronicles the experience of five children across the country trying to achieve academic success despite attending inadequate public schools with unqualified programs and teachers.

The impact of these shortcomings is a general trend of underachievement in America’s schools. Despite a 123-percent increase in per-pupil education spending in the U.S. from 1971 to 2006, national reading test scores have not changed, according to the film.

Additionally, the U.S. ranked 25th in math literacy out of 30 developed countries in 2006, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Guggenheim’s documentary argues that inadequate teachers are to blame for these statistics.

Education reformer Michelle Rhee ’92 is featured prominently in the film, discussing how tenure and teachers unions often stand in the way of removing corrupt and incapable school administrators and officials.

Rhee, the former chancellor of D.C. public schools, is best known for her controversial approach to education reform that lead to hundreds of teachers being fired, dozens of schools being closed, and a quarter of all school principals being replaced, including the principal of her own children’s school, according to a 2008 Newsweek article.

These cuts resulted in backlash from teachers unions who felt their job security was being threatened. As a compromise, Rhee offered D.C. teachers a merit-based salary nearly double their current earnings if they gave up their tenure, but the teachers union refused to vote on this issue, according to the film.

“There is a complete and utter lack of accountability for the job that we’re supposed to be doing, which is producing results for kids,” said Rhee in the documentary, adding that when it comes to our school system, “it all becomes about the adults.”

Rhee recently announced her resignation as chancellor on Oct. 13 after her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, lost re-election in the Democratic primary. Fenty’s probable Democratic successor, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray, endorsed her decision, according to the Associated Press.

According to Prof. John Sipple, education, Rhee’s push for greater accountability for school officials has lead many to accuse her of “dismantling the ‘public’ school,” since local teachers are traditionally hired to teach in the districts.

“This [backlash] has led to an increase in political support from some in and out of the education system, but also a great loss of support from local community members who don’t like that D.C teachers are being replaced with a new crop of teachers not from the area,” said Sipple, who argues that this rejection of Rhee’s policies is what ultimately led to Fenty’s loss.

Since Rhee’s resignation, there has been much dispute over whether the long-term impact of her policies will be positive or negative and if her work will be continued under a new Republican chancellor.

“Time will tell whether there is a return to past priorities or if indeed the tide has changed, and the needs and interests of children will outweigh the needs and interests of a local work force,” Sipple said.

Carl Ferkinhoff grad, who worked at one of the failing schools featured in Guggenheim’s film through Teach For America, said he believes that other political figures and educational activists lack Rhee’s unwavering commitment to reform and therefore, D.C. school policies might revert back to their old ways.

Despite this assertion, Ferkinhoff believes that Rhee’s approach still has its faults and that Guggenheim’s documentary portrays her as “too much of a hero,” with teachers unions as merely inhibitors of reform. However, he believes that Rhee’s policies may be used as a jumping off point for future educational policy changes.

According to Ferkinhoff, Baltimore school districts have attempted to enact a similar merit-based pay option for teachers who give up tenure. However, the contract was developed jointly between the school district and the same national teachers union that presented resistance in D.C., unlike Rhee’s proposal.

“I think the number one issue facing the school system is the cacophony of voices, opinions, and interests in the public school system that exist,” Ferkinhoff said. “We know what needs to be done so that even the students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds can achieve the highest level.”

Ferkinhoff emphasized the political difficulty of enacting effective education reform.

“But implementing the reforms requires many different people — from teachers to parents, and unions to politicians — to come together and agree,” Ferkinhoff continued. “Building this consensus and singular vision is what is going to be challenging.”

Original Author: Samantha Willner