As I began writing this article, my original intent was to write a simple movie review of Waiting for Superman, but quickly realized there was much more I wanted to say. When educator Geoffrey Canada was a little boy, he was saddened to discover that Superman was not real, because it meant that no one was going to come and “save us.” Canada grew up to have some slight delusions of grandeur himself – particularly when he expected to “fix” the educational system in the US in one or two years, a feat even Superman would likely find daunting. What we have at our disposal, of course, is not Superman, but rather several variations of Clark Kent.
Don’t get me wrong, Clark Kent is a nice guy. And if I were looking for some good company and dinner and a show, I’d pick Clark every time. However, Waiting for Superman as a film showcasing the problems in the US public school system doesn’t completely fly. The film follows various families trying to get their children into coveted charter school spots. There are far more applicants than openings, so in order to be fair, the students are chosen by lottery.
The movie, however, oversimplifies the problem. It blames the problem almost solely on Teacher’s Unions and teachers too quickly getting tenure – a privileged position that makes it very difficult to fire them. Is this an issue? Absolutely. I’ve had a few frustrating moments discovering that my high school daughter has spent class time watching Finding Nemo or some other non-educational movie. But this is far from the only issue.
While I agree there should be accountability for teachers, as there is in any other job, I realize how to measure teacher success is not as simple as looking at the test scores of students. Part of the trouble is, very few of these teachers are Superman/Superwoman, and we shouldn’t expect them to be. But given the right tools and the right support, Clark Kent can do wonders.
For one, students pass through classrooms like ships in the night. By the time a student enters a classroom in high school they have had several other teachers of differing levels of talent. In the course of a few months, teachers are supposed to get to know these students, expand each student’s knowledge, be a mentor and a role model, improve the student’s test scores, and then in a few months the students move on to a new teacher and that teacher gets a new batch of kids to teach the same material, often in the same way.
In Waiting for Superman the focus was on kids whose parents were highly involved in their children’s education. As most of us know, this isn’t always the case. As a parent, I assumed there would be educational gaps, and my involvement consisted mainly of trying to close the gap by supplementing with extra workbooks, reading, trips to the Science Museum, etc.
With all the criticism of homeschooling, and the lack of socialization and the lack of training of the parents, home schooled kids have proven over and over to be at the top of the pack academically. Is it possible that teaching is about more than training and knowledge, but about having the opportunity to develop a vested interest in your students? After all, who has more vested in a child than their parents? And homeschooling parents get the extra bonus of filling some of the gaps in their own education as they teach the material to their own kids.
When my kids were in elementary school, they watched a cartoon called “Doug,” and in one episode the character Patty Mayonnaise starts “half-day home school,” where she goes to public school for math and science, and her dad teaches her English and Social Studies. As a parent, I longed for the “half day home school” option in my district. But any home school option was all or nothing. In fact, when I did home school my son in English over one summer, there were strict guidelines for “transferring” him from my “school” back to the regular high school.
For various reasons, not every parent is cut out to be a full time home school teacher – myself included. So in addition to looking at what is NOT working in the US school system, we need to look at what is working in both the successful charter schools, and successful educational systems around the world.
The educational “jury” has deliberated and determined that Finland is the country at the top of the educational heap. Superman does not even mention this. In fact, the practice of looking at what successful countries have done and are doing in their educational system seems to be a practice that is seriously lacking face time, as if learning from other countries will somehow make us “UnAmerican.” But Finland’s practices were examined, although briefly in a 2008 Wall Street Journal article by Ellen Gamerman, What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart.
Gamerman cites Finnish kids love of reading, their singular national language, English Language television shows with subtitles, forcing faster reading, and delayed translation of books (particularly the popular Harry Potter series) which forced fans to read these books in a second language. What Finns do not have is a lot of extra rules or a longer school day. A Finnish foreign exchange student points out some differences between the two countries. Classmates in the US did not seem interested in homework, essay questions on tests were rare and projects consisted on gluing things to posters. When the student returned to Finland, she wound up repeating the grade in order to re-establish her place in the Finnish system.
However, Gamerman notes that trying to outright copy the Finn’s would pose some challenges. Although Finnish teens have a lot of the same time-wasting, rebellious habits as American teens, Finland is not America. For one it does not have the language and cultural diversity America has. It is extremely rare for a Finnish child not to know Finnish, however 8% of American children are learning English at school.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t get some takeaways from the Finn’s success. Finnish teachers are paid salaries that are comparable to what American teachers earn, yet they have more responsibility when it comes to their own continued education. For starters, all teachers must have Master’s Degrees, many have PhDs. Graduate students have much of the interaction with the students while they are evaluated by the instructors. Finnish teachers also have more freedom to design their curriculum than American teachers.
What Finn’s don’t have is extra class time or programs for the gifted. They don’t have constant standardized testing. Kids with greater natural ability are expected to assist those who struggle. While most Finnish kids do go to college, there is not the competition to get into good schools – there’s no “Finnish Harvard.” College is free, so there is also not the financial pressure that American kids and there parents feel when high school graduation approaches. Finnish culture also does not adopt the “Vo-Tech” stigma that American Culture does, but recognizes the value of each citizen to find their place in the society.
Waiting for Superman focuses largely on elements of successful charter schools such as KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), a system started by David Levin and Mike Feinberg in 1994 and Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), founded by Geoffrey Canada. Both of these systems focus on more school time, and a firm commitment to learning by parents, teachers, and students as well as efforts to improve the communities in which the students live. These programs boast their success comes in spite of a large portion of their students coming for a lower socio-economic background. At KIPP over 80% of students are from low income families, and 95% are African American or Latino. HCZ began as a pilot seeking to deal with community problems in a single block in Harlem, and has now expanded to 97 blocks. In both these charter systems, as well as the Finnish system, teachers are in a position to teach to a narrower demographic with policies that are developed based on the unique needs of the communities they serve.
The problems of the U.S. Educational system cannot be solved in a year or two, or even ten. We cannot point to one single issue; the teachers, the unions, the administration, the legislators, presidents, communities, etc. Education is a ball we’ve all dropped, and playing the blame game isn’t going to make it an easier to pick it up.
No one is going to write the miracle check that will fix everything and we will most likely not pass “No Child Left Behind 2.0” in order to save us all. There is no Superman. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
As Lois Lane could attest, Superman often had somewhere else to be, and something more important to do, while it was Clark Kent that remained steadfast and loyal, albeit with less flash. By empowering our “Clarks” to develop relationships with their students and teaching to the whole child and not just the test scores we can begin to move in the right direction and keep students, teachers, parents, and communities motivated and optimistic about the potential of education in the United States.
Open Education; Several Lessons to Be Learned From the Finnish School System
Waiting For Superman/ Educators
WSJ.com online; What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart