Chicago teacher strike poses test for unions

If the Chicago Teachers Union loses its fight with the district, it could have ripple effects around the country. (Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

The massive teacher strike in Chicago offers a high-profile test for the nation’s teacher unions, which have seen their political influence threatened as a growing education reform movement seeks to expand charter schools, get private companies involved with failing schools, and link teacher evaluations to student test scores.

The unions are taking a major stand on teacher evaluations, one of the key issues in the Chicago dispute. If they lose there, it could have ripple effects around the country.

Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are “a bit weaker,” said Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank. “They are playing on more hostile terrain, and they are facing opponents the likes of which they have not had to face before.”…Read More

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Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he was optimistic the Republican election victories wouldn’t derail the administration’s plans, but conceded: “There’s no guarantee our agenda will continue to move.”

The controversial documentary film Waiting for ‘Superman’ has shined a national spotlight on the need for school reform, while sparking intense debate over how best to achieve this goal.

The film portrays teachers’ unions as the primary obstacle to reform, and it espouses fixes—such as using test scores to measure teacher quality, and merit pay to encourage better teaching—that are contentious issues. Critics of the film say it provides a shallow view of the problems plaguing public education while ignoring other challenges altogether.

Paul Heckman, associate dean of the School of Education at the University of California, Davis, said teachers have come to represent both the unit of change and the unit of blame in education.…Read More

Opinion: This ‘Superman‘ doesn’t fly

Nowhere in the film do viewers learn what the concerns of unions are—and so the dialogue it purports to want to start about improving U.S. education can't even get off the ground.

(Editor’s note: This is a slightly longer version of the Default Lines column from the Nov./Dec. issue of eSchool News.)

As a strong supporter of American public education, I don’t know what’s more depressing: that the film Waiting for ‘Superman’ is so bad, or that so many critics have heaped such high praise upon it. But—given our propensity for solutions to complex problems that can fit neatly on a bumper sticker, in a pull quote, or in a seven-second sound bite—I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.…Read More

Viewpoint: Is Superman the conversation we need?

A new film has intensified the school reform debate.

It’s hard to look away from the small, vulnerable faces of the children whose educational odysseys are highlighted in the movie Waiting for Superman. It’s hard not to sympathize with the fiercely protective, yet politically powerless parents who struggle mightily just to get their children a high-quality education. It’s hard to not want to join the parade of mad-as-hell viewers as they stream out of theaters, grab their torches en route to their local teachers union headquarters, and sprinkle rose petals on the doorsteps of every charter school they pass along the way.

Ok, perhaps the movie’s social action agenda is a bit more nuanced than that. But certainly, director Davis Guggenheim can forgive a little overstatement in order to make a point. He’s the one who claims, after all, that education spending has doubled since 1971 while performance flatlined, without considering the advent of special education laws and an increase in ELL populations and expectations for achievement. The movie longs for the good old days when U.S. education was the best in the world, without considering how content U.S. communities were with low expectations and low achievement for low-SES populations. The movie points to the 2,000 schools that Bob Balfanz called “dropout factories” to depict a “nationwide crisis in education” without mentioning that all but a few of those schools are in impoverished urban and deep rural areas where students’ challenges go well beyond academic—and well beyond the reach of schools to resolve. But we’ll cut him some slack. He’s making a Hollywood film, and in racing from Oprah to Good Morning America to NPR, who has time for nuance?

The truth is we agree with many of the points the film makes. We agree, for instance, that a small subset of persistently bad teachers indeed denigrates the whole profession. No one knows this better than the nation’s principals who often feel hogtied by policies that make it onerous, though not impossible, to dismiss ineffective teachers. And perhaps it is time to revisit tenure policies to temper a burden of proof with a burden of performance. Of course, it’s also true that the effectiveness of a single teacher is extremely difficult to isolate and measure—presuming we can even agree on the outcomes—so hammerlike methods, such as those of the film’s heroine D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, probably merit a more critical look than they receive.…Read More

Despite image, union leader backs school change

In “Waiting for Superman,” the new education documentary, the union leader Randi Weingarten is portrayed, in the words of Variety, as “a foaming satanic beast,” the New York Times reports. At a two-day education summit hosted by NBC News recently, the lopsided panels often featured Weingarten on one side, facing a murderer’s row of charter school founders and urban superintendents. Even Tom Brokaw piled on. It’s nothing personal, really. Weingarten happens to be the most visible, powerful leader of unionized teachers, and in that role she personifies what many reformers see as the chief obstacle to lifting dismal schools: unions that protect incompetent teachers. A combative labor leader who does not shrink from the spotlight, Ms. Weingarten has been fighting back. She issued a written rebuttal to “Waiting for Superman,” and she has publicly debated the film’s director, Davis Guggenheim, arguing that teachers have been made scapegoats. More to the point, the portrait of Weingarten as a demonic opponent of change — albeit one more likely to appear in a business suit and cashmere V-neck sweater, with a Cartier Tank watch and a red kabbalah string around her wrist — is out of date, according to many education experts…

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Opinion: Stop trashing teachers!

Obama’s misguided policies and the overhyped documentary Waiting for “Superman” have turned America against its teachers, education expert Diane Ravitch writes for The Daily Beast—and this vitriol is dangerous to public education. “For the past week, the national media has launched an attack on American public education that is unprecedented in our history,” Ravitch writes. “NBC devoted countless hours to panels stacked with ‘experts’ who believe that public education is horrible because it has so many ‘bad’ teachers and ‘bad’ principals. The same ‘experts’ appeared again and again to call for privatization, breaking teachers’ unions, and mass firings of ‘bad’ educators. … None of these approaches works.” Ravitch notes that privately managed charter schools, on average, don’t get better results than regular public schools—and the claim that tenure is a guarantee of lifetime employment “is a canard. Professors in higher education get lifetime tenure, but teachers in K-12 schools do not have lifetime employment: They have the right to due process if the principal wants to fire them.” If educators teach children who are poor, have disabilities, or don’t speak English as their native language, they will not see large test-score gains, Ravitch notes, adding: “So, the result of this approach—judging teachers by the score gains of their students—will incentivize teachers to avoid students with the greatest needs. This is just plain stupid as a matter of policy.” Declaring war on teachers and principals “is ridiculous, outrageous,” she concludes. “No nation in the world—certainly not Finland—has improved its education system by belittling and firing teachers and principals. People who know nothing about education and whose ideas have no basis in research or practice are calling the shots. Left to their own devices, they will destroy public education.”

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‘Waiting for Superman’: A simplistic view of education reform?

“Waiting for ‘Superman,’” which opened Sept. 24 in New York and Los Angeles, has generated buzz for months in education circles. The film also offers a broad-brush indictment of America’s school system and teachers unions, prompting praise from reform advocates. Yet, in the eyes of some education observers, the movie oversimplifies the problems facing U.S. students and implies a silver-bullet fix for struggling public schools, reports the Christian Science Monitor. “It gives the reform community something to rally around … but I do worry that … it makes [the issues] more about sentiment than about understanding,” says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “I don’t just want people to like charters or support merit pay. I want them to understand what problems we’re trying to solve and how we can do charter schooling or merit pay in smart ways.” The documentary’s title comes from a story told by Geoffrey Canada, who founded the Harlem Children’s Zone to offer cradle-to-college services and charter schools to some of New York’s most disadvantaged kids. When his mother told him as a kid that his beloved Superman hero wasn’t real, he was devastated to think that no one was strong enough to save him and his friends from their Bronx ghetto. But many observers criticize the film’s focus on charter schools, and they say it paints a black-and-white picture of reformers such as Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee (hero) and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten (villain)…

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