Saturday, May 21, 2011

Waiting for the meantime, there's Kasich.

Last night I attended a screening of the documentary, "Waiting for Superman," hosted by Governor John Kasich and former D.C. Schools Chancellor, Michelle Rhee.  As we pulled up to the Cleveland State University Student Center we saw about a dozen protesters in front of the building.  I caught a glimpse of an anti-SB5 sign as we drove by.  SB5 is Gov. Kasich's public union reform bill and there is no small amount of opposition to it.  

There was a palpable tension in the room.  It was clear that this was not a crowd packed with only partisan Kasich supporters.  Ohio Democratic Party leader Chris Redfern, always ready with a lengthy, rhetoric-laden critique said this:
“Taxpayer dollars should not be used to promote the agenda of charter school fat cats at an invitation-only event sponsored by the corporate backers of John Kasich’s anti-middle class policies. To say the least."
"Invitation-only event" might be stretching the truth a bit.  I received an e-mail about the event from Americans for Prosperity Ohio.  It said the event was free, but an RSVP was required.  I responded to let someone at Gov. Kasich's office know that I would be attending and added my son's name as well, though he hadn't technically been invited.  Not a problem.  Then, at 4:45, right before the event, I sent another e-mail adding my son's girlfriend.  Again, not a problem. They even managed to have a name tag ready for her when we arrived at 5:45!  So it was clearly not a closed event, though the invitations may have initially been sent to those supportive of school choice. 

The movie "Waiting for Superman" follows the saga of several children trapped in failing public schools in some of the poorest, most crime-ridden cities in the U.S. These children are in desperate circumstances: Daisy, Emily, Francisco, Bianco, Anthony.  Unlike my children, who have had every advantage in life, these children have futures that are bleak, hopeless.  

As we were being introduced to these children and getting a glimpse of the warehouses that pass for schools in their inner-city neighborhoods, the narrative was suddenly interrupted.

The union protesters thought this would be a good time to march through the halls shouting their anti-reform slogans.   It was very disturbing that while people inside the auditorium were in tears over the plight of the children pictured above, union activists were demanding that we maintain the system that is failing these precious children. 

Just as a side note, I have been very frustrated by the misinformation being spread about SB5.  It's not extreme.  It's not "busting the unions," it's not eliminating pensions for government employees, it's not eliminating "tenure" (continuing contracts) for teachers who currently have that status. If you haven't already done so, I would encourage you to read the American Policy Roundtable's Frequently Asked Questions about SB5.  This non-partisan guide answers many of the questions that people on both sides of the issue have been discussing in a fair and non-emotional format.  Please share it with others.  

The movie was disturbing on so many levels.  It's heartbreaking that in the year 2011 we are still sentencing millions of children to spend their formative years in schools from which they will not graduate.   In one school, in the past 40 years, 60,000 students have passed through and only 40,000 have graduated.  What happened to the other 20,000?  

I was surprised to learn that the problems are not just in lower income,  inner-city schools.  Many affluent schools "track" students, meaning someone decides at a young age,  which children are college material and which are better suited for vocational school.  Those who are not deemed college material are put on a track that makes it almost impossible to later change tracks, sealing their fate at a young age.  They receive a far different education than their more academically gifted peers.  

The movie highlighted charter schools  and teachers with innovative solutions that were succeeding in the worst, most poverty-stricken areas of the country. But they've met with resistance from teachers unions and those who consider school reform - school choice - to be a turf war.  And the children pay the price.  It's disgusting and cruel to make these children enter a "lottery" for a 1/732 chance to attend a decent school.  No 2nd grader should have to suffer the fate of being labeled "not accepted" and forced to return to the dropout factory.  I'm in tears again just thinking about the sad faces of the children and the helplessness of their parents. 

Watch the trailer for the movie here:

After the movie, Gov. Kasich and Michelle Rhee answered questions from the audience.  The session was broadcast to screenings of the movie across the state.  

Michelle Rhee is a rock star.  Rhee, who is hated by the Left,  looked chic and beautiful in a tangerine dress.  She was featured in the movie as a tough innovator of the D.C. schools who was blocked at every turn by the powerful teachers unions.   Last night she proclaimed proudly that she was a life-long Democrat but insists that school reform and school choice is a bipartisan issue, saying, "I'm agnostic as to the delivery method."  In other words, she doesn't care how or where a child receives an education, as long as it's a good one.    If ever there was a bipartisan issue, this should be it.  

This was the first time I have heard Gov. Kasich speak in person.  He was very likable and passionate about this issue.  I mentioned that there was tension in the room.  When Kasich gave his opening remarks, it was obvious that some lines were designed to elicit applause from the audience.  Nothing.  Dead silence.  I was all ready to clap but got the same feeling I get in our Baptist church when I get the urge.....clap cramp.  It was an interesting group dynamic.  It was as if we sensed the tension, understood the powerful feelings of disagreement bubbling just below the surface, but somehow came to a tacit agreement that we would remain civil and polite. Somehow, "spiking the ball" at a Kasich applause line didn't seem appropriate.  Nor did booing.   While the rabble was roused outside, inside the auditorium it was a good moment for Ohio.  We were all there because we cared about children.

Whether or not you're a fan of Gov. Kasich, you have to give him credit for sticking his neck out and nearly exhausting the audiences' supply of questions.   It was about a 50/50 mix of questions from supporters of school choice and his reforms and from those opposed.  All were civil and polite.  He threw a good number of the questions to Michelle Rhee, who is clearly the expert on the topic.  Kasich stuck to the questions related to Ohio's specific reforms and those related to the union reforms and budget cuts.  He didn't flinch or back down, but stressed that he wanted to hear from teachers and work with them to create a fair way of evaluating them. 

An interesting tidbit that came out of the session was that Rhee convinced Kasich to include the performance pay for teachers in SB5.  He was going to scrap it, but after some heated debates with Rhee, realized it was necessary for true reform.  

At the end, everyone stood and gave Gov. Kasich and Michelle Rhee a round of applause.  I heard people around me, who didn't seem inclined to agree with Kasich on much, expressing their approval for the event and Kasich's demeanor.  I don't think he made any (new) enemies and probably gained a few (perhaps reluctant) supporters.  And if anyone came away from that movie not wanting to fight for school choice,  they are completely heartless.  


Mark said...

Pretty good read, Paula. You have a way with words. It is beyond belief that the teachers unions would be so self-preservating on this, but what does any sane person expect? I think the teachers unions are being called out in smart fashion right now and they're on their heels. I think that's why we saw the events in Wisconsin and that's why it will get even more animated here in Ohio, before a final vote on SB5. I usually resist the urge to get emotional on documentaries, since that's kind of a calculated purpose of them, but a human being could not resist feeling extremely sorry and sympathetic for those young people, and their parents.

Mrs. Susan Nolan said...

How many countries see their best and brightest attending American colleges to be doctors, engineers, and researchers? More than most of us would expect.

Why is that? Obviously, they want creative thinkers and problem solvers. Not people who can fill in a bubble on a standardized test.

Most American children spend 15% of a calendar year in the classroom. With the efforts to include value-added data in teacher evaluations, we are going to see more of that precious class time taken up with test preparation. Who can blame the teachers? If half of their evaluation (H.B. 153 in Ohio) is going to be based on test scores, then obviously they will focus on teaching to the test.

The rhetoric blaming the big, bad teachers' unions is getting old. Let's see what happens when 5-10 years down the road, the teachers' unions have lost their clout and education (public or charter) is in even worse shape.

When kids cannot think creatively or problem solve, but just fill in bubbles on answer sheets, our country is going to be in big trouble. Then who will be blamed?

Waiting for Superman is a very slanted, emotional look at a handful of successful charter schools. Is it mentioned anywhere that many charter schools are failing? Where are the examples of the numerous public schools that are achieving great success with teacher-union backing?

If we are going to reform education, we need to get it right. We cannot afford to spend more money getting it wrong.

Paula said...

Mrs. S.N....Thanks for your comment. You make some good points and I agree with a lot of them. I'm not a fan of standardized tests or teaching to the test. While tests can be of some value for some students, they don't give a complete picture. I have one son who is a natural test-taker and another who always tests poorly, whether or not he has mastered the material.

Unfortunately, when you are dealing with millions of children and taxpayers are demanding accountability, it's hard to escape some kind of objective standard. In a perfect world, each student would receive an IEP-style academic assessment every year, but who has the time, right? : )

I disagree with you that countries are sending their best STEM students here because they are the most creative and the best problem solvers. On the contrary, countries like China prepare their students to be champion bubble-fillers. Read this article, for example, about the differences between the Chinese and the Western styles of education. For the Chinese, it's all about rote memorization and the result is 'teaching to the test' on steroids.

I don't think anyone is blaming all teachers. The problem is the bad teachers. I hope you will agree that there are some and that there needs to be a mechanism for assessing them and removing them so that students don't pay the price for their incompetence.

My husband works in the private sector, where, by the way, he doesn't get to negotiate for benefits or working conditions. Every year he receives a performance review based on his prior year accomplishments. It takes into account such things as meeting project deadlines, the quality of his projects, efficiency, productivity, attitude, and work ethic. If he's not performing, he's going to eventually be out of a job. His company can't afford to keep people on the payroll who diminish the quality of their product and thereby damage their reputation.

When I drop my son off at school and trust his education to a teacher, I need to know there is an evaluation process in place so that I can have confidence in the education he's receiving. That doesn't seem unreasonable to me.

Ultimately, what's important is that parents have a choice. They are the customers and they are responsible for determining what's best for their children. For some families that will mean the neighborhood public school. For others that will mean a charter or online school. For still others, homeschooling will be the answer. In the vast majority of cases, parents really do know best and we must respect that.

What we do know, without a doubt, is that these massive warehouse schools in inner-cities more often than not fail the children they are attempting to educate. Pouring more money into them has been tried and it hasn't work. The Newark, NJ public schools spend almost $14K per student and they're still the worst performing schools in the state.

Parents are begging for charter schools, private schools and any other alternative. Why should they not have the right to pursue the education that they feel would be best for their children? To protect teachers' jobs?

You said, "If we are going to reform education, we need to get it right. We cannot afford to spend more money getting it wrong.

I think we've been doing this for a very long time. I don't see why reform can only happen within the narrow confines of the public school system. While that is the right choice for some parents and there are a lot of great public schools (I send my son to one), there are also a of alternative schools that are innovating and revolutionizing education. Instead of fearing alternatives, I would love to see educators embracing these changes because they benefit students and families, who are demanding it.

Anonymous said...

In China, they have discovered the HARD way that their system is failing their national interests. Their students come out of school with NO critical thinking skills, no creativity to use when solving real world problems. Most all entering the work place require years of remedial work to over come this. China has turned it's back on what they used to be doing, what so many corporate powers who see our education system as a profit center are proposing. They made an easy decision, based on the evidence, to change direction. China is going to leave us in the dust if we let the deformers who spokes model Rhee is fronting for have their way.

Paula said...

Anon said, "In China, they have discovered the HARD way that their system is failing their national interests. Their students come out of school with NO critical thinking skills, no creativity to use when solving real world problems.

On the contrary, their system is highly successful at promoting China's national interests! Children are trained from a young age that their purpose in life is to serve the state. Training children in critical thinking would be completely counterproductive to that Communist system. Because of their highly industrialized society, they need to train factory workers, not innovators.

Anon said, "Most all entering the work place require years of remedial work to over come this"

Putting aside for a moment that a third of U.S. college students need to take remedial classes to be able to handle college work and 4 out of 5 of those had at least a 3.0 GPA in high school....

"China has turned it's back on what they used to be doing, what so many corporate powers who see our education system as a profit center are proposing. They made an easy decision, based on the evidence, to change direction.

I'm not sure what you even mean by this. China is and has been, since 1949, a Communist country. It's only been recently that they've begun to reform their education system. They've only had compulsory attendance since 1989 and they still have only an 80% literacy rate. Teachers in rural areas often have to farm on the side because the pay is so low. Check out the movie "Up the Yangtze" sometime to see the desperate circumstances in rural China. What does any of that have to do with "corporate powers," other than the fact that this nameless entity is always to blame for everything?

"China is going to leave us in the dust if we let the deformers who spokes model Rhee is fronting for have their way.

It's very frustrating to have discussions with people who insist on name calling.

China may very well leave us in the dust, but not because they have a superior education system - they don't. They are able to able to produce an impressive number of students who are able to ace our standardized tests and are super-students. But will they be the innovative thinkers, the creators, the people who invent things and the thinkers great and lofty ideas? Their education system and their culture are not designed to produce such students.

If they do leave us behind, it will because we are in debt up to our eyeballs to China.