Sunday, October 17, 2010

Racing. Waiting.

I have to admit I am totally confused and frightened by two alarming and seemingly contradictory movies I have seen in the past month. “Waiting For Superman” which made me cry, and “Race to Nowhere” which also made me cry. Have you seen them?

“Waiting For Superman” is a moving, depressing and intelligent film which essentially paints the teachers unions as the major villains in our ineffective education system. It’s the teacher’s unions’ contracts requiring apparently immediate tenure for all teachers which keep terrible teachers teaching students. These terrible teachers leave kids barely literate and wanting to drop out of school as soon as possible. Who could blame them? I have suffered through terrible teachers. Although mine were few and far between. I remember the greasy ponytail of a young man assigned to teach me math in 9th or 10th grade. It was some sort of one year assignment, maybe he was a grad student. I don’t know. He was majorly inexperienced. I remember his glasses, a thin tortoise shell, the fluorescent lights tiny rhombuses reflected as he stared upwards. And how a model of a house I’d made for a project got totally smashed to bits in the trunk of his car. And I remember the sickening feeling of barely understanding the math he was mumbling into the chalkboard each day. I don’t remember any of the math. It was horrible. If this man had been entirely in charge of my education I would have become pretty desperate. But I went to a very well funded highly regarded public school with terrific teachers and I enjoyed school. “Waiting For Superman” shows it's pretty much a direct route from being placed in one of these “drop out factory” schools- schools full of teachers like this- to prison.

“Race to Nowhere” is a sad and shocking film about the pressure put on students to achieve academically at the expense of almost every other aspect of being human. The stressful overload of homework and after school activities inflicted on students is meant to keep children competitive for being accepted into college and ultimately into high paying careers. There is a section on tutors for toddlers to get into New York City preschools. But this film convincingly shows the overachievement culture is actually is a direct inhibitor to actual learning, a major contributor to serious depression, and actually causes poor test scores and lousy future college and job performance. One employer said that recent graduates are bad employees because they are always waiting to be told what to do.

What’s going on? Kids who live in neighborhoods with bad public schools drop out because they are stuck with teachers who don’t expect anything from them and can’t teach them, and kids who live in richer neighborhoods aren’t able to actually learn much either because too much is expected of them to the point where they are doped up on Adderall and cheating their way through medical school?

It seems that what everybody wants the educational system to do is more more more. The charter schools that the kids in Waiting For Superman are hoping to get into have better more inspired teachers, but also more hours of school work. One is even an elementary boarding school. One student it seemed, was having a hard time in his public school learning to read- but he was only in first grade. From what I know, historically it has been considered developmentally quite appropriate for a child to learn reading in the 2nd and 3rd grades and be considered quite normal and in fact may turn out to be ahead of other students in subsequent grades. Not to say this child's school wasn't awful, but not teaching him to read in 1st grade isn't by itself awful at all. However, it would be ludicrous to think, watching this movie, that those children are seeking out anything destructive in those charter schools- winding up in prison is destructive. It makes Race To Nowhere look downright silly.

But the confusing thing is, it wasn’t silly.

It seems we are lost as a country. The knowledge is there about effective ways to teach, and what’s healthy for children. But we can’t seem to provide that for anybody. What’s going on?

How about you? How was your school experience? Do you have children? What do you think of their schools? I’m lost.


  1. "waiting for superman" was depressing and stressful and not the most fun way to spend our saturday evening but i had a beautiful time with you love. home school co-operative???

  2. Hello Anne, I'm a first time commenter on your blog but I've been following your career since you appeared on one of my favorite episodes of Charmed when you had Piper's powers.

    As to this question about school experience, mine was a good one. I enjoyed pretty much all aspects of school, once I was challenged enough to not be bored. I'm lucky in that I was blessed to be born highly intelligent. I don't mean to sound as if I'm bragging because I obviously had nothing to do with the way I was born. But in kindergarten, which was 27 years ago for me, none of the other kids knew how to read and I did. So during the "quiet time" I got to go into the first or second grade class for reading.

    Now, my son has the same type of deal except that his entire second grade class has been broken up into reading groups and each level reads with a parent volunteer, the teacher, or another teacher of the same grade. And I love his school. He's getting a good education with less pressure. We're dealing with severe budget cuts and we lost 3000 teachers in the state of California alone, but we are persevering.

  3. My school experience was during what I consider the last glory days of the public school system. I was lucky enough to be in a family where fantastic academic examples were given to me (two doctor parents and an awesome and smart brother who also happened to be really cool) as well as the balance of extra curricular activities with academic pursuits. As I remember it, I only had one or two rather pitiful teachers, but I DO remember several teachers whose INDIVIDUAL attention in our classes really made a difference in helping us students to not only succeed but choose our own paths. Also, because learning was stressed over grades in my home, I found myself working very hard not just for the grades but also to really understand the concepts. I also did a lot of tutoring of my peers (WAY better than babysitting), which I think helped me understand the things I was studying more. But overall, what strikes me as confusing looking back is how I ended up being the one who was the most concerned about academinc pressure in my life when neither my parents nor even my teachers were really pushing me to succeed anymore than I already was. In a weird sense, I feel like BECAUSE I was less pressured by family and teachers, I was MORE interested in doing better.

    Which is a very long winded way of saying...oh CRAP, America, remember...these are KIDS. And kids respond to POSITIVE reinforcement a hell of a lot better than negative. Hell, ADULTS do. Did the fact that my parents told me to lighten up on a regular basis keep me from being an academic success? HARDLY. On the contrary, knowing I was loved (and respected by them and my teachers) even when I didn't place first was exactly what made me want to achieve more. If we stress the grades and the resumes and the college applications too much, we're going to have a country full of kids with 4.0 GPAs and no ability to actually USE their knowledge in the outside world.

    For someone without kids, I actually have a really strong opinion about this, I suppose. And it's why I have such respect for people raising children today...huge kudos to all of you for helping your little ones grown into big ones.

  4. First allow me to say I enjoy your work.

    In response to your blog ( I do not normally comment on blogs, I do however enjoy reading blogs) my wife is a high school science teacher and this is reality in a small town in Illinois. She has eighty two students in six classes per day (small class sizes). Of these eighty two students five are failing this semester. While it’s not a sizable amount failing it is still too many. As for the high school I attended.
    My freshman class was just over fourteen hundred students while we graduated just over nine hundred. (large drop out rate)

    Who’s to blame for all this?
    I can tell you this, my wife emails parents of students who are failing, she mails letters to the parents, sends notes home with students and these parents miss parent/teacher conferences. Too often parents are what is missing in a students education.
    My wife cares about these kids but, if the parents don’t care enough about their own childs education then these kids eventually stop caring about their education.
    Firing bad teachers needs to happen and while I do agree with that, parents have to take responsibility also.

    Eighty two students. 40% of her time is spent on the smart kids, another 40% on the disruptive students who either don’t want to be their or don’t care, that leaves 20% of her class time spent on the average C students.

    Thank You

  5. Wow, thank you for the comments! This is fascinating. Russ- YES. I do agree that parents DO have an incredibly strong influence in terms of children's education despite claims that peer influence starts to win out as children get older. There is a book I am reading now called "Punished by Rewards: The Problem with Gold Stars, A's and Praise" by Alfie Kohn. AB: this is very much what you were saying- the motivation to excel must come from within, it can't be forced upon students. It grows within through observing role models - (parents?), through experiencing the joy of discovery. I am going to write a blog about RIE pretty soon, because these are fundamental concepts to RIE. I think Piaget said "as soon as you do something for a child, you have robbed them forever of the joy of discovering it,"- or something along those lines- and I think that goes for mastering schoolwork- once you demand success you rob that student the joy of learning. The point of learning isn't to get placed on the best cog in the huge corporate machine, it's to develop into a thinking person whose talents have been discovered, and who can enjoy those talents, which have been nurtured by experts, for the rest of their life. Or something like that. Pryllie- I am so glad that your son is in a good school, and that you found that amazing balance of being challenged but not bored. What changed since we went to school?

  6. I'm only in college and I have noticed a change in education. Teachers are expecting more and more starting at a younger age. I took a bunch of AP classes in high school, and some of those were very demanding. AP English my senior year was just a lot to handle. Whether it was keeping up with the reading(we read 17 books including summer reading and the class was 90 minutes in the fall and 45 in the spring) or writing papers. I do feel that in some aspects college is a lot easier than the AP classes I took in high school, and maybe that is just because I was better prepared. It astounds me that lack of knowledge that some people do not have at my college. In my intro american government class, someone seriously asked what congress was. There seems to be this distinct break in the education of some and the education of others. Now I do not go to Standford or Yale or anything, I go to a state school in Texas, so I am not saying that I expected everyone to be geniuses or anything. But there are people who come into college not knowing basic knowledge.

    I was fortunate to go to a pretty good public school, but I still suffered from having terrible teachers. My spanish teacher one year spent 95% of the class complaining about one of her other classes. Yes it was fun at first to have a class where we didn't do much, but when it came down to tests, not so much. We took a test prepared by another teacher, one who actually taught, and the result was not pretty. I also had a precal teacher who ran through explaining things. If someone shouted out the right answer, she moved on. Unfortunately, I had two math geniuses in the class, so they shouted out the right answer, and the teacher moved on while the rest of the class was completely confused. I ended up with a C in that class, and it was my only C. It hurt my GPA, and nowadays GPA is everything when trying to get into college. I went to a high school with 891 kids int he graduating class, and if you weren't top ten percent, you didn't get into some state schools like UT and A&M. I took an honors math class my first year of college and got an A. It just shows that if the teacher doesn't do a good job teaching, the students' grades will reflect that.

  7. if you've not yet heard about this, you might want to look into it as well -Not Waiting for Superman, which questions some of the assumptions put forth in Waiting for..

    nothing simple or easy about any of it.

  8. Hi again Anne.

    Both of those films left me depressed about the state of education in this country. I'm 41 years old, married with no kids, a veteran, and I've worked at an institution of higher education full-time almost 16 years, and I'm also working on my BA in History on the side. I graduated high school in 1987 and I think I had a pretty good public school education. Though I had a math teacher who hated me and it affected my view of math for years afterwards.

    I've seen lots of problems for years but my solutions are too simple or so I'm told. In Florida there's a shortage of teachers and yet with the baby boomer teachers retiring, there's no budget to hire new ones. Also here in Florida they focus way too much on the FCAT as the sole determinant in how students are doing in school. Then there's the issue of kids spending way too much time on computers and not enough time outdoors (which is good for them!). School districts are cutting music and art programs, kids are being passed even though they can't write a decent essay. Both parents have to work more hours now and have less time with the kids. Uggh, it must be so hard to be a parent now. I know there are ways to solve these problems, we just have to come together on them and what happens is the powers that be always make this a political issue and thus nothing gets done.

  9. you and i are certainly raising our little ones in a strange time. The search for the "perfect" answer in ensuring our children will be successful in their future has never been more cut throat! i remember stopping off to have lunch with my folks after leaving the hospital with F....she was all of 4 days old, we struck up a conversation with a table of women celebrating theirs friends baby shower...3 of the women could not believe i hadn't put F's name on a waiting list for a private preschool!!!
    I think the biggest thing we can do for our children is, much like the philosophy you are already starting to follow, to let them just be children and explore/discover their outside away from the TV/computer....(don't get me wrong, sesame street has come in VERY handy on the mornings i need to get work done and their lunches packed!)
    our girls are both in a Montessori preschool just up the road, they ADORE everything about it. i did not put either on a list, i didn't have to wait to get them in or have them pass some ridiculous diagnostic test for entrance, i merely found a school with the diversity i was looking for and a philosophy of teaching i liked...
    i want my babies to be babies for as long as they want (unfortunately F. is like a 14 yr old trapped in a 4yr old body, i keep telling her she has to stop maturing so quickly!LOL)
    I SOOOOO agree with you about letting the child find and develop their talents, for that is what will keep them interested the longest and most likely, will find the most successful (i.e. rewarding)future.
    come over soon, lets bring our little stars together ok~~~

  10. Jess: "Then there's the issue of kids spending way too much time on computers and not enough time outdoors (which is good for them!)." Well said. This is a major problem, too I think, because boys especially need time to run and be physical, and when they don't have it, behaviour problems can develop, and these days, medication is the answer,. not fresh air.
    Marci: Oh, the wait lists for preschools in LA! I am glad you could avoid the list thing. I MUST see Fee soon- while she's still young! Maybe tomorrow...
    Janet: Ia m going to check that out right now.

  11. Annie--the comment about boys--I wanted to address that. I grew up in the 70'sand 80's--we played outside all the time. The boys were always outside doing something. My mom doesn't remember a time when boys were as big a disciplinary problem as they are now.

    I don't have to wonder why. They're NOT allowed to just do boy stuff and they have to get their energy out in other ways. This medicating of boys in an effort to curb their so-called bad behavior--bites.

    Do any of us remember kids needing to be medicated when WE were kids? I sure don't.

  12. Hey Annie

    It's Sarah Y, from NU. I'm actually doing student teaching in an NYC public school this semester.

    The more I experience education, the more skeptical I am of any one size fits all solution. I am a big Geoffrey Canada fan. But it's worth noting that only about 17% of charter schools actually outperform public schools; an NYT story discussed research that showed nearly 20% of them are significantly worse than the public schools serving the same population. Most of them are pretty much the same, despite having motivated students and parents and extended instructional hours.

    At the public high school where I am student teaching, 80% of the kids qualify for federal poverty assistance. Nearly 20% have learning or behavioral issues and require special ed services. 13% are English Language Learners who aren't proficient in English. Charter schools typically have about half of these percentages of populations that typically struggle with standardized testing.

    Every class I teach or observe is enrolled to nearly the maximum of 34 students. I hear from other student teachers about having to borrow desks from other classrooms between periods. At a charter school I visited, classes were about 10 kids, with two adults in the room.

    The budget at my particular school has been cut 45% since 2005. And the AP asked us to please, please, please be conservative with our photocopying, as the school can't afford to buy paper. For many teachers I know, their schools were simply out of paper in April of last year. My cooperating teacher says our school is better than her last job, because we actually have books. Her last school didn't even have those. My friend Wendy, who teaches in MA, was give two reams of paper. For the entire year. My cooperating teacher gets $150 for the year for supplies. She has 150 students everyday.

    I'm not in the UFT. I have met and observed some ineffective teachers in the public school system, but I haven't yet seen someone who truly didn't care and was just hanging out in the classroom. Certainly, there's room for reform (btw, at least in NYC, tenure takes at least 3 years to achieve). If you switch grades, you have to start the whole process over again. The teacher I'm working with has been teaching for 10 years and doesn't have it.

    What I have learned: it's much cheaper to require more tests and then blame teachers for bad results than it is to actually work to substantially lower classroom sizes, increase resources or really re-structure how we educate or to recruit and pay well a bunch of new highly qualified teachers if that's the real root of the problem.

    I think we have to ask if charters can fix a whole system - they are way more costly (if one looks at the private funding that matches the public money). There's also questions about oversight of that public money.

    anyhow, just wanted to add my perspective.