This was written by Dr. Phil McRae, an executive staff officer with the Alberta Teachers` Association.This post first appeared on the Alberta Teachers` Association website.
By Phil McRae
The documentary Waiting for Superman has ignited a debate about educational reform in American public schools.
On one side (think right) of the debate, you’ll find so-called “New Progressives,” such as Bill Gates, Jeb Bush, Michael Bloomberg and Eli Broad. These wealthy men (educated in private schools and none of them teachers) are calling for increased standardization, narrow outcomes-based accountability and an increase in privately run, publicly funded charter schools, and they are throwing their power and money into achieving these things. In fact, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is donating US$2 billion in grants to redesign high schools and to evaluate teacher effectiveness to “help systematically uncover schools and teachers [that] are not performing” (Toronto Star, September 12, 2010).
Waiting for Superman, directed by Davis Guggenheim (who also directedAn Inconvenient Truth, a 2006 documentary about former US Vice-President Al Gore’s campaign to educate people about global warming) is highly critical of some American teachers and their professional associations. The film emphasizes high school dropout rates and the failure of many children to get a good education, but it does not document the damage done by No Child Left Behind legislation, which has narrowed curriculum and increased standardized testing, nor does it show how competition between schools is really about a race to improve their test scores. Furthermore, to blame teachers for what are essentially political and societal problems is grossly unfair. Many politicians seeking to appeal to their electorate seek the easy solution and blame teachers for the problems facing today’s schools. This documentary and the firing of more than 70 classroom teachers at a so-called “low-performing” high school in Central Falls, Rhode Island, clearly show how educators can become scapegoats in times of economic insecurity.
Countering the movement to blame teachers are proponents of education—such people as Yong Zhao, Andy Hargreaves, Linda Darling-Hammond, Dennis Shirley and Dianne Ravitch—who are calling for less high-stakes testing and standardization and more fostering of creativity in schools, nurturing of diversity and talent, and development of global and digital competencies within school communities.
The US is reeling from economic decline, ever widening income disparity and a shrinking middle class. It’s a nation polarized on educational policy and principle and is struggling to prosper in an age of globalization. Many of the reforms advocated in the documentary are fuelled by politicians’ and business elites’ fear of emerging economic powers, such as China and India.
Lesley Chilcott, the producer of Waiting for Superman, stated at the Toronto International Film Festival in September: “Use us as a warning sign here in Canada … my understanding is things are starting to slip here.” Though one does well to be vigilant, at present, Alberta is working to better the education system in positive and progressive ways. Alberta’s path to educating confident and capable people should be characterized by cultivating creativity, cherishing individual talents, focusing on diversity, fostering global competencies and de-emphasizing test-based accountability regimes. Such a path is diametrically opposed to the trajectory of educational reform efforts in the US. At least in Alberta, we have a different conversation (at present) about public education and teachers. Education Minister David Hancock, in his letter to Albertans on October 5, 2010, stated: “The teaching profession should be valued above all by our society and community.”
The New Progressives may well destroy the US public education system (and many good teachers with it). If the US continues its relentless privatization of education, it will be left behind as a deeply divided and uneducated nation. The US is experiencing a cultural crisis and is looking for direction—let’s hope it looks beyond the naïveté of Guggenheim’s documentary.