Monday, March 14, 2011

'Superman's' Frankenstein Comes To Life

Last year, even as education reformers all across the country were turning cartwheels in celebration of Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” I remained skeptical. I’ve been keeping tabs on the teacher unions for years, and understand how they work hand-in-glove with the Democratic Party. Since Guggenheim is a well-known liberal (who famously directed Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”), I was certain that “Superman” would tiptoe around the destructive influence Big Labor has on the education system.

Last fall, during some down time on a business trip to New York City, I finally gave in and bought a $13 ticket at a Times Square movie theater to watch "Waiting for 'Superman.'" I was pleasantly surprised.

I’d gone in expecting Guggenheim to make excuses for the state of public education. Instead, Guggenheim grabbed the whole thing by the throat and didn't let go.

He told stories of children who were victimized by a system that puts adults first. He told of union campaign contributions that go to politicians who, in turn, act as the teacher unions’ political puppets. He showed rowdy union rallies and rubber rooms and classrooms that were out of control.

I marveled that a mainstream (liberal) movie maker was exposing the sorry state of public education and the destructive nature of the well-heeled teacher unions.

Needless to say, Guggenheim’s film did not play well with the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. They set up websites to attack his film. They dispatched high profile speakers around the country to fight back. And they cheered when Guggenheim was snubbed out of a nomination for another Oscar.

I have first-hand experience of how vicious the left’s attacks can get, so I can only imagine how they treated one of their own who had dared to step out of line.

Are these attacks the reason Guggenheim is starting to pull his punches?

In a recent conference call with film watchers, Guggenheim was asked his opinion of the goings-on in Wisconsin. Perhaps forgetting his film's content about union contracts and union priorities, he called collective bargaining an "essential principle." He even went so far as to say that he feared the "pendulum could swing too far the other way and employees could be treated the way they were in the industrial era."

Huh? The idea of a public employee in a sweat shop is laughable. This is nearly as ridiculous as the president of the Michigan Education Association recently saying it’s beginning to look like “the slave days.” If they don't like how they're being treated, they can go get a job in the private sector because things are *so* much better there.

I’m beginning to wonder if Guggenheim is just a naïve Hollywood filmmaker who thought he was doing a community service by pointing out the shortcomings of public education. Perhaps he didn’t realize that he was taking on the power base of the Democratic Party – that the toes he was stepping on are protected by steel toed boots.

“Superman” correctly identified collective bargaining as a serious problem in public education. That’s how schools get saddled with three hundred-page contracts that are chock full of provisions about salary schedules (which reward years of employment instead of effectiveness), lavish health insurance and pension benefits, sick day pay outs, paid time off to conduct union business. . . on and on it goes.

(In Michigan and Wisconsin, the teacher unions even have it written into their collectively-bargained teacher contract that the school district will buy health insurance from a company owned by the teacher union!)

Guggenheim was right to make unions the villains of his film. But now that he’s starting to backpedal about collective bargaining, he’s getting heat from the reform community. There’s a bit of a mutiny on the “Waiting for ‘Superman’” Facebook page. The comments are decidedly opposed to Guggenheim's view, with some supporters going so far as to say they'll no longer promote the film.

Perhaps they'll gravitate towards "Kids Aren't Cars," a film series that pulls no punches and shows the ugly impact collective bargaining has had on American public education.

While the cause of education reform has been around for decades, I believe it wasn't until this liberal's film came on the scene (along with the ugly state budgets) that the issue finally took center stage. Guggenheim's Frankenstein has come to life. He should be proud of that, but he’s starting to waver.

My advice for Guggenheim: re-watch your film and don't go wobbly on us now.


It's poor kids who are betrayed by Britain's State schools

By Katharine Birbalsingh

I’m talking with three black children at one of our top public schools. They are, from what I can see, the only black children there. They joined the school in September, two year 10s and one year 12. They have been given bursaries. They used to attend state schools in London. I know their schools. They are a mixture of good and excellent London state schools. I ask them what the main differences are between school in London and their new school.

“You’re learning all the time here. In London, you only learn in lesson time, and even then…”

I press them on this and it is clear that living on the premises and having lessons so much of the time makes a world of difference. That is something we simply cannot do in the state sector. So I find out more and ask them to compare lessons on their own.

In the end, each one says that what they learn in ONE lesson at this public school would take them three lessons in their good/excellent London state school. So their old classmates continue to learn ONE THIRD of what these lucky children are now learning regularly, thanks to their bursaries. I’m not surprised, but appearing astounded I ask them why.

“Behaviour.” One of the girls laughs in an embarrassed way, shaking her head. The other girl agrees. “Behaviour…the kids in London chat and mess about all of the time. But here they’re quiet and listen to the teacher.”

The boy however stays quiet as the girls tell me how the behaviour at this school is so good they cannot quite believe it. Finally the boy shakes his head. “I don’t think it’s because of the behaviour. Yes, that’s a problem. But it’s because in London, all they ever do is repeat the same things over and over. It’s boring.”

I raise my eyebrows. “You mean the teacher teaches you the same thing over and over again?”

The three of them nod. I look at the boy. “So why do you think your teachers in London do that?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s because they think we’re stupid.” He pauses. “No, I think it’s because they’re trying to make everyone the same. They’re trying to get everyone in the class up to the same level.”

I know exactly what he means, of course. All three children have hit the nail on the head. The behaviour is bad. The exams don’t judge the kids on their knowledge (on the whole) and emphasise skills. Schools and teachers are under pressure to tick league table boxes. But if you keep teaching the same knowledge over and over, it’s easy and it pacifies the children. Skills get taught well enough to tick the C box. The behaviour remains bad but the boxes get ticked.

I look at the boy. “So what do your friends think about you being here?”

He smiles. “They think I’m lucky. They wish they could be me.”

You bet they do. These children have been given the chance of a lifetime. While it is true that not all of our children can go to public schools, why on earth is it not possible that during lesson time, we might teach our children three times as much as they are currently taught? Because of our prejudice against the poor, that’s why. These kids can’t do it, we say. They’re black. They’re poor. They live on a council estate. Teach them five academic subjects? Impossible! Get them interested in learning about Shakespeare? Impossible! Better to let them rot.

Am I wrong to want ALL of our children to have something similar to this public school?


Demand for a Catholic education has been growing in Wales

There are more than 2,300 Catholic schools in England and Wales, educating around 800,000 pupils and employing 40,000 teachers.

In fact, faith schools are enjoying a boom in many European countries and international research suggests their popularity is based on their ability to outperform secular schools.

Last year’s papal visit gave the Western world’s oldest institution a welcome boost and triggered a celebration of Catholic education in the UK.

Organisers hope a series of events taking place across the academic year will help promote the achievements of its schools.

Dr Martin Price, vice-chairman of the Archdiocese of Cardiff Schools Commission, said Catholic education is often misunderstood. “Our individual schools have a good profile in their communities, but the context in which they operate is less well-known,” he said. “Our schools are some of the most successful in Wales and are constantly at the forefront of Assembly Government strategies, whether on academic, well-being or ethical lines. They are non-selective and have a full range of social, ability and ethnic mix.”

Catholic schools make up around 5% of all those in Wales, with 15 secondary and 80 primary from Anglesey to Newport. Schools are voluntary-aided and receive the same revenue funding as any state school. Their day-to-day running is the same as any other maintained by the local authority, though the church, with contributions from the Catholic community, provides 15% funding for all capital projects.

Dr Price said that with the majority of Catholic schools oversubscribed, governors had to adhere to a strict oversubscription criteria. “Each Catholic school has its own admissions criteria and there are forms to fill in and register with the local authority,” he said. “Normally, we would look at Catholics local to the area first. Then we would look at children who are members of another Christian denomination and why they have chosen that particular school.”

Dr Price said that with a wider catchment area, there are varying numbers of Catholicism in school intake across Wales. But with Catholic pupils from the Philippines, Eastern Europe and India, schools are well-placed to cater for children of all faiths.

According to Dr Price, an influx of Catholic pupils from overseas has contributed to the rise in demand for its education provision. He said: “There was a point 10 years ago when our schools would have been predominantly white. That’s not the case now and immigration has played a part.

“People coming to this country don’t realise that our schools are free. In many parts of the world, Catholic education is independent from the state and parents have to pay.”

The performance of Catholic schools is traditionally very high, though the advent of a faith-based education is not to everyone’s liking. The National Secular Society opposes what it considers a “disproportionate influence of religion in our education system” and teaching unions have passed votes calling for faith schools to be abolished.

Dr Price vehemently opposed suggestions that Catholic schools “indoctrinate” their children. “It’s not about indoctrinating children in church doctrine. It’s about putting into practice moral judgements,” he said. “All schools will try and implicate moral values and it’s to do with ethos and trying to live out the faith. We explain the position the church takes on things.”

Religious education accounts for around 10% of lesson time and is part of the core curriculum in Catholic schools, with English, Welsh, maths and science. But a greater focus on RE by no means detracts from other subject areas. A study compiled by the Catholic Education Service showed that in every category assessed, Catholic schools achieved better results than the average for all state-funded institutions.

Inspectors judged 79% of Catholic secondary schools to be “good” or “outstanding” overall, compared to an average of 64% for all secondaries nationally. Among Catholic primaries, 79% were rated good or outstanding, higher than the average of 68% across the country.

Standards of classroom discipline and moral development among pupils were also far better in Catholic education, with fewer exclusions than in typical state schools.

Anne Robertson, diocesan director of schools in Cardiff, said: “We’re not perfect and have issues like everyone else, but the overall picture is quite good. “The Catholic Church is all about forgiveness and our schools try very hard to see how they can work with certain individuals. “It’s not just the academic standards but often the pastoral care that’s important. We see that as fundamental to what we’re trying to do.”

As co-ordinator of schools in the Cardiff Archdiocese, Ms Robert- son is charged with meeting demand for Catholic education in 10 local authorities, including Blae-nau Gwent and Monmouthshire. “To build a new secondary school would cost at least £20m and the Archdioceses would have to find around £3m of that. So we may need to consider other options such as expansion on existing sites.”

Looking to the future, the Catholic Church is hoping to build on the successful visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the UK and make policy makers in Cardiff Bay more aware of its work in the community. Dr Price said: “On a local level we’re very good, but from a national level we need to let [Education Minister] Leighton Andrews know we exist. “We need to be blowing our own trumpet that we’re doing things right and we want to influence Assembly thinking. “There’s a lack of understanding about what we do and that’s partly our fault because we haven’t told them,” he added.


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