Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Neither real nor right

"Won’t Back Down" is a feel-good film about the power of a single individual, armed with a vision and a voice, to move a bureaucracy.....

The film addresses most of the right problems, with union bylaws and tenure protection at the top of the list. A teacher refuses to stay after school to help a dyslexic student with her reading; it turns out that teachers are actually prevented from staying after school by their union contract. An administrator responds to each complaint with the same tired phrase, “We are addressing that,” as a way to placate the parent while promising nothing. He acknowledges that tenured teachers can’t be fired for being poor teachers, so they are moved from school to school. Woe to the children who are stuck in their classrooms for an entire year!

(Years ago I complained about a teacher who showed movies almost every day, while she played games on the computer. When I told the administrator that she showed The Lion King that day, his face darkened. “Lion King??” he raged. “I told them they couldn’t show Lion King!” Then he shrugged and added, “I know she’s a lousy teacher. There’s nothing I can do. She has tenure.” And she was the department chair to boot. I moved my daughter to a private school. But many parents can’t afford that option.)

So why don’t more parents and teachers take over their failing schools? Time is the biggest deterrent. It usually takes three to five years to get through the process of gathering support, filing papers, writing a charter, hiring teachers, and selecting curriculum. By that time, most children will have moved on to middle school. It requires a person with genuine dedication to the neighborhood to be willing to go through this effort for someone else’s kids. In the film, one teachers’ union administrator complains cynically, “When students start paying union dues, I will start protecting the interests of children,” and he’s right about that. One of the biggest problems with the public school system is that the payer is not the recipient of the service.

Moreover, it takes skill and experience to teach a class or manage a school. That same union administrator suggests that having parents take over a school is “like handing over the plane to the passengers,” and to a certain extent, he is right about that, too. Consider the kinds of neighborhoods that harbor failing schools. Parents with good educations, good jobs, and good incomes will simply move to another neighborhood, or deposit their children in private schools, as I did. They are too busy earning a living to have time to run a school.

Nevertheless, this film ends with cheering crowds and a crescendo of violins. (But is it any surprise that they manage to succeed? In a matter of months? Does Secretariat win the Triple Crown?) But there is no true victory in this film. A charter school may be better than a failing public school, but it is still based on a failing premise: although they are run by parents and teachers, these are still government schools. Salaries are still funded by local property taxes, and students are still tested according to federal standardized guidelines. The film even ends with a rap version of Kennedy’s famous message: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” The first is socialism, the second is feudalism. Neither bodes well for creativity and individual success. Whatever happened to “Do what you can to take care of yourself”?

The biggest deterrent to good education — standardized testing — isn’t even addressed in this film. I could write a whole treatise on the unintended consequences of “No Child Left Behind.” We now have an entire generation of young people who have been taught that there is only one correct answer to any question: the one they have been spoonfed by the teacher. Creativity and innovation are rewarded with an F.

As for the teachers? They’re getting burned out too. I attended an early evening screening. Just before the film began, several groups of women walked into the theater. All of them talked to each other throughout the screening, looked at their cell phones, and went out to buy treats or visit the bathroom. I would have been more distracted, had I not been used to this kind of behavior; I’m a teacher. I interviewed these ladies after the show. You guessed it: most were teachers. They probably didn’t even realize that they were acting like their students.

Won’t Back Down is an earnest little film, one that is well intentioned but overlong and overacted. Viola Davis looks too tired to be a fighter; and Holly Hunter, normally such a fine actress, is particularly posed and affected in her delivery, her trademark speech impediment, and her gigantic hairstyle. Maggie Gyllenhaal does her best to ignite the enthusiasm of the cast in the same way her character tries to ignite the enthusiasm of the community, brightening her eyes and smiling until her face nearly explodes with goodwill. But it doesn’t work. At just over two hours, the film is 30 minutes too long for a story with no action and little suspense.

Moreover, although Won’t Back Down claims to be “inspired by true events,” it is neither true nor realistic. I couldn’t find a single actual case in which parents have successfully taken over a school under a parent-trigger law. Some have tried, but my research did not turn up any that have succeeded.

If you are genuinely interested in films about failing school systems and want to know how to fix them, I recommend two recent documentaries: Waiting for Superman (2010, directed by Davis Guggenheim) and The Cartel (2009, directed by Bob Bowdon).


Dumb professors think Pres. Emptyhead is smart

A survey conducted by the University at Buffalo School of Management that evaluated the leadership skills of President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney has found that Obama scored significantly better than Romney in most leadership categories and in overall leadership skill.

Jerry Newman, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor in the UB School of Management, conducted a nationwide survey of 250 professors specializing in American politics and the presidency. He asked them to rate the two presidential candidates using the 10 leadership dimensions that are at the heart of the School of Management's LeaderCORE™ program, a unique leadership certification for UB MBAs.

More than 100 professors responded, rating Obama and Romney on the 10 competencies of LeaderCORE: problem solving/decision making, global and diversity mindset, strategic thinking, team leadership, team skills, communication, interpersonal skills, integrity, results orientation and self-management/adaptability.

"We put the candidates under the same LeaderCORE lens that we use to assess our MBA students," says Newman, who initially conceived the LeaderCORE program. "The students then use the results to create their personal development plans."

The survey asked the professors to rate the candidates' skill level in the 10 leadership competencies on a scale of 1 (well below the average president) to 7 (well above the average president). They also were asked to rank the candidates for overall leadership using the same scale.

According to the results, Obama particularly showed strength as a leader in global and diversity mindset, communication and interpersonal skills.

In fact, on seven of the 10 competencies, Obama's scores were significantly better than Romney's. The only areas where there were no significant differences between the two candidates were team skills, team leadership and results orientation.

Respondents who gave a score of 1 or 7 on any dimension were asked to give an open-ended example of what behavior led to that evaluation.

"We've seen what a good presenter Obama can be," Newman says. "But the professors also commented on his management of the financial and automotive crises. Obama's ability to adapt in the ever-changing landscape of health care reform and his stance on gay marriage also earned him high marks in adaptability and results orientation."

In a final question, the respondents were asked to provide their political orientation on a scale of 1 (very conservative) to 7 (very liberal).

Seventy-four percent of the professors described themselves on the liberal end of the scale, yet in a regression analysis, the professors' political leaning was not a significant determinant of how they evaluated overall leadership.


Illiterate teachers in Australia

TEACHERS are filling lessons, report cards and letters home with errors, including SMS-style spelling, grammatical mistakes and misspelt spelling lists, parents have claimed.

A survey of 480 people about the literacy skills of the nation's teachers found half thought the quality was poor.

More than 40 per cent had noticed spelling or grammatical errors on letters sent home from school and 35 per cent had seen mistakes in report cards and marked assignments.

Other parents claimed their child's teachers lacked passion and skill, taught incorrect information and provided misspelt word lists for children to learn from. Some had even noticed teachers using SMS-style spellings, like l8r (later) and coz (because).

The "must do better" grading comes as the federal government reveals current teachers will be given specialist training to make sure future educators get better mentoring.Current and ex-teachers who took the survey were among those who complained about substandard quality, saying it was depressing.

One teacher from a state high school said many graduate teachers lacked a basic understanding of grammar, spelling and punctuation through their own schooling.  "It's those 20-somethings who just missed out and I'm scared that they're going to be teaching my kids," she said.

Some respondents defended teachers, however, saying they had a difficult job and passion was more important than perfection. Others were angry about "teacher bashing" and argued educators should be afforded more respect.

The survey findings come as the government works on its goal of pushing Aussie children into the top five world performers in numeracy and literacy by 2025.

Under the plan, student teachers will spend more of their degree inside a classroom paired with a specialist mentor. They will get clearer instructions on what's expected of them as their teaching methods are scrutinised.

State governments and independent education authorities will decide what training their mentors will need. At the moment trainees can be instructed by teachers with very little experience themselves.

Parents and teachers who spoke to The Daily Telegraph did not want to be identified, but told of the profession changing from one full of passionate people, to people "just filling in their work day".They wanted graduate teachers tested to validate their skills before they were put into classrooms.

The qualification bar has already been set higher, with entrants to teaching courses needing to score in the top 30 per cent for literacy and numeracy to get in.

School Education Minister Peter Garrett said the government wanted the "best and brightest" in classrooms.

Parents who took the survey wanted teachers paid more to attract the best candidates.


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