I watched Waiting for Superman yesterday and am still thinking about it. It is a documentary from a couple years ago and follows five families from across the country and socioeconomic backgrounds in their quest to get a better education for their children. You fall in love with these kids and you become angry at a system which is failing them.
The focus of the filmmaker's wrath are teacher's unions. There is innovation going on and its the unions that are stifling it. They target tenure and unwieldy teacher contracts and a severance process that keeps terrible teachers in the classroom. They profile Harlem Success and the KIPPS schools as examples of what can happen without the unions and when the playing field is evened.
There is a scene in the movie that is haunting me. A little girl named Daisy lives in SC LA. She has applied for a KIPPS school and they have to hold a lottery for the spots--one spot for each five or six applicants, I think. She sits at the lottery as the numbers are called. No real emotion on her face, but her eyes ... her eyes say volumes and I couldn't help but feel the sadness and helplessness her father must have been feeling.
I watched this at the same time I'm reading Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner and working on curriculum for the new year. And I'm struggling with what can be done to make things better. I'm struggling with unions. I've heard the horror stories from teachers I travel with see it in public schools my children attend or have attended. But ... the person who was amongst the most influential to me as a young man and whom was one of the finest educators I've ever known is a leader in the NEA. I trust this man and he is passionate about the need for the union.
The reality is that I teach at a private school. Smaller class sizes. My students have their own struggles but poverty and violence aren't a constant in their world. I am considered an expert in my field and expected to constantly push myself to be better in both content and pedagogy. The bureaucracy is negligible. While my work isn't challenge free, I know I'm blessed and I'm where I'm supposed to be. I work with a passionate, creative and student-centered group of teachers and administrators. And, I adore these kids.
So here is my question. Is there a balance to be found in public schools? (BTW-my sons attend public schools so I do have skin in the game.) Unions can't be all bad, but can they be made better? Do we need to scuttle the whole system (We had to ditch the Articles of Confederation to make way for the Constitution?) and start over?