Required viewing

'Waiting for Superman' shows what's wrong with urban education

Baltimore innovators know how to fix it

September 27, 2010|By Marta H. Mossburg

Many presidents and politicians have claimed education as their first priority over the past 40 years. They signed legislation and threw money at public schools — pushing per-pupil spending from about $4,000 in 1971 (in inflation-adjusted dollars) to more than $9,000 today, as student achievement stagnated. How could we spend so much for so little, dooming millions of children to "dropout factories" and diminished lives?

That question drives "Waiting for Superman," a documentary by Davis Guggenheim of "An Inconvenient Truth" fame. KIPP Baltimore (Knowledge is Power Program) premiered the documentary Thursday in Baltimore City.

Mr. Guggenheim juxtaposes KIPP and other high-performing public charter schools against traditional public schools, excoriating teachers' unions and the education establishment in the process. We see the now-defunct "rubber rooms" in New York City, where hundreds of teachers would sit each day, all day, doing nothing while awaiting disciplinary hearings — sometimes for years — for behavior ranging from chronic absences to child molestation. They earned a full salary and benefits during their idle hours.

We meet principals who fired teachers who refused to teach and then were forced to rehire them because of union rules. And we hear tales of "pass the trash," where principals shuffle their worst teachers to new schools each year. We see the frustration of excellent administrators and teachers whose students thrive only to be treated as if they are a cash cow for the two main teachers' unions, which outspend every other special interest to achieve their political goals.

And heartbreakingly, we watch students Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy and Emily navigate a system where their futures depend on "the hands of luck." Often those hands are the bouncing balls used by sought-after charter schools to select children by lottery. Applicants sometimes outnumber available spaces by 10 to 1.

Adam Mendelson, the head of communications for the state branch of the National Education Association, wrote in an e-mail, "Waiting for Superman says important things about the challenges of the public education system. However, the reductive, black and white messaging about charters and unions oversimplifies complicated issues and threatens to thwart thoughtful discussions about improving public schools."

But as the movie points out, the problems faced by many students and schools — poverty, violence, unstable families and substance abuse — are complex, and the steps to helping those students succeed are well known. Longer school days and teachers who make themselves accessible whenever students and parents need them are two components.

The only thing missing is a legal structure allowing it to happen. Baltimore's KIPP Ujima Village Academy, whose overwhelmingly poor and black students are consistently some of the highest achievers in the state, struggled to survive last year because the local union initially refused to let the school's teachers work the longer hours required by the curriculum. Jason Botel, executive director of KIPP Baltimore, says he hopes the movie pushes legislators to allow high-performing charter schools to have the freedom to extend their school days.

Damion Cooper is one parent who knows the power of KIPP. His daughter Alexis is a seventh-grader at Ujima Village Academy, where students and their parents have teachers' cell phone numbers.

Alexis used to struggle in math and stayed back a grade when entering KIPP because of her test scores, he said. She's now an A student and qualifies for entrance to elite private high schools.

"You see the care and concern of the teachers," said Cooper, who is the community outreach coordinator for City Councilman Bernard "Jack" Young. "I love that they say we are going to follow your kid from the time they enter school to the time they enter college."

Every state legislator should see this movie. Then they should give every child the chance to succeed like Alexis and her 369 fellow students at KIPP Ujima Village Academy by strengthening the state's charter law this year. They should also pass tax credit legislation that has stalled in the General Assembly for years that would make it easier for businesses to give to both public and private schools.

Those who would like to help all students achieve their potential do not have to wait for legislators, however. You can donate to KIPP and to other high-performing schools. And buy a ticket to the Next Generation Investing (www.nextgeninvesting.org) event Thursday, where attendees will hear exclusive stock tips from top investors including Brian Rogers of T. Rowe Price Group and Bill Miller of Legg Mason Capital Management. Proceeds will help the Children's Scholarship Fund (where I am a board member) to give more than 400 partial scholarships to low-income Baltimore City children and students at Southwest Baltimore Charter School.

Marta H. Mossburg is a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Her column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her e-mail is martamossburg@gmail.com.

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