Sunday, September 19, 2010

How NYC schools fail students

New York Post
September 19, 2010

Whenever you hear the words “for the children,” your scoundrel detector should light up. These three words can be used to justify pretty much any public policy or its opposite, but at their most notorious they’re the mantra of the teachers’ unions. What do the children say, though? In the new film “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” their stunned and tear-stained faces eloquently state that they want a different educational system.

Kids are the stars, and union leaders, like American Federation of Teachers chief Randi Weingarten, the villains, of this documentary. Opening Friday, “Superman” is a look at the simple problem of, and the equally simple answer to, our disastrous schools.

“Superman” concludes as five children, two of them New Yorkers, eagerly attend lotteries in which they hope to draw a number that will be a ticket out of unionized schools and into non-union charter schools. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that winning such a lottery means a path to a better life. The parents know this, and the importance of the moment isn’t lost on the kids either. Take Bianca, a kindergarten student from Harlem whose mom declares at the outset of the film, “She will go to college.” In a companion book to the film, producer Lesley Chilcott says of Bianca, “Here she was, reading a million miles a minute and narrating her life for us, on camera and unprompted, overly wise for her 6 years.”

But Bianca and her mother, Nakia, can’t afford to move to a neighborhood that has good schools. The series of schools Bianca is zoned for are disasters. If they were told that their mission was to prepare kids for prison instead of college, they wouldn’t have to change anything.

So Bianca attends a private, Catholic kindergarten that Nakia, a receptionist whose hours were recently cut back, can’t easily afford. Bianca hopes to win a place in the Harlem Success Academy, a free charter school (with a mix of public and private funding) in which 100% of third-graders passed the math exam and 95% passed in English. Bianca’s chances for a spot? Thirty-five out of 767. Meanwhile, her mother has fallen behind in tuition payments. The Catholic school informs Nakia that Bianca won’t be able to attend her graduation ceremony. Nakia cries, and you will too.

The story of Francisco, a Bronx lad about to enter second grade, is, if anything, even more dismal. His mother, Maria, is focused and determined. Maria was the first in her family to go to college, then the first to get a graduate degree. Now she is a social worker who has enrolled her son in two after-school reading programs. She studies with Francisco every night and has already entered him in lotteries for seven charter schools. This year he is applying to Harlem Success Academy, even though it’s a 45-minute train ride from home. If he doesn’t get in this time — and he won’t, with 792 kids applying for 40 spots — it looks like his last chance for a decent education.

Some of us are fortunate enough to be able to afford homes in areas that have good schooling, but Francisco is everyone’s problem. If he has to attend a typical Bronx school, in his teens he might be yet another unsupervised youth on the street, unprepared for adult life and justifiably angry.

We should be angry too, and the tone of director Davis Guggenheim’s film is unsparing as he depicts the central problem: intransigent teachers’ unions protect the worst teachers at all costs. That means few spots for strong teachers — like the ones who choose to work at charter schools. A simple chart illustrates that the difference between the best teachers and the worst is an entire year of education per year — good ones cram in 1.5 years of the curriculum in a year, while bad ones cover only half of a year of coursework per year. It’s no mystery why so many ninth-graders are reading at a fourth-grade level.

As for the unions’ perpetual cries for more funding, Guggenheim points out that we’ve already doubled real, inflation-adjusted spending on education over the last 40 years. Money is abundant. The problem is that it’s being wasted.

Sometimes the messenger is as important as the message, and we’re talking about the guy who helmed “An Inconvenient Truth” — a diehard liberal activist and union supporter who also directed Barack Obama’s 30-minute campaign infomercial.

Yet Guggenheim points out in the film that the teachers’ unions essentially own the Democrats. These unions are the single largest political interest group by spending, and more than 90% of their donations go to their pet party. The purpose of all this money is to ensure that no distinctions are made among teachers — even the worst ones almost invariably get tenure and then can’t be fired (in 2007, only 10 of 55,000 tenured New York City teachers were canned). Good teachers, if they happen to be last in seniority, are the first to be let go in a round of layoffs. All that matters is preserving and expanding the compensation of union members.

Every child gets left behind the interests of the unions.

Guggenheim’s doc is the least hard-hitting of three terrific education movies that have been in theaters this year. Both “The Cartel,” which is about New Jersey schools, and “The Lottery,” which is about New York City schools, are available on DVD. “The Cartel” is particularly canny about the immense and ever-growing costs of education bureaucrats who never go near a classroom, while “The Lottery” goes into more detail about such New York success stories as the Harlem Children’s Zone and the Harlem Success Academy.

Still, it is “Superman” that has the polish, the budget, the publicity machine and the liberal credentials to make Americans realize the catastrophic influence of teachers’ unions on an educational system that was once the envy of the world.

Conservatives have been saying everything that “Superman” says for 20 years or more. But now that liberals are on board, you might say that the science is settled. The argument is over. We need competition in public schools. Teachers should compete with each other for the right to instruct our children. Schools should compete for the children. And their funding should depend on how many show up. How could they argue that “resources are being drained from public schools” if all schools — charter schools, private schools, zoned schools — were to receive the same amount of public money per pupil? (Charter schools, in fact, often get paid much less than zoned schools per pupil, relying heavily on private donations to make up the shortfall.)

The differences between “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Superman” are intriguing. The new one came about not because of worries about the polar ice cap or the future but because of what’s happening right now, in Davis Guggenheim’s own neighborhood. Every morning he guiltily drives past three awful public schools to take his kids to their comfy private one.

The schools the film dubs “dropout factories” are dragging down the nation’s overall competitiveness and cheating millions of impoverished people, most especially black and brown children, out of joining the middle class. It’s an issue individuals can do something about — by backing more charter schools and rejecting, as they did recently in New Jersey, the demands of teachers’ unions. And your efforts quickly become evident right there in your neighborhood, instead of dispersing and disappearing into the vastness of the planet.

“Think global, act local” is a clever liberal rubric, a distraction from the fact that everyone is a conservative in his own back yard. I live in a part of Manhattan where my neighbor, Commentary editor John Podhoretz, discovered that after his polling place had been open for more than two hours, he was the first person to ask for a Republican ballot on primary day. But if three rapes occurred on my block next week, civil liberties and limits on self-defense would be instantly forgotten. Every liberal in the area would be demanding more police officers, more random questioning of anyone who looks like he doesn’t belong, more access to weapons.

When it comes to the abstraction occurring in other neighborhoods known as “crime,” though, my fellow Upper West Siders are suspicious of police methods and wonder whether young criminals need more counseling and less punishment.

Well-off white liberals may vote Democratic, oppose meaningful educational reform and back teacher raises and smaller class sizes, all to show they “support education.” They feel fine — as long as the results are concealed in someone else’s neighborhood. If they had to drop their kids off at the same schools that waste the lives of millions of other children, they would have demanded accountability from the teachers’ unions a long time ago.

Those unions have an opportunity now too — to aid the majority of their members who are good teachers by making it easy to fire (not just move to rubber rooms while continuing to pay) the bad ones. Fired teachers should hand their chalk to good new ones, and job security and pay should be based on performance instead of seniority.

An analyst in Guggenheim’s film figures that if just the bottom 10% of the most incompetent teachers were to be replaced by average ones, educational quality would skyrocket overnight. Come on, Ms. Weingarten. Do it for the Biancas and Franciscos.

Do it for the children.

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