Thursday, February 04, 2010

An Education

When a lifelong, committed liberal zealot like Roger Ebert makes an argument against political interest, you have to pay attention. Excerpts from his review of the new documentary "Waiting for Superman":


"Waiting for Superman" studies the failing American educational system. Oh, yes, it is failing. We spend more money per student than any other nation in the world, but the test scores of our students have fallen from near the top to near the bottom among developed nations.

In Kenya, they take a test. A high enough score will win them a scholarship from a foundation established by Chris Mburu. Without that, their families cannot afford education, and their life prospects will change. In America, they hope to have their names chosen in a lottery. If they win, they will be accepted by a desirable magnet or charter school. Without that, they will have to attend the public schools available to them. Local educators agree about these schools: They are often bad schools, known within the school system itself as Dropout Factories. Students do not learn, their test scores drop year after year, only a very few find their way to
the college level. This is a national phenomenon in the United States.

"Waiting for Superman" argues that the greatest enemies of American primary and secondary education are the teachers' unions. Yes. This is not an anti-labor film. It was made by Davis Guggenheim, whose last documentary was Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth." Among those at Sundance in support of it was Microsoft's Bill Gates, who appears in it. Liberals.

There are countless dedicated public school teachers in our nation. Guggenheim made a doc in 1999 focusing on them. But educators and the teachers themselves acknowledge that schools have teachers who are not merely incompetent, but even refuse to teach.

Protected by the tenure guarantees in their union contracts, they cannot be fired. In some schools, their rooms are referred to as Classrooms of Death. A student assigned to them will fail. Principals know this, and every year engage in something variously known as the Lemon Dance or the Turkey Trot, transferring bad teachers to other schools, and praying that the new teachers they get may be
better.

Decades of research and test data indicate that the primary factor determining a school performance is not its budget, physical plant, curriculum, student population or the income level of its district. It is teaching. The most powerful opponents to better teaching are the teachers' unions. I am a lifelong supporter of unions. But "Waiting for Superman" makes this an inescapable conclusion. A union that protects incompetent and even dangerous teachers is an obscenity.

The fact is, American education is failing. Even in a bad economy there are good jobs in Silicon Valley. Bill Gates says it's not so much that he wants to recruit foreign workers as that he has to. The fault can be largely laid at the feet of bad teachers and their unions. That's a conclusion I suspect good teachers would be the first to agree with.

Roger Ebert, Al Gore's global warming documentarian, and Bill Gates agree with a position held by a majority of conservatives in this country. Sounds like a perfect opportunity for some of that vaunted bipartisan action we keep hearing so much about.

At the Federal level, the only substantive action the Obama administration has taken with regard to this issue is to block reform. The latest federal education budget goes out of its way to eliminate funding for new DC area charter school vouchers, closing off the one tiny escape outlet from the failing status quo of public schools.

The Washington Post characterizes the motivation behind killing the voucher program:

Teachers unions and other education groups active in the Democratic Party regard vouchers as a drain on public education that benefits relatively few students, and they say the students don't achieve at appreciably higher levels at their new schools.

The teacher's unions, according to Davis Guggenheim the same group bringing you the Dropout Factories, Classrooms of Death, and the Lemon Dance, and who Ebert called an "obscenity". With a track record like that, how do they continue to wield so much power?

One possibility - fully one in ten delegates to the 2008 Democrat National Convention were teacher's union members. In 2008, 91% of political contributions from the National Education Association went to Democrat Party candidates and causes. And the NEA looks downright centrist compared to the American Federation of Teachers, who gave 99% of their political contributions to Democrats.

Something to remember next time your favorite Democrat politician starts to rail against the corrupting influence of special interest groups.

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