Last Sunday, New York Times Op-Ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristof examined the teaching profession and sparked a lively debate on the issue of compensation. Citing a global study on education by McKinsey & Company, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner believes higher salaries will attract better talent into the profession resulting in the improvement of our school system, particularly in the inner-city.
More than 1,000 readers posted their comments on Kristof’s blog — On the Ground — including one post from a gentleman on Long Island (yours truly) who took a diplomatic approach in supporting education reform. Since there’s a 5,000-character limit on blogs.nytimes.com, the following is the unabridged version of post # 832 in response to the March 13, 2011 Op-Ed, “Pay Teachers More.”
Every Sunday I wake up at the crack of dawn, head downstairs and take the center seat on the kitchen island so there’s plenty of room to spread the Sunday Times across the entire counter. Then I quickly browse through the sections to determine the 10-12 columns I’ll peruse “the old-fashioned way” with a nice cup of coffee in one hand and the broadsheet folded over in the other.
This morning, however, I started in the Sunday Opinion section, immediately gravitated toward your Op-Ed (despite the fact it was adjacent to Frank Rich’s farewell column after 17 years of influential opinion writing) and never looked back. You see, it was just last night that my 14-year-old-daughter – after watching the documentary, Waiting for “Superman” – became aware of the challenges facing our public school system. As you probably know, many of the same issues raised in your column were examined in Davis Guggenheim’s much debated film, which focuses on the lives of five ambitious children and their parents who are desperate to flee their local public school for higher-performing charter schools.
Before you start wondering, let me explain why this teenage girl expressed interest in seeing Guggenheim’s documentary….on a Saturday night….with her father! The subject of education reform has been a topic of discussion in our home since late January when, oddly enough, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced this year’s Oscar nominees. My 16-year-old son was disappointed that a film, which he described to me as “fascinating and revealing” and “most impactful of the year,” was snubbed by the Academy. For most teenagers with 2,000+ friends on Facebook, a review like that could depict only one movie in 2010 but for him, there would be another – Waiting for “Superman” – and so when it became available On Demand, we watched it together and have been discussing it ever since. The fact that every school day 7,000 kids drop out of high school in America was unimaginable to him, and his pride took a major hit when he learned U.S. schools ranked 25th in math and 21st in science among 30 developed nations.
The film had a similar impact on my daughter, and as the final credits — and her tears — started to roll, the first words she uttered were: “I can’t believe it wasn’t nominated.” Now I understand this isn’t the forum to address the Academy’s selection process but I believe Guggenheim could have collected his second Oscar (he also directed An Inconvenient Truth) if he only demonstrated a bit more balance; spent less time casting all the blame on the teachers’ unions (although it’s true the unions do have a long history of placing job security ahead of the interests of children); shed some positive light on recent developments in the area of teacher evaluations — led by AFT union leader Randi Weingarten — which were ignored in the film; and placed greater emphasis on a solutions-oriented approach that didn’t focus solely on celebrating the charter school movement (Geoffrey Canada, however, is indeed a modern-day superhero whose charter school in Harlem is a true success story).
Like Guggenheim, you believe an improved and highly effective education system will close the achievement gap, increase our country’s economic competitiveness and slowly reverse the cycle of poverty in America. I honestly don’t know how anyone could argue this point. You also seem to share this simple truth: great teachers can and will make a difference in the lives of elementary school students. I cannot recall the source, but one survey I read recently stated that “effective teachers account for 60% of a student’s ability to succeed.” The future is indeed in our classrooms so I’m in favor of exploring multiple forms of teacher recognition to ensure our nation’s top talent can be effectively recruited to such a worthy profession and retained for their entire career.
Finally, based on the underlying theme of your column, I was surprised you didn’t mention one of Guggenheim’s heroes in the film, the former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system, Michelle Rhee, who challenged the status quo, took on the powerful teachers’ unions, closed more than 20 underperforming schools and fired hundreds of ineffective teachers. Her most radical idea, which I found intriguing and believe you’d embrace, would have the unions give up tenure in exchange for performance-based salary increases in excess of $125,000. As a novice on these issues just like you, Nicholas, I don’t know if Rhee’s concept or any of the aforementioned ideas are viable solutions to ensure professional excellence and student achievement. But I am convinced we’ll get closer to our goals if folks like Canada, Rhee and Weingarten identify some common ground and find a way to collaborate.
In closing, I strongly believe the true purpose of your column – and Guggenheim’s documentary – was not to choose sides in this polarizing debate but to provoke a deeper conversation about education reform in our country and place the emphasis on putting our children, and their education, first. It was refreshing to see the depth, range and scope of the responses, and I respect the diverse viewpoints of your informed readers. While I agree with some and disagree with others it’s a clear sign that most people care very much about the issues and challenges we face. It’s the positive momentum needed to fuel a call to action.
It was my son, Rocco, who inspired and encouraged me to see Waiting for “Superman” one month ago and since then, I must have influenced a few dozen friends and colleagues and suggested they pay it forward. The film’s website, waitingforsuperman.com, is chock full of small, tangible next steps you can take to make a difference in your community. You’ll also find links to several online charities connecting you to classrooms in need, and learn about some of the more successful charter schools in the country. In fact, several weeks ago I spent a few hours walking the 97-block area that Geoffrey Canada plans to transform one child at a time. His vision has come to fruition via the Harlem Children’s Zone and I must say, standing in the lobby that Saturday afternoon there was hope and optimism in the air and in the eyes of every child and parent who came walking through those doors.