Patti Wenzel

Could ‘Superman’ change Milwaukee’s education discussion?

By - Oct 6th, 2010 04:00 am

Scene from Waiting for ‘Superman.’ Photo courtesy of Paramount Vantage and Participant Media.

Everyone knows there are major problems with America’s public schools and that many children are not even receiving a passable education. Even President Barack Obama admits that his daughters could not get the high quality education they’re currently receiving at a private school in a Washington D.C. public school.

That is whyWaiting for ‘Superman’ has hit such a nerve with the public and the education establishment. Teacher’s unions claim the film is an attack on teachers and in the weeks leading up to its premiere, a Facebook page was created in opposition to the movie. Meanwhile school reformers say ‘Superman’ is a wake up call, saying that the film comments on the failures in public schools and possible solutions.

Both sides came together following the film’s Milwaukee screening at an educational forum. Local education leaders — Terry Falk of the Milwaukee School Board; Dr. Howard Fuller, former MPS Superintendent and  Director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University; Mike Langyel,President of the Milwaukee Teacher’s Education Association; Cherise Easley, Campus Director, Milwaukee College Preparatory-Lindsey Heights; and Garrett Buck, Milwaukee director of Teach for America –- discussed the film and more importantly the pros and cons of our current educational system.

They all agreed that the future of education depends on good teachers, they just differed on how to get to that goal.

Fuller, who is also featured in the film, described the film as “painful” and said he is outraged that people who have money in this country can ensure a good education for their children, while those who live in poverty have to rely on a lottery to get the same education.

“For all of our talk, we have failed our community,” Fuller said. “We are all at fault for this.”

Dr. Howard Fuller and MTEA President Mike Langyel. Photos by Patti Wenzel

Despite those comments, he added that the film makes him hopeful that there are schools in Milwaukee and elsewhere that are educating the poorest children. “This film puts to bed the lie that these children can’t be educated.”

Langyel, who often tangled with the Fuller administration, sees the film as a call to task : that children everywhere need everyone to work together to solve the problem.

But when one of the central questions of  ‘Superman’ was broached – teacher tenure – Langyel became the union die-hard we all know. He explained unions are necessary because years ago, the traditionally female profession was underpaid and teachers would be unfairly fired by spiteful principals or school board members.

“We need to have a just-cause provision in contracts,” Langyel said. “We need to to look at revamping teacher evaluations. It’s just not good enough to have bad teachers.”

Easley said teacher evaluations have to be an ongoing practice, with school principals knowing what each teacher is doing in every classroom — not just filling out an annual checklist. She said that she regularly stops in each classroom to witness the art of teaching and when a teacher is struggling, she is happy to share tips and techniques.

“We don’t have tenure; we work to make good teachers,” she said.

She added that the solution is very simple – have high-quality leaders and staff in the classrooms, then the sky is the limit.

“We need extended school days, leaders need to be on the pulse of the academics,” she said. “You must believe all children can learn and if you don’t, maybe education is not for you.”

Bucks said we don’t need to “re-invent the wheel” when there are successful charter, choice and public schools providing a road map for failing schools and districts.

“We have 20 years of successes and examples. We should ask what is working and why something isn’t working,” Buck said. “We should craft our policies from the successful schools.”

Cherise Easley and Garrett Bucks discuss education.

The film also featured Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of the Washington D.C. public schools, who fired hundreds of central office personnel and teachers to shift money into the classrooms and improve educational quality. Her actions raised eyebrows and tempers, and when she asked for teachers to allow merit pay in their contract, the union wouldn’t even take a vote.

The Milwaukee panel didn’t endorse Rhee’s heavy-handed approach to school reform, but Bucks said at least Rhee tried something new instead of talking the problems of education to death. In the same breath, however, he cautioned that we can’t have change just for change’s sake.

No — not change for change’s sake, but change for the sake of our children. It has to happen before another generation of MPS students is lost. Hopefully these leaders and the public will realize that good teachers and are the Supermen our children need.

0 thoughts on “Could ‘Superman’ change Milwaukee’s education discussion?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Sounds like da union answered your question.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Certainly there are strong wills and special interests in this matter. I was asked about education many times during my campaign and usually by teachers who wanted to know whether I was going to make or restore cuts to their salaries and pensions. The feelings are strong on all sides and no one is going to solve these problems without getting lots of cuts and bruises.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for following this story, Patti. We are counting on you to keep us informed…

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