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Superman? What we really need is more Clark Kents

Original post made on Oct 9, 2010

"Waiting for Superman," the new documentary that dramatizes the sad state of American education, tells a central truth: Too many of our children are failing in school.

Read the full guest opinion here Web Link posted Friday, October 8, 2010, 12:00 AM

Comments (18)

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Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 9, 2010 at 9:51 am

Peter - thank you for a thoughtful editorial. Your comment that schools not only educate but also build communities is key. In our elementary schools, we make strong community connections, that connection continues through middle and high school, both for the parents and students.

I agree that Ravenswood deserves a K-12 school system. The students and their parents deserve a chance to build a stronger community by having local schools. I don't think people realize that the high school students in Ravenswood attend one of FOUR high schools based on the street they live on - they don't even have the opportunity to all attend one school in the Sequoia district, much less one in their own neighborhood.

And thank you for all you do through BGCP.


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Posted by parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 10, 2010 at 11:28 am

This editorial makes some very important points. However, it doesn't even mention one of the central points of the documentary--that the teachers unions and the tenure system in public schools make it nearly impossible to fire bad teachers. Without changing that situation, true educational reform may not occur. Even here in Palo Alto, where I believe the majority of teachers are excellent, there are a few bad teachers who have tenure. I've been told by local teachers that it is next to impossible to get a bad teacher fired. How sad. A single bad teacher can cause enormous damage. Students and parents, even other teachers, generally know who those teachers are, but administrators' hands are tied because of the tenure system.


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Posted by parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 10, 2010 at 11:48 am

An addition to my comment above: I have been a huge supporter of the local schools, both financially and as a classroom volunteer every year for 14 years. Some of my closest friends are teachers and I believe they should receive much higher salaries and the greatest respect for the amazing job they are doing. At the same time I have come to question why it is that the one or two bad-performing teachers (whose behavior hurts students) have complete job security.


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Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 10, 2010 at 11:55 am

Parent - good point. While most teachers deserve enormous respect for the work they do, tenure has an additional side effect. In other countries being a teacher is a highly respected and well paid career - with some of the best and brightest choosing to become teachers. How can we respect a profession which prohibits firing incompetent employees? It's hard to respect a job if you can't loose it even if you are terrible at it. Its also harder to choose a job if no matter how wonderful you are, you won't receive any additional compensation.

Tenure and pay for experience means there is no up or downside to your job performance as a teacher (aside from the obvious benefit of teaching children).


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Posted by parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 10, 2010 at 12:22 pm

palo alto mom,

I agree. If other countries are able to give teachers the pay and respect they deserve, we should also. If that means getting rid of the tenure system, so be it. Teachers deserve to be compensated fairly and to be treated as other professionals are treated.


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Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 11, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Hi parent...

Does anyone have a source that displays the average of pay of teachers in other countries?

As a teacher (on maternity leave), I think that one of the major problems with the educational system in California and throughout the United States is that teachers are required to do much more than just teach. We are counselors, hall monitors, lunchroom attendants, behavior therapists, graders, etc... -- in addition to being teachers.

California pays teachers quite well (when compared to the rest of the nation). Our salaries and benefits are much higher than the national average. However, we have more responsibility than many other professions. We are entrusted with the academic success of our children.

If teachers could somehow focus on teaching subject material to the best of our ability rather than worrying about all of these other issues, I think that there would be a more positive outcome in most classrooms and, more importantly, young minds.

I read an article a few years ago about a school district where the teachers went against the union's desires and voted to forgo a raise in salary if the district would hire more assistants to handle the day-to-day issues like hall monitoring, cafeteria and bus line attending, etc...

Maybe this is something that teacher unions should consider.


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Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 11, 2010 at 12:39 pm

> "I believe they should receive much higher salaries…"

How much do you think is a fair salary for a teacher?

The average pay for a PAUSD teacher is $83,994. Lowest is $51,422. Highest is $103,836. This is for 186 workdays/year and does not include benefits. (Yes, I know teachers work more than 8 hours/day but so do many other people.)

Is it fair that unions determine teachers' salaries based on length of service, not merit?

For teachers' salaries in CA, see Web Link

For US teachers' salaries, see: Web Link


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Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 11, 2010 at 12:46 pm

> "teachers are required to do much more than just teach. We are counselors, hall monitors, lunchroom attendants, behavior therapists, graders, etc... -- in addition to being teachers."

When did grading papers become separated from teaching? How do you evaluate your students and thus modify your teaching strategies, if you don't read and grade assignments?


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Posted by PA mom
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 11, 2010 at 1:33 pm

I agree about teacher tenure, and tenure for other school officials as well. But what also needs to be addressed is that a one-size-fits all approach to education doesn't work for all kids. There needs to be alternative programs for those kids, preferably at the public high schools themselves, that offer kids a way to learn who have different learning styles than what the status quo offers. Many may be skeptical of this, thinking that different equals bad, and that different kids should be made to conform. But some kids need a place that is smaller and more personal, that allows them to learn by doing rather than by sitting and being lectured to, and to have flexibility in how they achieve their academic goals. Not all kids need a different learning approach to be all or nothing. Having such programs in the public schools allows kids to take classes through both environments, and to be able to keep seeing their school friends.


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Posted by PA mom
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 11, 2010 at 1:33 pm

I agree about teacher tenure, and tenure for other school officials as well. But what also needs to be addressed is that a one-size-fits all approach to education doesn't work for all kids. There needs to be alternative programs for those kids, preferably at the public high schools themselves, that offer kids a way to learn who have different learning styles than what the status quo offers. Many may be skeptical of this, thinking that different equals bad, and that different kids should be made to conform. But some kids need a place that is smaller and more personal, that allows them to learn by doing rather than by sitting and being lectured to, and to have flexibility in how they achieve their academic goals. Not all kids need a different learning approach to be all or nothing. Having such programs in the public schools allows kids to take classes through both environments, and to be able to keep seeing their school friends.


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Posted by parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 11, 2010 at 7:03 pm

PA mom,

I agree with you regarding acknowledging children's different learning styles and trying to accommodate them. Ohlone and the Connections program at JLS have tried to be aware of different learning styles and build in lots of project-based learning. At the high school level, however, "learn by doing" may not work for all subjects. Science, art, and music include activities in which kids learn by doing (experiments, projects, etc.) but subjects such as English and history require a certain amount of heavy-duty reading, analysis, and discussion. In order to be prepared for college level work, students need to learn those skills as well.


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Posted by PA mom
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 11, 2010 at 9:08 pm

Agreed, and they can do that in an alternative environment as well.


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Posted by Management style is the problem
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 11, 2010 at 9:55 pm

What's missing from this discussion is the way education is *managed*. There is very good work being done to show that "scientific management" techniques employed by school districts do not lead to intrinsic motivation by learners. In other words, we are stuck in 1930's style school management that impacts *everything* that goes on in a classroom.

Waiting for Superman's blast against teachers is hopelessly misinformed, and panders to the common belief that bad teachers are the problem. They're not. The problem is 1) the complete lack Modern Management techniques (a la Peter Drucker) in American schools, which impacts 2) the imposition of instructional techniques that mitigate *against* well-known research that shows how to motivate students, or anyone, to *want* to learn.

One local chap that has done a lot of on-the-ground research in this area is Robert Caveney; he has written a book aobut his research here in Silicon Valley, entitled "Schooling for Readiness and Drive" (available from Lulu Press). Another person is Daniel Pink, showing a good summary of the research in his recent book, "Drive". I highly recommend both books, as well as looking *beyond* teachers as the operatives who are the problem in education. Teachers operate within a *system* that tells them what to do. State and local administrators (like School Superintendents) are gatekeepers of these traditions. I especially recommend Caveney's book, because he appears to have found a way to incorporate effective change in ways that don't replace top administrators, but simply changes their roles within a system that is managed in a way to encourage true learning excellence.

We have to stop blaming teachers. Teachers and teacher's unions are not the problem. Again, the *system of education that dictates the actions and output of teachers is the problem. This has been shown. Do we blame the workers at General Motors for what happened there? Sure, there are automobile and teachers unions (themselves political machines) who use bonding tactics to guarantee job security (sometimes, not deserved), but unions do not impose management style and operational structure. Senior managers do. Senior managers in education have not had the benefit of organizational training in an environment that is required to get the best out of those who work in education (students, and teachers). We're going to be hearing a lot more about Caveney, Pink, and others as time goes forward. Education management is flawed; it is not what we need going forward; it has to change. Pink and Caveney are two of many who point the way.

Drucker, a true American genius, saw this, and changed the face of American business to become far more productive than it had been by using "Scientific Management" (espoused at the beginning of the 20th century).


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Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 12, 2010 at 8:24 am

Management style - While I agree with some of your thoughts, such as any organization is only as good as its leaders, I disagree that teachers are not the most vital component. And our management style of teaching (more busy work is better, lectures are an effective way to teach) certainly could use some changes. Even our college application process could use lot of work.

But bad teachers are a big problem. Even in PAUSD, a wonderful, well financed (for CA) school district, we have some truly terrible teachers and some really mediocre ones. And a child is stuck with them every day for a year. And we can't get rid of them.

As far as the auto unions influencing the current state of Detroit - the power and demands of the unions absolutely contributed to the demise of the US auto industry. They are far from blameless.


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Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 12, 2010 at 6:29 pm

Hi Pat...

You wrote: ----> "When did grading papers become separated from teaching? How do you evaluate your students and thus modify your teaching strategies, if you don't read and grade assignments?"

Well, when you compound ALL of those other responsibilities with grading papers, well, there just isn't much time in the day. I can't count how many hours that I spent at home working with my husband to grade papers. Why? With all of the other responsibilities, our school day is very long -- but we don't have the time to grade all of the papers.

Schools are very different than they were a few decades ago. Teachers today work a schedule where we teach six, seven or eight different classes. With 20-30 students in each class, we end up overseeing the instruction for between 120-240 students. If it takes just two minutes to quickly grade an assignment -- then it takes between 2-4 hours to grade a single assignment.

Even if I have a 50 minute "conference period," I rarely have the time to grade all of my papers since my conference period is often taken up counseling students, calling parents, meeting with administrators, or even monitoring halls and the cafeteria.

Now, I don't mind grading papers. No one knows my students better than me. However, when I just don't have enough time in the day due to so many other responsibilities that are in addition to simply teaching...well...I think that you can get my drift.

I would be much more comfortable sticking to teaching. I think that teachers would be much more effective if they could stick to what they are supposed to do (teach).

I suppose that it is "normal" for a person to occasionally take their work home with them. Yet this is every day. Ironically, I know that it has motivated certain teachers to "lessen the workload" by not assigning as many projects. As a result, the students suffer because the teacher isn't motivated to give assignments that can encourage academic growth in the students.

To be clear: I can't stand teacher's unions. They are highly partisan politically and rarely look out for the well-being of the teachers in anything other than monetary figures or job stability. I don't believe in tenure either. I would hate to think that my child would be forced to be taught by an unfit teacher simply because she was protected by a pathetic union or had gained tenure. After all, I have known some teachers who really concern me.


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Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 12, 2010 at 6:42 pm

Nayeli - I don't know where you teach, but most Palo Alto secondary teachers teach 5 (some only 4) not 6, 7 or 8 periods a day (there are only 6 periods in middle school and seven in high school anyway). We have an average class size of about 25, so that is a typical load of 120 kids (admittedly, a lot!)

That leaves 2 periods for grading papers and meeting with administrators. Middle school students have no free periods, so there is not "counseling" during school time. If you are calling parents, that is wonderful, I have only had one teacher call me in the 13 years my kids have been in PAUSD (and it was a kind-of odd reason). There are no physical halls in high school and halls are only "monitored" in middle school during passing periods, usually the teachers just stand outside of their class to keep an eye on the kids. There are also no cafeterias in any of our middle or high schools. It seems like most of the monitoring is rotated between the staff, so no single person spends every day monitoring students.

Teacher do work very hard, but I would say most of the working parents of Palo Alto work more than 8 hours a day, (often, frequently, always?) taking work home with them.


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Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 12, 2010 at 7:25 pm

Hi palo alto mom,

I don't teach in one of Palo Alto's high schools. I would love to though! These schools have a reputation of being some of the best in the state. However, we just can't judge the rest of California by the high quality and standards set in Palo Alto. The district where I work (which will go unnamed) is not quite as, uh, "blessed" as Palo Alto.

To be clear: I don't mind grading papers. However, I rarely have the opportunity to finish grading papers during school hours. Why? I am too busy doing all sorts of other things that weren't really a part of my job description. I must monitor the halls, cafeteria and bus lines. I must use my conference period to meet with parents, other teachers or administrators (via telephone on in person).

I just think that it would be helpful for ALL teachers in the state to feel the same benefits that PA teachers enjoy. I would forgo a raise if I were able to stick to teaching and grading papers.


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Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 12, 2010 at 8:34 pm

Did anyone mention parental support/help at home? This ought to be part of it. Take a look at the achievement gap among minority ethic groups (Asian, Hispanic, Black etc) and you can get an idea.


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