I have been watching Waiting for Superman piecemeal...every weekend while walking 30 minutes on the treadmill. Anyone who has spent any time in a public school classroom won't find it eye-opening because they see the truths of this documentary on a daily basis.
The film spoke to the problem of tenure and teacher unions, and I tend to agree with them. I generally think what works in the private sector, such as pay for performance and at-will employment, are good things. Of course, I then have to recognize that teachers are held to grossly unfair standards (as this excellent essay attests) and are scapegoats for everything terrible about public education, even when it is not their fault.
Charter schools were discussed in the film, and I don't have a problem with charters in theory. I think an awful lot of people think they are a magic pill that will solve problems that they will not solve.
The parents in the film all really seemed to highly value education, supported their children in their educational endeavors and seemed to keep hitting brick walls. I really, truly felt for them.
The public school problem is complex. It is that some teachers suck, some schools need much more funding, some kids take tests poorly even though they are exceptional students, some parents don't support education, some kids don't fit into the mold of public education as it is in their school.
From my limited experience as both a teacher and a parent, I think there are certain non-negotiable things a parent has to do to ensure your child gets a good education. If I were able to stand in front of a group of parents, this is what I would say:
1. Read every single solitary day (two or more times a day) to your child from the time he/she is an infant and continuing to do it until your child is a teenager. And at that point you should check out the same book your child is reading so you can read it and discuss it with your child.
2. Make your child go to school every single day, including preschool, unless he/she is running a fever or puking. You set a precedent early on that school comes first. And if the child doesn't go to school, he/she doesn't do anything fun like play outside with friends or go to the mall.
3. Stay in contact with the child's teacher. Email, drop in unannounced to the classroom, attend conferences. Essentially, a teacher works for you and your child. Stay on top of what is being done at school. Ask questions. Offer to help however you can. Read the core content. Know what your child is supposed to be learning.
4. Make your home as consistent, scheduled, normal as possible. Regular bedtime. Regular waking time. Regular meals. Regular naps. Boring----yes. Necessary----yes. Once you have a child, your life is not about you for a good long time. Get over it.
5. You think you know your child, and you do, but only to a certain extent. Unless you are a fly on the wall, you do not know what your child is doing or not doing, what the teacher is doing or not doing, in the classroom. You don't have to believe everything the teacher tells you, but you also shouldn't believe everything your child tells you. You have to use detective skills to figure out what is really going on sometimes.
I had a student who told me he was friends with a professional basketball player (whose name escapes me now). I said something like, "Oh sure." The kid kept insisting he knew this famous player, but I wouldn't bite. I soon received a letter from the mom telling me her son was not lying and their family is friends with this famous player, blah, blah, blah. By the tone, I could tell she was highly insulted that I wouldn't believe her precious little boy. I sent a letter home, explaining that I was sorry her son was upset that I didn't believe him but that I would be a fool to believe every single thing students tell me. I didn't mean him any disrespect, but that is just the nature of teaching.
A short time later, this mom did a long-term sub job at our school. Her attitude about believing what students told her changed very quickly.
6. If your gut tells you something is not right about what administration tells you, keep asking. Keep calling. Go as high up as you have to go. Be civil, be extremely polite, but keep asking. Under no circumstances should you get up on your mighty high horse because you might unknowingly be contributing to whatever problems your child is having.
I cannot tell the number of parents who claimed they wanted to do "right" by their kids but ended up hurting them worse by their efforts. Parents who didn't provide as much consistency as the child needed or when they tried to "help" ended up doing the hard work for the child. Parents who didn't want to hurt their child by taking away something the child loved until the grades and behavior improved. Parents who were so wrapped up in their own affairs that they didn't focus on what the child really required.
Waiting for Superman was a good reminder of what can go wrong and right in education, but I believe it only told part of the story.