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'Waiting for Superman' ignores the real problem with schools

I began my life in journalism as an education reporter, which is how I came to be in a particular Washington high school years ago, learning from some young teachers that on a given day only 25 percent of their students showed up. When I later asked the principal about this, she showed me her attendance reports: pretty close to 100 percent. So I don't need the new and widely acclaimed documentary "Waiting for Superman" to tell me that this nation's schools, particularly the big city ones, are an unforgivable mess -- a monstrous lie. I've seen the reports.

But this film -- so admirable in its intentions that it has become virtually criticism-proof -- not only didn't enthrall me (as promised) but left me wondering why it was made in the first place. Its overall message that too many schools stink and that the teacher unions with their anachronistic work rules --particularly tenure -- are an impediment to education cannot be news to any audience that is interested in this film to begin with. In both Washington and New York, two high-profile school chiefs -- Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein, respectively -- have tenaciously fought to have teachers serve the kids instead of themselves and a bullet-proof form of job security. (Try firing an incompetent teacher.) And in both cities, the unions have retreated from their untenable positions and made some important concessions.

"Waiting for Superman" focuses on five kids, all of them desperately seeking admission to charter schools, which, as we all know, are non-union. These kids can break your heart. They have extremely high adorable quotients, but that alone is not what commends them to cinema verite. It is their parents, mostly single ones. These parents are all over their kids, prodding them to study, doing homework with them, urging them on to do better and better in school. You want these kids to go the school of their choice. They would benefit. It is what they deserve. It is unconscionable of us to fail these children.

But these children are not the problem -- or not the major problem. The problem, instead, is off-camera in this movie.

For instance, the Washington fifth grader (Anthony) is one 61 applicants waiting for 24 spaces that will open up in boarding school. He enters a lottery and, in the cloying ending, he finally makes it. But why only 61 applicants? Why hasn’t almost every kid in Washington’s woebegone school system applied? Where are they? The answer is that they probably don't know anything about the boarding school program because their parents (more likely, parent) are unaware and possibly uninterested. These kids are the major challenge, the major problem and, too often, the major menace. Nothing about them in this film, though. Anyone can teach the five children in this movie. Almost no one can teach the ones not in the movie.

"Waiting for Superman" is brilliant in its political approach. Conservatives love it because it is rough on the teachers unions, and conservatives hate unions. Liberals love it because it shows that any kid is educable and if they turn out otherwise, it is our own fault -- not enough money or something like that. This is the liberal formula.

But lack of money is not what ails this country's schools, and neither is it the teachers' unions. It is indifferent, lousy parents -- parents who somehow never fail, while in the dopey lexicon we've all adopted, schools can and teachers can and principles can. Never parents, though.

Go see "Waiting for Superman." It is well worth your time. It deals with what maybe the single most important issue facing this country, an education system that satisfies no one and nothing -- particularly the needs of this country in the 21st century

By Richard Cohen  | September 24, 2010; 10:15 AM ET
Categories:  Cohen  | Tags:  Richard Cohen  
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Comments

First of all we need to stop teaching to a test and stop worrying about how we compare to some foreign country. Our education these days is not engaging enough. The no child left behind made a disaster. I have a son, first year teacher, he has at least 10 kids that really should have never passed the fourth grade and he has them in sixth grade and everyone including the principal and ten other people who randomly sit in on his class to critique him, want to make sure that all these kids pass the end of the year federal test. It is really beyond sad for the kids and my son. I actually could go on and on about this situation, it is really awful, and my son the first year teacher is working twelve hours a day just to keep up with it. He also has six special ED. kids in his class also that he has to follow other procedures.......it goes on and on

Posted by: honeybee1 | September 24, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

Thank you. I'm a sixth-year middle school teacher. The issue is parents and lazy administrators who, when confronted with a teacher who should be fired, refuse to take action. Another issue: We are buried in paperwork and told everyday about some new training we must go through. Then, the training -- on computer -- doesn't work.
Here in Florida, we order test-prep materials -- literally, teaching to the test. It's ridiculous and is why I will probably try to leave the teaching field.
PS -- I started as an education reporter out of the Univ. of Missouri-Columbia.

Posted by: tgrzz2 | September 24, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

U.S. Government HYPOCRITES are Politicizing Children's Fundamental Human/Civil/Constitutional Right to be free from physical/corporal punishment in schools; allowing public schools to force religious child rearing values on others/Federal Legislation H.R. 5628 "Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act" in Danger of Dying in Congress TODAY, September 24, 2010!!!!

U.S. Government HYPOCRITES legally allow school children to be physically/corporal punished by school employees in 20 states today! America also helped draft the U.N. Convenant on the Rights of the Child, yet only the U.S. and Somalia (plan to sign soon) have failed to ratify the Covenant!

20 states school disciplinary practices promote violence and sexual abuse of children. Physical/Corporal Punishment is especially disturbing as today it is legal for teachers to hit school children with wooden paddles to deliberately inflict physical pain and suffering as punishment in schools in 20 U.S. states, (these actions constitute sexual assault when done to a non-consenting adult),when the practice is already illegal in schools in 30 states and prohibited by Federal law in prisons and juvenile detention centers. An Enfield, Conn. High School Teacher is facing sexual assault charges after being accused of spanking a female student in class in stark contrast to a recent incident where over a dozen high school girls in Alabama received "Spankings" for prom dresses that were too revealing. Note the disparity. For a real education of what is really happening to our children in our tax-payer funded schools simply type "A Violent Education" and "School is Not Supposed to Hurt" into an internet search engine to review recent shocking reports.

U.S. Congress H.R. 5628 "Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act" was introduced to Congress on June 29th by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) and is about to be put on a SHELF due to lack of votes in support of the ban, as it requires 25 votes to move it on to the next stage: as of July 27th it had 21 votes.

Please don't allow our children's fundamental human/civil/constitutional rights to be Politicized.

Please urge your U.S. Congress Rep. to Co-Sponsor/Support H.R. 5628 "Ending Physical/Corporal Punishment in Schools Act"

Posted by: gworley1 | September 24, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Cohen writes "Anyone can teach the five children in this movie."

This is a profoundly stupid and ignorant statement. I honestly wonder why the Post keeps Cohen on the payroll when he writes this, and similarly stupid, remarks.

There is an enormous range of quality from the best to the worst teachers and, thanks to the teachers' unions, the worst ones generally retain their lifetime employment status instead of either improving or being fired. Cohen knows this and, despite even mentioning it in his piece, nevertheless makes his remarkably stupid statement about anyone being able to teach the students in the movie.

OF COURSE ANYONE CAN TEACH THEM. The fact is, of course, that, as parents, we want good, highly qualified and motivated teachers to do the teaching, NOT JUST ANYONE, as Cohen seems to believe.

Also, Cohen needs to get away from the big cities and bright lights a little more. If he did, he would find out that in many, if not most, school districts, attendance is not a major problem. The major problem in those places is POOR TEACHERS, hired and supported by unions and ignored by administrators.

Posted by: HiggsBison | September 24, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

"It is indifferent, lousy parents -- parents who somehow never fail, while in the dopey lexicon we've all adopted, schools can and teachers can and principles can. Never parents, though".

Thank you for stating the truth. You can build the most hypermodern schools with the best technology and great teachers. Its all for nothing if the kids are not conditioned to appreciate education (Ask Kansas City about this). Its not the schools and often not the teachers. Its the kids and by extension, their parents, who are the problem. Schools are a function of the communities they serve.

And before everyone calls me a Right-Wing Hack or worse, I am a graduate of the DC Public School system. I went on to college and grad school, mostly because I had parents who would not accept laziness.

This is a cultural problem, not one of facilities, money, or even teachers unions. The good news is culture, whether bad or good, can change.

Posted by: boog44 | September 24, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

tgrzz2, I couldn't agree more.

I teach elementary music in Alexandria, VA. Over the course of my students' years at my school, I get to see how they develop. I can see how their attitudes change from kindergarten through fifth grade. When those kids leave my school, the content of their character is not a result of their teachers, but their parents. I can spot a kid with a lousy parent as early as kindergarten. It's always ALWAYS those parents who make my job hell. They are completely unwilling to manage their child's behavior and react with derision when they are so inconvenienced by having to come in for a conference.

In fact, the first time I was every written up by a principal was when I told a mother flat out "They don't pay me enough to raise your kid. You need to step up and do your job."

Bad teachers exist, believe me. And they deserve to be ousted. But, bad teachers combined with the terrible attitudes of people who should never have bred in the first place, just begats ignorance.

Posted by: penance091 | September 24, 2010 1:02 PM | Report abuse

Well, Mr. Cohen, would those CAN-FAIL parents be the ones who weren't perspicacious enough to be born into the right families to begin with. Or would they be the parents who grew up in households themselves where their parent(s- if they were lucky) had a sub-standard education and thus, not lucky enough to have been born on third base, themselves lived the CAN-FAIL life?

Your hypocrisy, sir, is exceeded only by the ignorance of your krypto-racist, all-too-smug fascist babble. I'm waiting for Superman to come and give you a big red "F" right between the eyes.

Posted by: donmotaka@comcast.net | September 24, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse

When will people learn that education begins in the home? I don't think Ms. Rhee was forward thinking enough! Failing students? Failing teachers? Failing schools? What about failing parents? How come the parents who don't send their kids to school "education ready" don't get failing grades? Why is all of the onus of educational reform and improvement put on the backs of the children and the teachers when they are not the decision makers in the decisions that matter? It is the parent, or lack thereof who "decides" if they want to feed their children or send them to school hungry. It is the parent who "decides" if they want to read to their child or help them with their homework. It is the parent who "decides" to bring a child into a chaotic environment to live or not. Ironically, the biggest failures of the DCPS system aren't even in the DCPS system or even in the discussion for that matter! (BTW, having a child out of wedlock while uneducated and or unemployed, to a man who is uneducated or unemployed IS A DECISION!). I would like to see all DCPS kids taking a mandatory class beginning in the first grade which would teach them life skills called GOOD DECISIONS 101. This class would address all of the "bad actors" in one's life and teach them to avoid the seven common mistakes which one day lead to poverty or a continuation of such..

Posted by: Logicworks | September 24, 2010 1:15 PM | Report abuse

Reminds me of the ramblings of old people when I was growing up . . . thanks for the two cents worth. I believe if you want to get into the realm of fact and not opinion, there are studies that demonstrate the single most important factor between a child's success is not the parent, it is the zip code.

Posted by: SarahBB | September 24, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

With odds of 1 in 61 (or worse) and the cards stacked against them (teacher unions, civil bureaucrats, urban politicians all in cahoots), what interest is for the urban poor families to fight for their children?
Especially when the urban politicians are simultaneously placing additional burdens upon them by 1. ransoming the efficacy of social service agencies to pander to the homosexual lobby, 2. entranced with political power that Keynesian economics rewards them that it ignores the lost employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for the poor.
Politicians don't care about the poor, least of all, urban politicians.

Posted by: cprferry | September 24, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

Charter schools punish children who do not have parents who can or will advocate for them.To me this is very unjust and anti-child. All this charter school talk is mostly hype as research shows they seldom do better than regular schools.(and remember Edison Corp, in Philadelphia bragging back in the early 90"s they could fix all the public school's problems?) The drumbeat of propaganda attacking teachers and public schools is coming from the privatize-everything people who can't stand to see employees with health benefits,retirement plans and job protection. Bad teachers CAN be gotten rid of by a good principal who pays attention to the staff and does his/her homework. It's not easy but it shouldn't be. After all that is a person's career and lively hood we're talking about,not to mention personality conflict and political issues that need to be factored in. I taught in the public schools in Virginia, Texas,& New Mexico.My parents were teachers and so is my son. I say be careful what you wish for in demonizing public schools,they are in many ways the bedrock of a democratic society.

Posted by: clary916 | September 24, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

Every month the State Bar in my state published a list of attorneys who have been disbarred or disciplined and an explanation of why. Can anyone imagine a similar list of teachers who are disciplined? The truth is that once the doors of a classroom are closed, no one on the outside knows what goes on inside. Teachers unions exist to protect the jobs of their dues paying members, teachers. Good teachers need students who are ready and willing to learn and who will not interfere with the education of others with boisterous conduct or worse. Many schools make it impossible to discipline unruly students possibly because they come from homes where such behavior is considered normal. Allowing thugs to inhabit classroom helps no one.

Posted by: mhr614 | September 24, 2010 2:15 PM | Report abuse

Shouldn't the teachers work more effective with parents! A part of education is teaching the parent!

Posted by: sarno | September 24, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

We have a lot of bad parents in DC. Does that me we have a lot of children condemned because teachers can do nothing?

That has been the attitude of WTU and the entire establishment for years, and is why DCPS is in the shape it is in.

Rhee has tried to change this culture of condemnation by excuses by maintaining that we cannot use this excuse to condemn these children. ALL children deserve to be given a chance regardless of the parenting skills from whence they get propelled into the arms of the teachers.

Excuses were over, the DC voters who cast their lot with Vince Gray decided that they wanted the excuses back.

Posted by: streff | September 24, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

It is apparent from this article that Cohen thinks single parents are nothing more than the pawn of Saint Lucifer himself--too evil to even research what boarding schools they can pack and ship their kids off to since everybody knows that single parents don't want to spend any time with their kids anyway. Don't those evil fornicators know that it's best for someone else to raise their kids--someone with morals and a sense of decency?

Posted by: forgetthis | September 24, 2010 3:35 PM | Report abuse

To the poster who said the single most important factor in a child's is not a parent, but a ZIP code, this is not always true and certainly was not true 70 years ago. While segregated schools were obviously illegal, the two cities with which I am most familiar, Baltimore and DC, had outstanding Black academic high schools prior to desegregation. In Baltimore, it was Dunbar, named after the great Black poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dunbar and Coolidge, in DC, obviously had excellent segregated feeder schools on the elementary and middle school level.

One of the tremendous ironies of desegregation is that, over the decades, the striving middle class Black families that sent their kids to these schools moved out of Baltimore City and DC to the suburbs, just as whites before them fled the city when schools and housing were desegregated. Those who remained behind were the poorest and least educated (in Baltimore, believe me, many whites fit into those categories) who did not value education themselves and so, in too many cases, did not value it for their children.

Now we have three and four generations of families removed from any sort of devotion to education. It's hard to see how that can be overcome.

Posted by: jhpurdy | September 24, 2010 3:37 PM | Report abuse

Yes, bad parents are a major part of the equation. But that does not mean that teachers don't play a role and shouldn't be held to standards. All of the rest of us who hold professional, private sector jobs are held to performance standards, and we don't have a union to lean on. We are employed "At Will" and can be released at any time, with or without cause, with or without notice, for any reason or for NO REASON AT ALL. Many of us have that exact language written into our employment contracts. That is unfathomable for a group as coddled as teachers and AFSCME members. But it's a heckuva motivator.

If it all begins and ends with the quality of the parents, then why bother with having good teachers? Why treat teachers with any professional respect or expect them to be qualified? Because we all know that good teachers MATTER. We need to be able to measure teacher performance, reward the good ones and deal with the bad ones, unfettered by the unions.

Posted by: allknowingguy | September 24, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse


This is not an education issue but a mental health issue that affects educational outcomes. Teachers and principals do not have the time or training to deal with these issues. Schools need clinical social workers who work for the schools in the schools full time who are trained in how to work with educators, students, and their parents. These clinical social workers are certified school social workers. The bottome line is schools and educational systems should shift funding in order to hire full-time school social workers to work with the many at-risk students and parents.

Posted by: Nashville10 | September 24, 2010 4:05 PM | Report abuse

Its cultural. Its also a battle of cultures. Strong parents (and teachers) can help override a culture that doesn't care about education. In schools were the predominant culture values education, this isn't needed as much. Its pretty straight forward.

Teaching the multiplication tables to receptive kids is easy. Teaching them to kids who don't give a hoot and don't have to give a hoot, is very difficult.

Posted by: scott3 | September 24, 2010 5:39 PM | Report abuse

Thanks Mr. Cohen. I agree with your premise that this is mostly an inflammatory point to get people upset about unions. I also was thrilled at your assessment that anybody could teach this bunch of kids. You're right they will be fine.
This whole movie is a lame bit of propaganda to promote charter schools. Oh, by the way, there are some enlightened schools that actually have union contracts and further the top performing states in education any way you want to look at it are VERY union, starting with Sen Brown's state Massachusetts. Yeah, check it out.
So the red herrings are out there. SuperRhee, the "hero" of this film is more of a Chainsaw Al leaving destruction in her wake. Let's get some solid middle management in place (principals) and start educating kids instead of teaching test answers. The mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Posted by: zebra22 | September 24, 2010 6:00 PM | Report abuse

This is Mr. Cohen at his best.

Bravo!!

Posted by: GaryEMasters | September 24, 2010 6:26 PM | Report abuse

The mistake that underlies this whole sorry mess in the schools is making public education mandatory for children under a certain age. Yes, it should be considered mandatory for the state to provide free public education to people of all ages. No, nobody should be required by law to attend.

We can then expect to be paying much more for juvenile detention facilities, but at least nobody will be getting excoriated for failure to educate the ineducable.

Posted by: fzdybel | September 24, 2010 6:46 PM | Report abuse

With all due respect to Mr. Cohen's beliefs - because they seem to subjectively beyond question - that active, involved parents create good students - uninvolved parents do not - which also unfortunately gets translated into well off kids with often two parents do well and the poor single parent families do poorly - and the even worse - white kids do well, minorities do not -

But those are subjective evaluations - in a recent LA Times expose' where they hired the Rand Corporation to do an empirical study of the LAUSD they found that it isn't class size, parental involvement, income - but who the teacher was that made the difference -

Now, they used the data from the standardized testing but in a way the District never thought to - in what is referred to as Value Added Analysis - which doesn't look at a class/school at a moment in time, but measures individual students from year to year - it shows what teachers have a positive impact and which ones have a negative impact - with enough data to be statistically relevant.

It should never be the sole factor in evaluating an individual teachers performance but it's overall findings are indisputable - good teachers are worth their weight in gold. Check out the Times series http://bit.ly/8Xfntd

Posted by: WestCoast951 | September 24, 2010 7:04 PM | Report abuse

I am here to dispel the MYTH OF TENURE. Depending on your state, it takes a few years to become "permanently certified", which has nothing to do with not being able to be fired. It means that you have taken the coursework,and have achieved a certain level that you hadn't had previously.

IF a principal rates you unsatisfactory a certain number of times, you can be let go from that school. In many cases the union can do nothing about that, EXCEPT to insure that ther person has due process. Unions do NOT protect lousy teachers, they just afford the right for an employee to be heard.

There are many many cases in which the employee has been railroaded, and why should they slose everything they've worked for, for an administrator who simply may not like their personality? Teaching is a profession, and should be treated as such,but unions are also needed to set salary scales,health benefits, and a million other details that the public has no knowledge of.

You won't get "good teachers" with no unions, what you'd get is anarchy and nepotism.

Posted by: Onpoint3 | September 24, 2010 8:46 PM | Report abuse

I watched the ridculous Oprah show with the 3 stooges (Rhee, Guggenheim, and Gates),and not one word was said about educational policies and programs.

I think they used the child as a pawn,and everybody was shedding tears, except the child who looked like she didn't know what was going on.(A hug from Oprah is supposed to mean something, I suppose). My question is simple- WHY did this child's mother have to pay to go to a school, when she should've had a decent, free, public neighborhood school as an alternative?

It doesn't have to be a charter schoool, with millions of dollars donated to it, it can be a magnet school, or one based on a dozen other models. Throwing millions at charters is not going to solve a darn thing, except to line the pockets of the providers,and give some attention to entertainers who are getting involved. NONE of these people are educators who know about, or have studied educational policies.

Posted by: Onpoint3 | September 24, 2010 9:03 PM | Report abuse

"The answer is that they probably don't know anything about the boarding school program because their parents (more likely, parent) are unaware and possibly uninterested."

Mr. Cohen,

I have worked with a lot of these parents. Some of them are so emotionally damaged they cannot give their children what they need. It's easy to say they are uninterested, that is until you meet them. I've seen parents struggling against impossible odds, and being so overwhelmed by life that they don't have much left of themselves to give to their children's education.

Please understand that unemployment, poverty, medical problems, mental illness and high stress neighborhoods all take a toll on parents. These parents do care about their children, but they don't have the financial or emotional resources to give of themselves to their children.

Posted by: educationlover54 | September 24, 2010 9:03 PM | Report abuse

I will put it this way. You can have two hispanic parents that both work at low paying jobs. They have five children to raise after they get off of work. After having both parents work a full t8me low paid job - how much energy do you think they have to get involved in their children's education.

Posted by: educationlover54 | September 24, 2010 9:17 PM | Report abuse

"But lack of money is not what ails this country's schools, and neither is it the teachers' unions. It is indifferent, lousy parents"

If it is the parents fault Mr Cohen,why don't liberals who care about people so much stop taxing bad parents. If you liberals cannot provide a good education, then you should at least let them keep their money.

Since there are so many bad parents of DC school students I say stop taking their money. Especially since bad parents are not likely to get better.

Just like a sorry liberal! Take their money and then blame them!

UNBELIEVABLE

Posted by: MangoJuice1 | September 24, 2010 11:24 PM | Report abuse

An interesting topic and surprisingly civil discourse.

I agree with Cohen that parents are probably the most significant determinant of success for children generally. But what can we do about them? The answer seems to be not a lot, other than try and rescue their children to somehow break the cycle of dysfunction in the long run. We can do this through more aggressive intervention through social services and the like. But this is both expensive and politically unpopular, both of which are extremely problematic considering the fact that these services are administered locally. This leaves the schools as our main line of resistance to familial dysfunction, a task that sadly distracts from what should be their main function.

Schools matter a lot, and teachers matter even more. I've attended private religious schools, good public schools, bad public schools, schools during my military service, community college and university. The quality of instruction was seemingly random. Sure the good public schools had better teachers on average than the bad ones, while community college instruction was better than university instruction on average. But you could get a bad teacher or an inspirational teacher anywhere. The only schools that set themselves apart were those run by the military.

Military instruction quite frankly amazed me. We had people with ivy league educations along side people who were almost functionally illiterate. People from all parts of the country, people who were ESL, people who were former gang members, people who grew up on farms. Nonetheless we all learned our lessons efficiently and quickly.

There are several reasons military instruction was more efficient than the other forms of instruction I experienced. First and foremost is that military instruction has a single effective methodology. There is order in the classroom. Lessons are short, and immediately followed by application and testing, which is constant. This reduces boredom and the tendency for some students to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material.

The military teaches to the test. This is an asset when the test is well designed. Students who are having problems absorbing the lesson are immediately identified and paired up with students who excel for remediation. This makes good use of the available manpower, and reinforces the lesson for the tutor while simultaneously developing their own teaching skills. It also reinforces the importance of learning to the group by giving everyone a stake in making the enterprise succeed.

Public schools could really use a single effective methodology. Even mediocre teachers can be very effective in such systems. By using a single methodology students will also learn what is expected of them and what to expect, and will perform better for that. Schools also can and should build a culture amongst their students that values educational success. There is enough time in the day for that and it pays big dividends.

Posted by: robert17 | September 25, 2010 12:41 AM | Report abuse

You know what you need to do if you want "better" teachers?? Pay them a "professional" salary.... In south FL, a 5 year teacher can not afford an Average home... that is a big problem... If you raise the pay, you will raise the level of person you get...

Posted by: haugs32 | September 25, 2010 1:07 AM | Report abuse

check for job openings near you paying up to $29.00/hour part-time & full-time http://bit.ly/au7QDJ

Posted by: jaymarc25 | September 25, 2010 3:45 AM | Report abuse

Cohen makes this claim:
"In both Washington and New York, two high-profile school chiefs -- Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein, respectively -- have tenaciously fought to have teachers serve the kids instead of themselves and a bullet-proof form of job security."

In fact, Klein and Rhee have operated their districts as cash-cows for shadowy, secretive for-profit "vendors" of education reform services. cohen should disclose that he is employed by one such vendor, the Washington Post Corporation. Cohens employer.

The Post owns 100% of Kaplan K12 Learning Services, which markets its for-profit education reform services in public elementary and secondary schools in DC and in all fifty states. http://www.kaplank12.com/dc/contact-us

The Washington Post Corporation, through its Kaplan K12 arm, runs a chain of elementary and secondary virtual charter schools at public expense, unknown to the local communities whose education budgets it depletes.
http://www.kaplanonlineschools.com/district

Posted by: mport84 | September 25, 2010 6:02 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Cohen is right; while bad teachers need to go, it is parents' lack of appropriate involvement in their children's education - beginning at age 1 - that is the primary cause of students' failure in school.

I am writing as the Director of a volunteer literacy agency. Our work with low literate adults has revealed the direct relationship between adult low literacy and the school crisis, including the Black-White achievement gap. This relationship exists because in many urban centers 35 to 40% of adults read at the Below Basic level (2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy).

The children of these parents, with rare exceptions, are bound to enter school not ready to learn to read. This is the case not because the parents are low income but because they typically read at the 4th grade level or below.

Even the most highly motivated of such parents are simply unable to provide their children with the hundreds of hours of one to one reading that most middle and upper class children receive and that research has shown is necessary to be ready to learn to read when a children enters kindergarten. Studies have shown that children from literacy-poor households -- those where the parents are functionally illiterate -- are read to less than 25 hours by the time they enter kindergarten while middle class children are often read to as much as 1,000 hours. The result is that middle and upper class children enter kindergarten with much more highly developed vocabulary, oral language and cognitive skills than do children from low literacy households.

Research has found that by age 13 children who begin school with low oral language skills (an early predictor of future reading ability) are likely to read at a level five years behind children who entered kindergarten with high oral language skills, thus setting them on a path to school failure and dropping out.

This continues a cycle of family low literacy in which the children fail to become proficient readers, and will in turn send their own children to school not fully prepared to learn. The bottom-line for teachers, is that because low literate households are largely concentrated in central cities, many kindergarten teachers will find that 50% or more of their students come from low literacy households. Under such conditions, no teacher, not even Superman, can succeed in helping all such poorly prepared students become proficient readers.

As a consequence, by the fourth grade when students need to be able to rely on reading skills to master the content in their classwork, many children, and especially minority boys, begin to fall behind.

The message for society and for educators is that the great majority of children from low literacy hosueholds will be ready to learn to read when they enter kindergarten only if someone other than their parents -- someone from a social service agencies, churches or literacy program -- reads to them regularly between ages of three and four.

Posted by: jfunk5 | September 25, 2010 8:45 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Cohen is right; while bad teachers need to go, it is parents' lack of appropriate involvement in their children's education - beginning at age 1 - that is the primary cause of students' failure in school.

I am writing as the Director of a volunteer literacy agency. Our work with low literate adults has revealed the direct relationship between adult low literacy and the school crisis, including the Black-White achievement gap. This relationships exists because in many urban centers 35 to 40% of adults read at the Below Basic level (2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy).

The children of these parents, with rare exceptions, are bound to enter school not ready to learn to read. This is the case not because the parents are low income but because they typically read at the 4th grade level or below.

Even the most highly motivated of such parents cannot provide their children with the hundreds of hours of one to one reading that most middle and upper class children receive and that research has shown is necessary to be ready to learn to read when a children enters kindergarten. Studies have shown that children from literacy-poor households -- those where the parents are functionally illiterate -- are read to less than 25 hours by the time they enter kindergarten while middle class children are often read to as much as 1,000 hours. The result is that middle and upper class children enter kindergarten with much more highly developed vocabulary, oral language and cognitive skills than do children from low literacy households.

Research has found that by age 13 children who begin school with low oral language skills (an early predictor of future reading ability) are likely to read at a level five years behind children who entered kindergarten with high oral language skills, thus setting them on a path to school failure and dropping out.

This continues a cycle of family low literacy in which the children fail to become proficient readers, and will in turn send their children to school not fully prepared to learn. The bottom-line for for teachers, is that because low literate households are largely concentrated in central cities, many kindergarten teachers will find that 50% or more of their students come from low literacy households. No teacher, not even Superman, can succeed in helping all such poorly prepared students learn to read.

As a consequence, by the fourth grade when students have to rely on reading skills to master the content in their classwork, many children, and especially minority boys, begin to fall behind.

The message for society and for educators is that the great majority of children from low literacy hosueholds will be ready to learn to read when they enter kindergarten only if someone other than their parents -- someone from a social service agencies, churches or literacy programs -- read to them on a regular and fluent basis.

Posted by: jfunk5 | September 25, 2010 8:47 AM | Report abuse

"It is indifferent, lousy parents -- parents who somehow never fail, while in the dopey lexicon we've all adopted, schools can and teachers can and principles can. Never parents, though."

Principles? You mean principALS, right? My public school taught me the difference in 4th grade.

Oh, and just so you know, I had a single parent (on food stamps, no less) who did not have (or did not make) time to attend parent-teacher conferences. I never received help with homework. Not once. Sometimes, my homework did not get completed, because I did not have the home support I needed to get it done.

But I excelled in school. I graduated high school with honors, and I went to a top 50 college with a full need-based financial aid package.

What made the difference? My teachers. Sure, I had some bad ones. But I also had great teachers who did not use my home life as an excuse for not providing me with an excellent education.

Today, I am a teacher. A great one. All of my students get a high-quality education. Some have great home support, while others have none. Some even have parents who make my job harder. But it is, in fact, my job, and I do it with pride.

Teachers make the difference. They did for me, and I do for my students.

Posted by: alertcitizen1 | September 25, 2010 8:58 AM | Report abuse

Movies are supposed to be entertaining. They're listed in the entertainment section of the newspaper, not the editorial page.

A person would have to be anal to spend $12 on a Friday or Saturday night to see a documentary.

Keep the documentaries on PBS and out of the theaters.

Posted by: PhilLombardo | September 25, 2010 7:18 PM | Report abuse

The real problem for these kids is their parents or lack of parents. Some parents aren't able to give their kids the economic, financial, and emotionally supportive stable home life they need. And many times they aren't even able to give them the time to help them with their education. They are busy working in order to pay the rent, car insurance, and to buy food and clothes, and to take the kids to the dentist to be able to spend any real time with them on their education.

Posted by: educationlover54 | September 25, 2010 8:59 PM | Report abuse

The real problem for these kids is their parents. Some parents aren't able to give their kids the economic, financial, and emotionally supportive stable home life they need. And many times they aren't even able to give them the time to help them with their education. They are busy working in order to pay the rent, car insurance, and to buy food and clothes, and to take the kids to the dentist to be able to spend any real time with them on their education.

These parents care about their children. They are just too busy working to buy the necessities of life for their children. They are exhausted and tired.

Posted by: educationlover54 | September 25, 2010 9:02 PM | Report abuse

The comments regarding this article are better than the article itself. In order for education to be reformed the whole society has to be reformed. Trying to reform education is like trying to reform government.

TIC
http://www.technologyinclass.com/blog/

Posted by: technologyinclass | September 25, 2010 9:39 PM | Report abuse

I am a parent. I don't care anymore if I am part of the problem. I am part of the solution. I am giving my son 3 hours after school every day. Now you give me what I need.

No tenure for teachers. Pay good teachers more every single year. Fire teachers who have lost their fire, never had the knack or never knew the subject. Set merit goals based on the population they are teaching - equity does not mean what you think it means.

Feed kids breakfast. Pay for art, sports and keep class sizes small.

Hire non-union teachers.

We are 100% responsible for the solution.

The reason the NEA has an impact on education is because they have power. Thank you Bob Chanin for clarifying this, and for the teachers in the room for underscoring that point. You changed me from a union supporter into a thoughtful and rational person again, I will never support the union again - the organization abused its children.

I will always support teachers, and when they are bad, I will support them into a better job for them and their students.

Posted by: marthahk | September 26, 2010 12:10 AM | Report abuse

The key to being a good student is internal motivation. Children because of their development struggle with this and need external motivations to stick with something until they mature enough to do it themselves. But many parents don't want to play the heavy, they don't want teachers to "upset" their children, they avoid and deflect and teach their children to do the same. No child is allowed to fail, everyone gets a gold star and suddenly in high school this stops and we tell students you're too old for that without having taught them how to sit down, turn off the world and focus on a task they have to do and may not want to do. We can't even agree on uniforms for students - something common place throughout the world- because the kids won't like it - kids are told you don't have to stand up during the pledge bc its their right to refrain - what about just showing respect to others by standing- Public schools are afraid to be sued, to have bad PR - so any attempt to teach discipline is a struggle - but without it the chaos prevents learning and retards growth. I doubt this will ever change.

Posted by: myrlyn | September 26, 2010 1:14 AM | Report abuse

Oh, please, how could any sane person not put the teacher's union front and center in this travesty. They've monopolized public schools for decades and not delivered on one promise.

Cohen's article is nothing more than useful idiot drivel.

Posted by: onecent100 | September 26, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

Does anyone really think that schools when faced with oodles of teaching applicants choose the worst of the bunch to go into the classroom?

Could it be that there aren't a whole lot of great, talented applicants out there? Especially when society is hell bent on trashing the job and scapegoating the teachers. And what do you think happens when some bright, energetic young thing wants to do something meaningful is faced with the reality of the job & realizes just how awful it has become?

I have taught for 30 years. National Board certified. Winner of state awards. Consistent highest evaluation. Highest test scores, etc. Everytime I do this I cry a little inside; but I tell anyone who asks, find a different profession. The kids will always challenge you. But you certainly don't need to be trashed by sociey.

Oh- and by the way... How do you think the kids feel when a major part of their daily lives is consistently trashed by society? Think it would make you feel worthwhile and valued?

Everone know what works to teach kids. And everyone knows what is really broken. And everyone knows how to fix it. A little hint- if you fix it, schools will attract guality applicants.

Oh, I'm sorry, if we did that there would be no mega-bucks for our "leaders" who are self-absorbed, narcissistic media gluttons with personal, self-aggrandizing agendas.

Posted by: eduk81 | September 26, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

Cohen wants parents to step up and be accountable.

What public policy changes is he advocating, I'm wondering? Poor kids of "uninterested" parents fail? Drop out? Get lumped together and swept under the proverbial rug?

Mr. Cohen isn't offering any solutions; he's stating the obvious. OF COURSE it's not fair to ask teachers and schools to do the jobs of parents. Duh. But it's WAY not fair to expect little poor kids to pick up their parents' slack.

What policies are best benefiting the littlest victims of this mess? The same policies that require teachers to be at the top of their game, and pay them for it as well, a la Rhee.

These 'hold-parents-accountable' people aren't getting anything done. When Mr. Cohen gets bored of passing the blame around and is ready to do something constructive, THEN I'll be interested to hear from him.

Posted by: 28inArlington | September 26, 2010 7:59 PM | Report abuse

Cohen wants parents to step up and be accountable.

What public policy changes is he advocating, I'm wondering? Poor kids of "uninterested" parents fail? Drop out? Get lumped together and swept under the proverbial rug?

Mr. Cohen isn't offering any solutions; he's stating the obvious. OF COURSE it's not fair to ask teachers and schools to do the jobs of parents. Duh. But it's WAY not fair to expect little poor kids to pick up their parents' slack.

What policies are best benefiting the littlest victims of this mess? The same policies that require teachers to be at the top of their game, and pay them for it as well, a la Rhee.

These 'hold-parents-accountable' people aren't getting anything done. When Mr. Cohen gets bored of passing the blame around and is ready to do something constructive, THEN I'll be interested to hear from him.

Posted by: 28inArlington | September 26, 2010 8:00 PM | Report abuse

I agree that the comments were more interesting than Cohen's column. Only one or two posters mentioned issues that I wonder about. I am a special educator; I have taught for almost 20 years and am National Board certified. In all this debate about "blame", where are the viable solutions? What about the kids? I am appalled that many people think that teachers only care about so-called "tenure" (which doesn't exist, actually) and how much money they make! Most of the teachers I know care, first and foremost, about the children they serve. Lest you think this is such a cushy job, I can tell you that I routinely work 10-13 hour days (but I'm only paid for 7/5), I'm not paid for summer, holidays, etc., my district has cut my contract days for the 2nd year in a row and increased my workload every year. Another teacher said it well; "We are teachers all day; then, we have this whole other job to do!" I related to those who mentioned children who are reading years below grade level but are victims of social promotion. I have a few months to prepare them for our state's tests in reading and writing; I guess it's then my fault if they don't meet standard? In fact, many of my students do meet standard. Those who don't choose not to make any effort to do what I want them to do. I taught in Virginia for years-Virginia is a right to work state. I now teach in a collective bargaining state. Truthfully, I see little difference except that the union has been a little more effective in avoiding more and more erosion in benefits and, most of all, working conditions. Like one of the posters above, I'm not sure I would recommend teaching to many young people who are considering it. I resent that teachers are blamed for all the ills in our public education system; we didn't create those problems, but we do the best we can with what is dumped on us. We have to deal with every child who comes through our doors, unlike many other countries and private schools. Attitudes and behavior are worse and worse; some years more than others. I had the worst group of 10th graders in my career last year and wondered how I would fare with some of the "reforms" that are being touted. My biggest question, though is; if all the alleged "bad teachers" are fired, who will replace them? Does our society think that "highly qualified, effective" teachers are just lining up for these jobs? Really? Do you think they will still line up, given the punitive focus of "reform"? Where do you think they will come from? I never see anyone answer this question. I know there are bad teachers; I have seen some-most of them are gone. Until the profession gets the respect it deserves, working conditions improve (which benefits the kids, too), and kids are taught that education is important, I don't see anything changing. I'm not against reform, but we need to come together and find solutions that are feasible.

Posted by: skirkpat | September 26, 2010 9:42 PM | Report abuse

Bravo, Mr. Cohen; thank you for holding parents accountable for their parenting, or lack thereof. Perhaps the next time a teacher sits across from a parent who asks what they are going to do about their child's behavioral problem the teacher should respond...since I will probably only be involved and invested in your child for this year, the more important question is what are you going to do about your child's behavioral problem as you are the one who should be involved and invested during his/her entire life. Parents, ask yourselves this...do you partner with your child's teacher to ensure that he/she succeeds, or do you conveniently abdicate your responsibility and place blame on others? If you do that, shame on you! Your child deserves better!

Posted by: Scottie4 | September 27, 2010 12:23 AM | Report abuse

Bravo, Mr. Cohen; thank you for holding parents accountable for their parenting, or lack thereof. Perhaps the next time a teacher sits across from a parent who asks what they are going to do about their child's behavioral problem the teacher should respond...since I will probably only be involved and invested in your child for this year, the more important question is what are you going to do about your child's behavioral problem as you are the one who should be involved and invested during his/her entire life. Parents, ask yourselves this...do you partner with your child's teacher to ensure that he/she succeeds, or do you conveniently abdicate your responsibility and place blame on others? If you do that, shame on you! Your child deserves better!

Posted by: Scottie4 | September 27, 2010 12:24 AM | Report abuse

More revealing than the movie itself has been the reaction to "Waiting for Superman" from teachers. It seems like whenever one teacher (in this case the proverbial poor teacher) is criticized all other teachers circle the wagons and launch a counter attack. The simple fact is that any endeavor will succeed or fail based on the quality of workers involved. If teachers are responsible for the next generation in this country, shouldn't we hold them to a higher standard of excellence than we do mattress salesmen, bank tellers or computer manufacturers? Anyone who gets in the way of a poor teacher being fired is putting personal needs above those of children (yes I'm talking to you, teachers unions).

And at the same time Mr. Cohen makes an incredibly important point. The fact is, until parents become more involved in the educational lives of their children, even the best teachers will struggle to educate them well. At the end of the day, the sad truth is that some children will be left behind. The question for parents, teachers, unions and administrators is how many will fall through the cracks and will they take their classmates with them?

Posted by: Saxguy001 | September 29, 2010 12:08 AM | Report abuse

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