Is the Intra-Democratic Party Edu Policy Debate “A War”?

That's what Harlem Children's Zone founder Geoffrey Canada said yesterday at the Clinton Global Initiative, which I'm covering for The Daily Beast.

In a breakout session, Canada spoke bluntly about overhauling the teaching profession, and was greeted with whoops and cheers from the crowd, a mix of political, corporate, and philanthropic elites.  

“Here’s something that absolutely needs to be changed,” Canada said. “I believe that if you’re a terrible teacher, you should be fired. I know, it sounds harsh. People are thinking, ‘Oh my God.’”  

The issues of teacher tenure and pay are increasingly under a public microscope. Earlier this year, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top education grant competition rewarded stimulus funds to states that agreed to tie teacher evaluations and salaries to student achievement on standardized tests. But results of a major study of teacher merit pay in Nashville, TN, released this week, found that bonuses of up to $15,000 did not improve student test scores.

The new education reform documentary, "Waiting for Superman," features Canada and opens this Friday. It largely blames the achievement gap between middle class and poor children on teachers’ unions' protection of poor performers. The documentary elides other problems in American education, such as increasing racial and socioeconomic segregation and the lack of a national curriculum. And while the film cites Finland’s schools as the best in the world, it does not mention teachers there are unionized and awarded tenure. Instead, director Davis Guggenheim, of "An Inconvienent Truth," focuses mostly on the successes of a small group of non-unionized and high-performing charter schools, which admit students through competitive lotteries.  

Canada referenced the controversy over "Waiting for Superman" Tuesday, and tried to find common ground. “One group in America wants to talk about [the Harlem Children’s Zone] as a charter network, and the other group wants to talk about the fact that we provide comprehensive services to children. And these two groups are at war. It’s really a war. They hate each other!”

Canada explained that the Harlem Children’s Zone includes both charter schools and intensive community outreach that begins with expectant parents who attend Baby College, a course and support group where they learn about the latest neuroscience on how children learn and develop.  

“If you want to end poverty in America, you have to do more than just do schools,” Canada said. “You have to improve outcomes for an entire community.”

3 thoughts on “Is the Intra-Democratic Party Edu Policy Debate “A War”?

  1. Keith Hefner

    Do teacher unions, and their protection of the due process rights of their members (including some who are surely very bad teachers) contribute to bad educational outcomes? Of course. But are union protections a major cause of bad schools? That hardly seems likely. As DG points out, teachers are unionized in Finland. They’re also heavily unionized in states like New Jersey, which do relatively well in national rankings, and there are very few unionized teachers in Alabama or Mississippi, which do poorly. These “natural experiments” seem to suggest that unions might even be a net positive. It makes me wonder if the people who suggest that the main impediments to better schools are bad teachers and teacher unions have other motives, or are just uninformed. (Unions also prevent principals from from firing very good teachers who may also be a pain in the ass to the administration.)
    The suggestion that charter schools are the answer seems similarly overstated. There’s a lot of data on charter schools now, and at best it’s inconclusive. Some are great, some are horrible, and many are in between (sort of like the public schools, except that public schools must take everyone, and end up with much higher percentages of high needs kids, like those in special ed in ELL classes). If the real problem was the inability to fire bad teachers, then all those bad charter schools should be able to turn around their results by firing their staff and replacing them with teachers from Lake Wobegone, who, like their students, will all be above average.

  2. Pondoora

    I’ve had enough of all the glassy-eyed admiration of Finland, unless we become willing to use more information about it to help chart our course. The Superman school movie is a piece of propaganda rather than a respectable documentary because it doesn’t bother to include these facts:

    - Trade union membership: Finland is tied for second place at 76%; the U.S. is # 17 at 13%. Perhaps children do better in school when their parents belong to unions.
    - Child poverty in North American and European countries: The U.S. is #2 at 22.4%; Finland is #21 at 4.3%. Pathetic.
    - Prisoners (per 100,000 people): The U.S. is #1 at 715; Finland is tied for #113 at 71. The unvarnished truth.

    From Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow”: “The number of incarcerated African Americans has increased 800% since the 1950s, despite only small fluctuations in the violent crime rate in the past 35 years. We’ve gone from 300,000 people in jails and prisons in 1972 — to 2.3 million today, with an additional 5 million on probation and parole.” She continues, “I believe that the mass incarceration of people of color in the United States is the most pressing racial justice issue of our time.”

    Sorry to be blunt, but our society has deep, deep problems that those teachers who have been willing to work in the poorly-funded, segregated urban schools didn’t cause, and will never be able to fix.

    Or should we be blaming the difference in educational achievement on soft drink consumption? In the U.S., people drink 216 liters/year. Just as with our incarceration rate, we are easily the winner at #1. The Finns only drink 52 liters/year.
    In other words, if we truly wanted our education system to do as well as Finland’s, we’re going to have to change a lot more than our schools
    See more insightful comparisons @ link to

  3. Funny News

    I think there is a big problem in the whole mindset of education in our country. It’s about as broad as the financial devision between the rich and the poor. I think the problem is parents in higher societal positions want their children to have the BEST education available. Parents on the lower economic later want improved education or even the best. However, it doesn’t matter how good the education is. It’s only a PART of the students future success. We need to LEVEL OUT education. Students don’t need to have filed trips to NASA or the moon to learn for goodness sakes. Teach students, give them opportunities to explore their interests in depth. Teach them entrepreneurial skills, give them tools so they can continue their education on their own through the internet or extracurricular (non school sponsored) programs. Encourage them to devote their time to self improvement and knowledge. Have you read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Differences by students are exasperated by better programs but the programs themselves don’t cause the differences. Students need to learn guidance, work ethic, and passion. And all they need is a DECENT school system to get them there. Why can’t we come up with a decent school model for all children?


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