Teachers deserve our respect; a new documentary deserves scorn

While sitting through the excruciatingly manipulative documentary Waiting for "Superman," I thought back to one of the first teachers' strikes in America, the one involving teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

It was a horribly divisive action. Many teachers—especially the older ones—had not joined the union, perhaps believing that doing so would forever lower the public perception of them. Others who had joined the union just couldn't bring themselves to walk out of the classroom and leave students behind in an act that would be widely perceived as somewhere between blasphemy and treason.

During the strike, the Los Angeles Times reported that a sizable percentage of the district's janitors (who were unionized) were getting paid more than the average teacher. No offense to janitors, but there was no damned way that such pay inequity should have existed.

My math teacher, an idealistic man teaching in a ghetto school, had a doctorate in math and had worked as a cryptographer for Army Intelligence. He was making $2,800 a year as a teacher. Adjusted to today's dollars, that comes out to less than $18,000. He and his wife had two small children, and I later found out that he was agonizing over a lucrative offer to join the CIA. His salary had remained flat for years, and it was being eaten up by raging inflation caused by the Vietnam War and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs. For many teachers struggling to earn a living wage, there was no choice but to unionize.

This man and others like him were vilified by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan and scorned by many in the general public. But they hung in, and they won.

Forty years later, teachers are actually paid pretty well. But they're also endangered, under constant attack by Republican politicians who apparently get up in the morning and spin the wheel to determine whom or what they will attack that day—teachers, unions or teachers' unions.

It drives me nuts that middle-class Republicans—poor lost souls that they are—don't understand and/or appreciate that the labor movement of the 20th century is largely responsible for the very existence of a middle class in America. It's absolutely shameful that the sacrifices of all those people who poured their sweat and blood into blue-collar jobs so that their kids could have a chance to go to college are largely forgotten. And does anybody believe that the all-out warfare against organized labor and the shrinking of the American middle class are just coincidental?

And now along comes "Superman," an over-hyped and under-delivering documentary on the current state of American education, and guess where virtually all of the blame is placed? Yep, with the teachers' unions.

While this is probably a discussion better-suited for another time, I don't think that America's schools are doing all that badly. The task of educating young people in America is daunting, especially compared to other First World countries, where everybody speaks one language, and there is only one culture. I personally believe that the American educational system gets a B, at the very worst. There's certainly room to improve, but things could be a whole lot worse.

Anyway, back to the documentary. To call "Superman" one sided would be to praise it with faint damnation. Many great documentaries are one-sided. This thing is about 4/15 of one-sided. Attempting to lay all the blame on teachers' unions and painting charter schools as the sole source of redemption are simplistic, if not downright dishonest, arguments.

I cringe at the thought of defending all teachers' unions, because there are certainly many examples of unions wrongly protecting incompetent and even criminally dangerous teachers. Because of the adversarial nature of things, such is occasionally the outcome in situations where a little common sense on both sides would much better serve all involved. However, in this real world, I would rather have a few underachieving teachers in the system than see the vast majority of hard-working, dedicated, excellent educators walking around on eggshells under constant threat from capricious administrators and legislators who have at least one eye on the financial bottom line.

"Superman" follows five school kids in different parts of the country whose parents are trying to get them into charter schools. Far more infuriating than the attack on teachers' unions is the conceit that charter schools open up a yellow brick road to college and success. It has been well-documented that the vast majority of charter schools in America do not do a better job than public schools, and a significant number of charter schools do much worse than the public schools to which they are closest geographically.

By the end of the film, when we are shown painful reaction shots of the families as names of new charter-school enrollees are determined by lottery, I admired the fire of the students, and I gave the parents the benefit of the doubt that they really did believe that charter schools offered a miracle. But toward filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, I felt anger.

I hope Guggenheim isn't Waiting for Oscar, because he doesn't deserve one.

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