American education system on trial?

Monday, February 24, 2014

I recently viewed two documentaries, directed by Davis Guggenheim: The First Year, and Waiting for “Superman.”  These documentaries bring some important, disturbing details about the American education system into the public spotlight. Guggenheim effectively uses something like case study methodology to examine some troubling examples of public education institutions in the United States.

The First Year examines, through the lens of five first-year teachers, what it looks and feels like to be a teacher in the American school system. The first-year teachers are portrayed as professional, hard-working, caring people, who know their content, are passionate about teaching, and who understand the importance of appropriate rapport with students and parents/caregivers for quality learning experiences throughout the school day.The schools in which these first year teachers work are not wealthy schools, and in some cases, the surrounding community’s lack of regard for education is apparent. There are examples of social-political issues that teachers are expected to address in the classroom; in a day and age when there is increasing pressure on teachers to be content, behavior, methodological, technology and presentation experts, it seems a bit over the top to also expect teachers to address issues that are clearly not part of the state-mandated curriculum content.

Waiting for “Superman” examines, primarily through the lens of 5 children and their parents/caretakers, what it looks and feels like to be trapped in part of the American system that is failing.  Guggenheim’s documentary lays the blame for underperforming (and in some cases downright terrible) schools squarely on the shoulders of poorly performing teachers. Teachers at ineffective schools are portrayed as lazy, ineffective, unprofessional, and even dangerous to the well-being of the children in their classrooms. Guggenheim’s film points an accusing finger at teacher unions, suggesting that unions block major legislative, state and local school improvement initiatives, thereby contributing to the multiple problems in already troubled schools. 

I appreciate the discussions that can be fostered through these documentaries; it is challenging to re-think some of my own paradigms with regard to how public education should be executed in the United States. Having said that, there are a few things from these documentaries with which I take issue. For example: (1) it is simplistic and short-sighted to blame the NEA and AFT for the ills associated with public education while not addressing the roles and responsibilities of administrators, school boards, state departments of education, and family units with regard to education; and (2) suggesting that the solution is easy (teachers just fill the brains of children with knowledge) seems to ignore how the brain is designed to work and also discounts the impact of environment on the capability of a child to learn. Guggenheim does give the viewer a strong sense of the injustice of a lottery system for selecting children into the “good” schools, successfully pulling even the most reluctant educator into the discussion, even if for only a moment.

The teacher preparation programs at John Brown University, including the MEd secondary licensure program, are committed to training excellent classroom teachers who have a passion for learning and who consider the process of becoming a teacher part of their professional and spiritual mission. Our students are challenged to grapple with the issues presented in these documentaries as they shape and articulate their own personal philosophy of education while at JBU. 

For more information about JBU's MEd program – and all of the other great teacher education programs at JBU – visit the College of Education website.

Gloria Gale


Gloria J Gale, PhD
Associate Dean, College of Education

Blog HomePosted By: Dr Gloria Gale - 2/24/14 2:40 PM

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