When I hear the word “lottery”, one of the first things that comes to mind is Shirley Jackson’s 1948 short story, The Lottery (transcribed here). In that story, a town full of people gather in the public square and by lottery, choose who will suffer a terrible fate. This week, a documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman'” tells of a different kind of lottery in which the precious few whose numbers are called get a shot at a good future while the remainder are left behind. This is school admission by lottery. It sounds disgusting and the documentary would have you believe the consequences are as dire as Jackson’s story of 62 years ago.
I have not yet seen the film but the film’s web site gave me more than enough to think about. Besides a trailer, there is a video of a panel discussion in Washington D.C. among some of the key players in the documentary. Three of these panelists stand out.
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First there is the superintendent of schools for Washington, D.C. Michelle Rhee. Rhee is a no-nonsense, kick-ass leader who closed a bunch of under-performing schools and fired a bunch of incompetent teachers. Academic results in D.C. have improved as a result.
Then there is Geoffrey Canada, the President and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a support system in Harlem that seeks to monitor and assist poor inner city children from birth through college. Part of this program are three charter schools managed by Mr. Canada, all of which have waiting lists and are entered via lottery.
Finally, there is Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, an AFL-CIO affiliated labor union.
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As I listened to the three panel members present their case, I found Ms. Weingarten the most irritating. I am pro-union. I do believe that workers need protection from some overzealous employers who put profit ahead of basic decency. However, when it comes to public education we are not dealing with the corporate profit model. We should be dealing with what is best for children and I found Ms. Weingarten repeatedly asking for assistance for teachers not children. Her mantra was “teachers need support”. I am very sympathetic to the fact that teachers have to deal with the consequences of dysfunctional families who send psychologically (and sometimes physically) oppressed kids to school. I know how important it is for families to be supportive. However with that said, there is no excuse for teachers not to do their best to achieve optimal outcomes. I felt that Ms. Weingarten put support of teachers ahead of support of children.
Michelle Rhee does not view the teacher’s union as particularly helpful in education reform. She claims she gets sued when she tries to remove bad teachers (a claim refuted by The Washington Post) and seems particularly impatient with teacher-sympathetic factions. Rhee herself was a teacher so I doubt she totally lacks empathy for them. On the contrary, I get the sense that she is just tired of excuse making and wants to see results as evidenced by higher graduation rates and better test scores.
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Geoffrey Canada seems to me the most articulate and is at neither Rhee’s nor Weingarten’s extremes. He makes the very interesting point of how can we expect to attract quality candidates to the teaching profession, when the profession itself resembles factory work? He says the current incentive is “low wages but you get lots of time off”. What kind of way is that to encourage ambitious young men and women to enter the teaching profession? He says that instead, the teaching profession should be like any other profession — doctor, lawyer, businessman — you work at it as long as it takes to get results and you get paid accordingly. Canada has a private enterprise attitude toward public education which focuses on measured results. If your students are ending up in jail instead of the work force, you’ve failed. Plain and simple. Teachers who achieve outstanding results should have outstanding careers. Those that don’t should no longer be teachers.
While I support unions for the most part, I believe there are certain “walks of life” in which unions can be counter-productive and I would almost go so far as to say they should be forbidden in these areas. These areas include: police, firefighters, doctors and nurses, air traffic controllers (yay Ronald Reagan) and yes, teaching. When collective bargaining puts lives at risk or puts our children at risk, there should be no collective bargaining. We should not be bargaining with our children’s future. I don’t know how we protect teachers from abusive employment practices but children should be the priority. In the academic structure advocated by Mr. Canada, teachers live or die based on objective results. What purpose do unions serve in this structure other than for excuse making?
It is important to add one final thought however. I get the impression from the trailers that I’ve watched that the outcome of “the lottery” is slightly overstated and melodramatic. One is left to believe that a child’s only hope is to attend Mr. Canada’s Promise Academy Charter School or all hope is lost. I think that is nonsense. Kids with supportive parents and a particular disposition can make the best of the worst environments and succeed in the end. While I understand that the state of education in this country is dire, I don’t believe that everyone who loses the lottery will suffer the fate of Mrs. Hutchinson in Shirley Jackson’s story.