Guest Columns


Don’t wait, Colorado. Superman isn’t coming anytime soon

Our copy of “Waiting for ‘Superman’” arrived last week, and we took Saturday afternoon to become familiar with this “documentary” on the dismal state of American education. I have to admit I didn’t expect much balance, given that filmmaker Davis Guggenheim also was responsible for the faux science in Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” But with all the talk I figured something must be up.

The film provokes passion, anger and is downright dispiriting about how public education is failing its students. Just as disturbing was the use of lotteries to allow promising kids to enter charter schools or learning situations vastly superior to the “dropout factories” in which they are trapped.

But they’re probably not handing out copies of “Waiting for ‘Superman’” at teachers’ union sessions, or showing it on the in-house network at the headquarters of the National Education Association or American Federation of Teachers. The debilitating effect teachers’ unions, and the structure and onerous rules of public education, have had on American education are plainly detailed as the root cause of the failure of the system.

There’s no doubt that Colorado falls within the same stagnation and stifling bureaucracy. We’ve all seen the Colorado Education Association’s highly-produced TV ads and expensive full-page newspaper ads during the legislative session. They are a far from subtle reminder that CEA money, and member votes, have put many of those legislators in office. (Three legislators are so proud of their CEA memberships that they’re listed in their bios.)

I don’t know of any analysis that has pegged the pitiful status of Colorado’s educational system to the proliferation of rules, regulations, policies and mandates currently in place in our state. I’m betting that it would take millions of dollars and two years of effort to decide what works, and what needs to be eliminated.

Don’t put an “anti-teacher” label on me. My daughter is a teacher of 185 seventh-graders in six social studies classes, responsible not only for leading them to knowledge but also for writing lesson plans, grading papers, crafting learning sequences for student teachers, doing their evaluations, schedules for aides, and weekly reports on the 20-something “special needs” students in her classes. Her 60+ hours a week always exceed my work week.

Basic reforms should be at hand, although it appears there’s no one to lead the charge. It’s not coming from the business community, nor ordinary citizens. Aside from the usual education wonks, it appears no one is really paying attention. It will take someone with a strong backbone to start the discussion and organize effective reform.

The goal should be to find and keep high-performing teachers. The equation is simple: Good teachers = good students = higher-performing graduates + better jobs and economic growth.

I suggest elimination of collective bargaining for teachers — and by default — the teachers’ unions, would be a start. But rather than go through the paralyzing motions we’ve just seen in Wisconsin, let’s put it on the ballot, and let the voters decide. It would take courage (always in short supply at 200 E. Colfax) to propose a referendum foreclosing collective bargaining for teachers. If legislators won’t face the problem, an initiative would be the next alternative, but hardly a slam dunk to collect all those signatures and sell it through to the electorate.

And yes, we’d see millions spent by the CEA to convince us that the ruination of Colorado was at hand. We’d soon tire of the scary ads with the weeping third-graders. But this is the type of issue that might also galvanize business and political groups who are waiting for an opportunity to reshape our educational system. The voters should have the final say on how they want kids educated. And if it starts with eliminating bad teachers, reinforcing the excellent instructors, and raising the overall quality of the state’s schools, why not take that risk?

One more thing — why on earth are there 178 school districts in this state? Why hasn’t consolidation taken place, to streamline the method of instruction, save money on books and desks, and cut administration? Why hasn’t Sheridan, a poor-performing district, been required to merge with Englewood, a better-rated district? And why aren’t both of those districts included in the Littleton District, a vastly superior producer? The same goes for other small districts, like Mapleton, Bennett, Byers and Strasburg. And why shouldn’t Pueblo City and Pueblo County merge? There are countless other examples.

It appears that Colorado is trapped in the same “we’ve always done it this way” malaise that is dooming public education. With a new perspective, that can change. If you see the film, you’ll learn people do have the answers. Super teachers can be the “Superman” in our schools.

Pete Webb, a former award-winning investigative reporter and president of the Colorado Film Commission, owns a public relations firm specializing in public affairs work. He is the immediate past president of the Special District Assn. of Colorado.