Zorianna Kit in The Huffington Post | http://huff.to/aXf9it
November 2, 2010 01:25 PM - Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim's documentary feature Waiting for Superman has been generating much talk for its portrayal of the public education system in the United States.
I sat down with Donald S. Wilson, Principal of Wonderland Ave. Elementary in Los Angeles, CA, to discuss his thoughts on the film and the public education crisis.
Wilson, who has 17 years of teaching experience, came to Wonderland in 2009. The public school, located in Laurel Canyon, is part of the Los Angeles Unified School District. It runs from Kindergarten through to 5th grade and also has a gifted/high ability magnet program.
With consistently high test scores year after year, Wonderland is ranked as the number #2 among all LAUSD elementary schools.
What was your initial reaction to the film?
Donald S. Wilson: The factual information that was put forth was very compelling. It's a great place to not 'start' the conversation, but to take the conversation up to another level.
What did you spark to specifically?
Wilson: Using the families was a great human narrative to tie the whole story together. It was moving and it put a human face on it. Children may not truly understand the educational ramifications of not getting the lottery but parents do. As a single parent raising an adopted son, that's what brought it home for me. I have dealt year after year with those same anxieties. I drive an additional 40 minutes every morning to get my son to a school that works for him. To see the parents' hearts being broken killed me.
Charter schools came across in the film as the favored way to educate our children. Do you agree?
Wilson: I don't think charters are the answer. Charters point us to the answers. It's good conversation. I think more autonomy at the local school site is one of the great lessons that we can learn from charters.
The filmmakers made it clear that tenure was a major problem in the education system. Are you for or against it?
Wilson: Tenure gives teachers a property right in a job. No other position has that except for college professors, who need academic freedom at that level. In the public school system, we don't have that need. We teach the district curriculum, which comes from the State Department of Education. There is nothing to protect, so tenure doesn't make sense in the public school system.
The teachers unions were made out to be the villains of the movie. Was it a fair portrayal?
Wilson: The union was demonized by the movie, but ultimately the union is us. And short of the union going away, I think we have to say, 'What can we do from within?' Those teachers who are highly dedicated and passionate are far too busy being a good teacher to get involved in the unions. But if we can get those types of voices in to there, we can start making some serious change.
Give an example of a change that's needed.
Wilson: We can raise the bar on the teaching profession. We have to say we want the best and brightest. Ultimately, we are going to have to pay our teachers true professional salaries. But we're also going to have to demand true professionals. Which means if you perform well, you get paid well.
What is the key to a good teacher?
Wilson: Teaching takes passion, energy and constant reflection on your practice. It's having 20 to 40 bodies that are morphing all the time into different human beings with different needs. What they needed on Monday is maybe not what they need on Wednesday. A good teacher is aware of that. It took me probably six years to hone my skills as a teacher.
Should student test scores be used to evaluate teachers?
Wilson: Only if it's part of a larger package of what constitutes a stellar teacher. Test score information is invaluable. It can show us who is consistently raising student achievement and who is not. That gives me something very solid to work with a teacher. It doesn't mean I have to fire a teacher. It means I get to go in there and say, "What is going on?"
What teachers had an impact on you growing up?
Wilson: I think one of the reasons I am an educator is because of my aunt Irma, who was a first grade teacher. She taught me how to read from Dick and Jane on her lap. I remember that very clearly. Once I started going to school, there was Mrs. Broder, my third grade teacher who turned every day into a play day - a play day that was completely educational. That was the year that I became a true reader - a child who went from being an okay reader to a person who loved books and became proficient at it. There was also my seventh grade teacher, Mr. Garfield, who would do crazy things like go and find animals that had been killed and bring them to the classroom where we would dissect them. I remember dissecting a chicken and then recreating all the bones and learning about them. He was a total madman, but in a good way.
If you could meet someone from the film, who would it be?
Wilson: (President and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone in Harlem, NY) Geoffrey Canada. I loved everything about him - his style, his passion. I loved the look that was captured in his eyes when he was watching those teachers teach. The other person I found so powerful and fascinating was (chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools system of Washington, D.C.) Michelle Rhee. If I were still teaching and living in Washington, I'd give up all my tenure rights to work for her in a heartbeat. She is someone who, in my mind, really believes in teachers, more than anybody else.
To find out more about Principal Wilson and Wonderland Elementary, please visit www.wonderlandschool.org.
smf: As an alum of Wonderland Avenue School (BBTEC - Back Before The Earth Cooled) I hold it in special esteem. And it was Wonderland parents and the Wonderland PTA who brought the best and truest vision of the current funding crisis in California to the short film HOT 4 TEACHERS – the film Davis Guggenheim wishes he had made!