Should teachers get tenure?
How should they be evaluated?
Are Utah schools in trouble?
A special screening of the education documentary "Waiting for 'Superman' " provoked heated discussion on those questions and others among a theater full of Utah lawmakers, educators and business leaders Monday. The group watched the film during a screening hosted by the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's National Chamber Foundation and participated in a panel discussion about it afterward. The foundation is hosting the event in 12 cities nationwide.
The film follows five students who enter lotteries to win spots in high-performing charter schools independently-run public schools in hopes of gaining better educations and lives. Along the way, the documentary examines the state of public education, often taking a critical tone toward teacher tenure, teachers unions and a school system that the movie says hasn't kept up with modern demands.
Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, Utah Education Association president and panel member, acknowledged after the film that Utah is falling behind but said it's "not for lack of teachers' effort or for us permitting bad teachers to remain in the classroom." She said the union is not in favor of keeping bad teachers in the classroom.
The film illustrated the "dance of the lemons," or the passing of bad teachers from one school to the next in some areas of the country because of the difficulty in firing them.
In Utah, teachers are on provisional status for their first three to five years in the classroom, meaning they can be fired at the end of the school year for any reason without explanation. After the three to five years, administrators decide whether to let them go or grant them career status, meaning they can only be fired after a much more extensive due process.
"I wish that [filmmaker Davis] Guggenheim had talked about the many success stories that are happening in public schools in collaboration with the unions," Gallagher-Fishbaugh said. She witnessed such collaboration in a number of Utah districts including Granite, where she said the local association has worked with administrators to deal with teachers who either needed help, additional training or counseling out of the profession.
State Superintendent Larry Shumway, who was also on the panel, however, said: "Sometimes it's got to be a little more than counseling. It's termination."
He said the film was right that the quality of teaching in the classroom is "the largest determinant" of student success. He said it's critically important principals be allowed to choose who teaches in their schools.
He also said some Utah students are being left behind, but said after the panel discussion that generally he doesn't feel Utah schools face all the same problems as schools portrayed in the movie.
Panel member Mark Bouchard, who leads the Salt Lake Chamber's education task force, said the film may not reflect the situation in Utah now, but it one day could.
"Is it Utah today? No, it's not," Bouchard said. He said, however, that Utah is also behind the rest of the country when it comes to the state's demographics. "When you take a look at the challenges of a New York or Milwaukee or Los Angeles, that probably is two or three generations away from where we are today."
Judi Clark, executive director of Parents for Choice in Education, however, said after watching the film that the problems it portrays are Utah problems.
According to a recent Utah Foundation report, Utah students most often rank last on the National Assessment of Educational Progress when compared with only states with similar ethnic makeups, parental education levels and poverty rates.
The panel discussion also drew comments from some lawmakers, such as Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, who said the union has been one of the biggest obstacles to legislatively-proposed innovations for Utah schools. Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said he doesn't have a lot of hope that the Governor's Education Excellence Commission, on which he serves, or the chamber's education proposal will change schools any more than past reports and initiatives have. He said he doesn't see anyone proposing ways to work on issues raised in the film, such as ending teacher tenure.
Liz J. Reilly, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the nationwide screenings and discussions are intended to help business communities and lawmakers engage more with education and each other.
"It provides a point of view and although it may not be a point of view that's common with everyone in Utah, it does resonate with some areas of Utah, and it's something for us to be cognizant of," Bouchard said.
o Read Sean P. Means' review of the documentary "Waiting for 'Superman'" at http://www.sltrib.com/entertainment.