The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Modern cynics and skeptics... see no harm in paying those to whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those to whom they entrust the care of their plumbing. "...  ...John F. Kennedy.

Commentary of the Day - November 20, 2010: We Are Indeed Waiting for Superman.   Guest commentary by Libby Segal.

When I was in tenth grade, I received my first C on an English paper.  My feeling of disappointment when I received this "average" grade was the deepest that I had felt in any of my prior years of schooling.

Before handing in my paper, I had convinced myself that I would earn a good enough grade to receive a B for the quarter.  After learning my grade on that paper, I was devastated.  All I kept thinking was "Oh my God, I am going to get a C on my report card."  But I  really should have been thinking, "Wow what did I do wrong on this paper?"

After school I went to see my teacher.  I was in tears, as we discussed the paper.  She pointed out why I had received the grade on the paper, and where I could improve my work the next time.  She assured me that with some work, I would do much better on my next paper or project.  My grade on the paper remained the same, and the C for the quarter was burned into my report card, but on my next project -- a research project on the death penalty -- I received almost 100 percent.  Because I had a teacher who cared about my success, and not just about the grade next to my name, I became an above average student who did well on all my papers after that.

I wouldn't fully understand what that experience meant to me until I was peer editing one day in my freshmen college writing class.  As I read through my neighbor’s paper, I scratched my head baffled at my classmate's inability to cite outside sources properly.  What I was reading sounded like it came straight out of a scholarly journal.  When I asked my partner where she had gotten the information in the paper, she pulled a three-page essay from her backpack.  I noticed that parts of her paper had been copied word for word from that essay and enclosed in quotation marks.  When I asked her why she had put quotations around those parts, but had not referenced the source, she responded by saying, "I thought that the quotation marks meant it was from an outside source."  Again, baffled, I told her that she probably would receive a failing grade if she left the paper as it was, and neglected to actually reference where the information came from.  I began to understand that for many of my peers, plagiarism was not their intent.  Many of them, as I was beginning to notice in a pattern of papers I helped edit, had just simply never been taught the mechanics of properly citing references.

This was difficult for me to comprehend, because I had been citing works in my papers since I was in fourth grade, when my science teacher accused me of plagiarizing in a short essay.  Prior to handing back the short papers that our class had written, my teacher asked me to stay after class.  She then asked me if I had known what plagiarism was.  I answered by telling her that it meant to take someone else's work.  My mom, an English professor, would have shook her head at me in disappointment had I gotten that one wrong.

Now, editing my peer's paper, I realized how fortunate I was to have received a quality education in the Bethlehem (PA) Area School District.  Not all students were this fortunate, I thought to myself.

That thought returned, recently, when I watched Davis Guggenheim's new documentary, Waiting for Superman.  After seeing the hour and forty five minute film about our failing school systems, I realized that the feeling I had while editing my peer's paper, was just a taste of what needed to be done to improve our education system.

Sometimes it is very easy to assume that every one around us has had the same opportunities that we have had.  Sometimes it is easy to think that if they haven't been given the same opportunities -- then they probably didn’t deserve them.  Often it is easy to create place blame on circumstance such as poverty.  Sometimes it is easier to give up on people than it is to turn our systems on their side and really see what is wrong with the picture.

There are children out there fighting to learn and our education systems are failing them.  My peer didn't know how to cite works, and this could have caused her professor to accuse her of plagiarism, which could have jeopardized her college career.  But the problem began well before college.  Many students who weren't taught properly never discover that they weren't taught at all, because they end up dropping out before they even graduate from high school.

There are many reasons our students don't all receive the same opportunities.  But, at the very least, it is the responsibility of the school and the teachers in the school to provide all students with the opportunity to acquire knowledge, the opportunity to make mistakes, and the opportunity to learn from those mistakes, and eventually to excel.

The documentary Waiting for Superman, has both its champions and its critics.  But, for me it represents a start towards improving our education system through its focus on students, and what they need to succeed.  Those of us who have received a good education, and who are now teaching have to see how fortunate we've been.  We have to use our own education to help our students succeed.  I was fortunate to have received an excellent education in a good public school system because I had teachers that were both knowledgeable, and who cared about their students.

One of the key points that I garnered from Waiting for Superman is that it is possible for students who find themselves in even the worst of circumstances to succeed if they have teachers who are both knowledgeable and caring.  Our task is to create schools that will attract such teachers.

2010, Libby Segal.
Libby Segal recently graduated from the University of Rhode Island with a dual degree in Communication Studies and Film Media. She currently lives in Italy and plans to teach English as a second language for the next eight months, where she also will be taste testing and writing about every cappuccino in sight. Her blog can be found at

The Irascible Professor comments: Part of the message of Waiting for Superman is that charter schools are superior to conventional public schools, and that teachers' unions are bad.  Another part of the message is that students who have great teachers learn.  The first part of that argument is much too simplistic.  There is plenty of evidence that shows that while a small percentage of charter schools excel, the vast majority are no better than conventional public schools with comparable student populations.  Likewise, there are plenty of conventional public schools staffed with unionized teachers that produce excellent results, just as there are plenty that produce bad results.  In the view of the IP, it's the second part of the message that's really important.  As Libby has experienced, it's the caring and knowledgeable teacher who can make the difference.  Unfortunately, there are not enough of those to go around, and it's especially hard to find them in the schools that need them the most.


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2010 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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