I saw Waiting for Superman last night, and I definitely recommend it to anyone who’s been on the fence. The movie is a documentary of the U.S. education system by Davis Guggenheim, who also made An Inconvenient Truth. The story follows a small handful of children from various backgrounds who have applied to be in the lottery for crowded public charter schools because the ‘normal’ public schools have failed them. To setup the ending, the movie starts with an introduction to these students and their different situations. As the movie progresses, it explains more of the recent history of public education in the United States, and both Allison and I sort of lost track of the fact that these were real students from real families. The ending actually shows the various lottery processes. I had been told that the ending was quite moving, so perhaps it didn’t affect me as much as it could have. Consider Kristen Paglia’s review at the Huffington Post:
From an education advocacy standpoint, this film is a gamechanger. As Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa stated at the screening, “If your blood is not boiling by the end of this film, then there is no blood pumping through your heart.” My blood was certainly boiling. Further, having fallen in love with these five children, it was hard to distinguish between the tears of rage, sorrow, and triumph by the end. This film will inspire change.
You don’t have to be super politically engaged to know that there’s a ton of problems with education in America. Sadly, it’s been a huge problem for years. Waiting for Superman does an excellent job highlighting some of the biggest problems. I’ll try not to spoil the movie for you by revealing too much, but one thing that stuck with me was an Illinois statistic about the rate of people losing their credentials for various professions. Here’s the NY Times review, which also focuses on this statistic:
In Illinois, where one in 57 doctors loses his medical license and one in 97 lawyers loses his law license, only one in 2,500 teachers loses his credentials, because of union rules.
Scary, right? The movie has a lot of other revealing things to say about the NEA and the AFT, which may come as more of a shocker to people who didn’t go into the movie thinking they were bad for education.
Guggenheim positions several people as heroic figures of a teaching revolution; it’s a stark contrast from his depiction of unions. Geoffrey Canada, Michelle Rhee, and the founders of KIPP come off looking like saints fighting the good fight. They should be lauded for their efforts, but it’s not really about finding heros. Finding heros is difficult, inconsistent, and probably not scalable. Again, from the HuffPo review:
We absolutely cannot underestimate the power of charismatic and visionary leaders, and I am grateful for the people who had the courage to make a film that celebrates education heroes, but there are not enough of those heroes to go around.
Even if we can find heros, the politics of teaching are such that they have the deck stacked against them. After the movie came out, Michelle Rhee was pushed into resigning as the D.C. Schools Chancellor. From Adam Schaeffer:
No man or woman, mayor, chancellor or superintendent can significantly and permanently reform the government education monopoly. It is unreformable. Rhee’s tenure and modest success underscores this fact. Entrenched interests regroup, respond, bide their time, and reformers move on or are shoved along.
What can we do? Well, we can realistically identify the teachers that aren’t getting the job done. Finding obviously bad teachers isn’t hard and would make a big difference. One of the reformers interviewed for the film said that if we could get rid of the bottom 6% to 10% of the profession our schools could be right back up near the best in the world. School superintendents should have the ability to fire the worst teachers rather than perform some idiotic dance of the lemons. What’s a dance of the lemons you ask? Here’s an explanation from the Hoover Institute article linked above:
Often, as a way to save time and money, an administrator will cut a deal with the union in which he agrees to give a bad teacher a satisfactory rating in return for union help in transferring the teacher to another district. The problem teacher gets quietly passed along to someone else. Administrators call it “the dance of the lemons” or “passing the trash.” Howard Fuller, the superintendent of Milwaukee public schools from 1991 to 1995, explains: “Administrators found they needed to trade bad teachers because it’s easier than getting rid of them. We had one teacher who put a student’s head down the toilet. He simply got moved to another school.”
It’s much easier to identify the worst 10% of the profession, but we can’t easily get rid of them. Remember: Illinois was only able to fire one teacher of every 2,500. That’s 249 bad teachers keeping their job for every one that gets fired.
If there’s a problem with Waiting for Superman, it is simply that the documentary needed to follow a compelling story. The most emotional aspect of the movie is watching these students as they go through the lotteries for their various charters. Unfortunately, this positions charter schools as “the answer,” when in reality those schools are still publicly funded schools. They are still subject to pressure for politicians and unions, albeit somewhat less than a normal public school. The story makes for a great documentary, but in reality we need a truly competitive environment for education. Here’s Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute:
The only way to make educators truly put children first is to require that they satisfy parents — the customers — to get their money. And that can mean only one thing: transforming our education system into one in which parents control education funding and educators have to earn their business.
Think about this for a moment. If parents had complete control over who got paid to teach their children, would we have a problem getting rid of the worst 10% of the profession? Would we have trouble accurately compensating great teachers? Would we have children stuck in lotteries like those in the movie? One of those children was entered because her mother couldn’t continue to pay for her parochial school on top of paying taxes to support her local public school. What would be so bad about treating school as a business? Again, here’s Neal McCluskey:
If a firm isn’t happy with a supplier, does it call its congressman, hold fora, pen op-eds, badger reporters, all in the hope of eventually persuading the supplier to change? Of course not: If the supplier doesn’t improve, the firm just finds a new one and moves on!
Since it is election season, I’ve seen several commercials for political candidates that attempt to trash their opponents by saying they want to eliminate the Department of Education. Every time I see one I think, “Education is too important to be a department in the government!” Do we really want to put all our eggs in one basket?
If you haven’t really given education policy much thought before, consider seeing Waiting for Superman in theaters. It’s a good introduction to both the politics and the emotion surrounding education policy. Also, when we saw the movie last night, they gave us each a $15 gift card to use at DonorsChoose.org. Regardless, it was a great way to spend an evening.