In an episode of the 1950s TV show Superman, a school bus full of kids is threatened with disaster as it nearly topples over a cliff, when whoosh the Man of Steel flies in and pushes the bus to safety. That was the fantasy that Geoffrey Canada, the South Bronxbred boy who became a Harvard-trained education entrepreneur, hoped for as a child. All it would take to save schoolkids was muscle and a miracle.(See photos of the evolution of the college dorm.)
But America can't exist on muscle anymore. With manufacturing jobs a sliver of what they once were, and field-level farming jobs largely stocked with immigrant labor, the coming generation of middle-class and working-class Americans needs not strong backs but educated minds. The titans and geniuses, the Warren Buffetts and Mark Zuckerbergs, will still propel themselves from privilege to power. What we need are people to work behind the counter at Southwest, to keep a million offices purring efficiently, to oil the machinery of civil service. A blue-collar economy is yesterday; a white-collar one is today and tomorrow.(See TIME's special report "What Makes a School Great.")
Americans also can't afford the fantasy that we have the world's best educational system. The U.S. is near the bottom of advanced countries in math and reading scores. We may not pass sleepless nights worrying about Finland, but that country's kids get a world-class public-school education, and ours don't. Our problems are bigger and more systemic: that, in the world's richest nation, a seventh of our citizens live in poverty; that the majority of African Americans form a near perpetual underclass; that the nuclear family has detonated into pieces, leaving many children with only one parent, if that, to love, instruct and keep an eye on them; that the culture of instant gratification convinces kids that studying is a bore, while the infinitesimal chance of making millions as a pro athlete or a rap star is worth pursuing. Surely the young deserve full-time parents, more realistic goals and inspiring teachers. But maybe that too is a fantasy.
Waiting for "Superman," Davis Guggenheim's edifying and heartbreaking new documentary, says that our future depends on good teachers and that the coddling of bad teachers by their powerful unions virtually ensures mediocrity, at best, in both teachers and the students in their care. The movie's major villains are the National Education Association, the country's largest union, and the American Federation of Teachers. Posed against them are the film's heroes: Canada, whose Harlem Children's Zone schools give kids an intense, comprehensive intellectual and social education, and Michelle Rhee, another Harvard grad who as chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public-school system enacted stringent reforms, including firing many principals she thought were substandard. Canada is like the gifted proselytizer who sells a great idea, and Rhee is like the tough sheriff brought in to clean up a bad town.(Video: Can Michelle Rhee save our schools?)
Guggenheim, who won an Oscar for the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth, might not have made his new film if, while taking his own children to their private school in Los Angeles each morning, he hadn't had to drive past several public schools that he and his wife had decided wouldn't suitably prepare their kids. What he found in his two years of researching Waiting for "Superman" (with co-producer Lesley Chilcott) was that a lot of schools aren't right for any kids neither the dull ones who need gentle prods to move competently from K to 12, nor the underprivileged bright ones who could be the Geoffrey Canadas of the future, if only a good charter school had enough slots to accept them all.
The movie concentrates on five of these children: Bianca, in kindergarten, and Francisco, a first-grader, both applying to the Harlem Success Academy; two fifth-graders, Anthony in Washington and Daisy in East Los Angeles; and the lone white child, Emily, an eighth-grader in Silicon Valley. Because the schools they hope to enter choose their new enrollees not by testing but by lottery, the futures of these and hundreds of thousands of other kids their careers, income levels, social standing depend on which ball falls into the hole. Pure chance will determine whether the answer is Bingo! or the abyss.
Guggenheim may load his case by concentrating on children who are already passionate about their education; surely the vaster challenge is to enlighten the kids who think school is not paradise but a prison. And charter schools, which are promoted here as the enlightened alternative to the public-school system, have a record more mixed than the film suggests. So it's no surprise that Guggenheim has been the recipient of teachers' dirty looks. (Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has written about the flaws she finds in the film's generalizations.) But a documentary movie is not a dry treatise; certainly this one isn't. Guggenheim wants to start conversations, debates, elevated arguments to get people thinking about a crucial problem whose solution has eluded Presidents and parents for the past half-century.
Waiting for "Superman" stirs that discussion, and perhaps moves it to the front of our national concerns, because it is so smartly and feelingly constructed. The five climactic lotteries lend the film a mood of desperate suspense; the five children, especially Bianca and Daisy, give it dollops of heart. This is more than an Important Documentary: it is engaging and, finally, enraging as captivating as any Superman movie, and as poignant as a child's plea for help.See photos from inside a public boarding school.See photos from a Mandarin school in Minneapolis.
It's a documentary including personal stories of people caught in the system. I'll leave more of the human drama for you to see yourselves but telling you the premise of this film won't ruin anything. When I watched the movie I'd like to tell you I was angry (I was) and that it made me verklempt but the truth is that the film brought real tears to my eyes that strolled down my face and I had to wait to wipe them away at the sad parts so my neighbors wouldn't see me. I heard many people with the telltale sniffling.
It's crushing to watch little children in America who have the same dreams as my 5 and 7 year olds and not have the ability to lead a normal life because of where they're born. I'm not talking about the overwhelming weight of responsibility of thinking about extreme global poverty. I'm talking about little African American, Latino, and rural Caucasian children in our own backyard and on whom we can have an impact without having to change the world.
I'm talking about children who have done well in k-2nd grades and then get put into a lottery system for charter schools because the drop-out rates for their neighborhood schools are north of 50 percent. They are often raised by single moms, grandparents, or under-educated immigrant parents who want the same thing for their children that we do for our own.
It profiles one little girl who finished her course work at a private Christian school in her neighborhood, but was unable to attend graduation because her mom got behind on payments. It shows a young boy being raised by his single grandmother because his father overdosed on drugs and his mom abandoned him. And his stated goal at his young age is to get an education so his kids can grow up in a better neighborhood.
Wasn't that the American promise? Work hard, do well in school, and you can have a better life?
All of the kids end up in a lottery system to try and get into public charter schools where their odds were between 5-10 percent of being accepted based solely on numbers.
[update: to be clear about something I've seen in feedback to me. I'm not anti-teacher. If you read the appendix you'll see that. Teachers have changed my life for the better. To suggest that I'm "anti-teacher" or somehow abdicate parental responsibility because I'm pro "pay-for-performance" including terminating teachers with poor records is to mischaracterize my position.]
The movie basically has the following thesis:
- 50 years ago the American education system (k-12) was the best in the world. The world has globalized and there are now many countries around the world competing for the jobs of the future.
- We already have a jobs gap. Workers in middle- and low-income America can't get jobs while Silicon Valley can't get enough high-quality developers. This problem will become even more severe in the next 20-30 years if we don't address it now.
- We have doubled our national investments per child in education (in real terms i.e. adjusted for inflation) and our scores have remained flat. Pouring more money into the system isn't helping because THE SYSTEM is broken.
- They system produces students in every state that have almost no proficiency in reading and math (let along sciences). In every state the proficiency rates (people reading and doing math at 12th grade level) hovers between 20-33 percent and that's for the graduates. That's appalling.
- The drop out rates in poor areas (both urban and rural) is so severe that we're producing generations of unemployable people who have one of the world's highest rates of incarceration. He gave a simple graph that showed that four years of incarceration costs tax payers approximately $130,000 per inmate, which is more than it would cost to educate that same person in a basic private school for the entirety of k-12.
- This problem seems like it's just for some random people that you don't know because you don't live there. It is actually a problem for us all because
- we're paying for it in tax payer dollars down the line
- it leads to higher crime rates which is a societal bad
- we're creating our own skills gap, which is leading to more job creation overseas
- we're doing an injustice to our fellow human beings, many of whom never have a chance based on where they're born
So what is the problem and proposed solutions from the film maker?
- It has long been believed that people from lower-income neighborhoods can't learn as well as middle and upper class ones due to environment issues such as problems at home and trouble in the neighborhood. The film highlights a nationwide school system called KIPP Schools (knowledge is power program) that teach only in lower-income neighborhoods. They have been around for 16 years now and have graduation rates above 90 percent. They have produced the only measurable increase in test schools for lower-income areas in the past 40 years on a sustainable basis. They are non-union charter schools that reward teachers based on performance.
- KIPP improvements are better than those even in wealthy suburban areas including that of Woodside, California. While affluent areas produce "on average" better scores than other programs they do this by having really high calibre students at the top who bring the averages up significantly. They don't do enough for masses of students. They put students on "tracks" where the better performing students end up getting the better teachers and more resources so the young students who don't score well out of the gate get left behind.
- The real issue according to the film maker is not with the students but with the teachers and specifically with the teachers unions. This hugely resonated with me. Having teachers unions in 2010 is so archaic and leads us to have public school systems where the best teachers are paid the same as the worst ones. How is that American? How can we let this happen to our children? The picture on the right is Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, the second largest teachers union in the country (with 1-1.5 million members) and villan of the film.
- Teachers unions have created a system by which it is nearly impossible to fire poorly performing teachers. He cites a statistic that about 1/100 medical doctors lose their licence,1/200 layers lose their license to practice law but only 1/2,500 teachers ever loses their ability to teach our children
- The teachers union guarantees two things: average pay for teachers where they're all treated equally and tenure. The first means that a teacher who goes way beyond the call of duty earns the same as one who sits reading the newspaper all day (they showed some of these on hidden camera and the principals were unable to fire them due to tenure).
In fairness to Ms. Weingarten I'd like to include a quote from a NY times positive review of the film that was more balanced on her role:
"Many of his scenes are already out of date. New York's rubber rooms were closed in June. The same month Washington teachers accepted a breakthrough contract, which Ms. Weingarten helped negotiate, linking teachers' pay to their performance and making it easier to fire them for incompetence."
- The film also profile the superintendent of the Washington D.C. school system, Michelle Rhee who was profiled in Time Magazine. She tries to shake up the system in one of the most poorly run regions in the country based on proficiency of students. She proposes to increase the pay of teachers to nearly 2x their existing pay and well above the national average She says she wants to have "the best paid teachers in the country." In return she asks the teachers unions to give up tenure so that they can fire those teachers that have significantly underperformed over time to create room for new teachers paid by merit. The national teachers union blocked her initiative and didn't even allow a vote.
- And the teachers unions are one of the biggest lobbyist groups in America. They give heavily to the Democratic party on national elections and heavily to the Republican party on state and local elections. They buy the kind of protectionism that we wouldn't accept in any other part of our workforce.
I'm sure it's not as simple as all that But it seems to be the foundation of what's wrong. This is a country that believes that you get ahead on the basis of merit-based achievements. We tell our kids this. It is a country that by foundation believes in capitalism as the best model of producing an equal society. It's a sham and a shame that we don't enforce the system on the education system. As the filmmaker says in his voiceover is because "we're making this all about the adults (e.g. pay, career protection) and not about the children." Shame on us.
I want to see America's best and brightest become teachers because they will produce our whole next generation of leaders and innovators. But you can't expect to attract as many of our young talented people without a system that can over reward those who perform the best.
I'm obviously not talking about the private school system in the US where teachers, facilities and students are still cranking out the top tier of society. I'm talking about the egalitarian public school system that will determine whether America remains a competitive player in the global economy when your grand children or their children are adults.
Please go see the film. And better yet if you do as Fred Wilson recommends and book your tickets via Fandango or MovieTickets and get the $15 DonorsChoose.org gift card.
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