Documentary review: Waiting For Superman
MrsDoF and I saw Waiting For Superman at the historic Normal Theater this evening. It’s a documentary about how bad our schools are, who is to blame, and the solution to it all.
Wait, did I get it wrong? Is the documentary really that simplistic? That’s how it struck me. All right, one thing at a time then:
How bad our schools are:
In spite of doubling what we spend on education, our kids rank behind twenty-or-so other nations in math and science, but first in self-esteem. (Cue YouTube videos of kids doing stupid stunts and crashing hard.) Certain schools can be identified as “dropout factories” where as few as half of the kids even graduate, and of those who do, only a few go on to college. The social cost of these schools is enormous; it’s actually a threat to national economic security.
One major insight of the film is that over time, dropout factories contribute to poverty as much as poverty contributes to the failure of the dropout factories. Even “good” schools are doing the job they were designed for fifty years ago; tracking a few to college, more to skilled labor training, and the majority as laborers. In the post-war economic boom, this was a viable model, but in an information economy, it isn’t.
Who’s to blame:
Well the bad ‘ol teacher’s unions are to blame, basically. The worst five percent of teachers are short-circuiting kids, so that they never catch up. Teachers get bulletproof tenure after only two years in the system, so there’s no way to fire them, and no way to reward outstanding teachers. Every year, schools shuffle around bad teachers they can’t get rid of. This is known as the “lemon dance” or the “turkey trot”. In New York, the district simply warehouses awful teachers at full pay. Grr! So frustrating! And the teacher’s unions are “the largest single contributor to political campaigns, and most of their contributions go to Democrats.” (Cue ominous music)
Charter Schools! The documentary followed the cases of several children who struggled, whose parents were struggling to keep them in better schools where bad teachers can be fired and good teachers rewarded. One heartbreaking case was a woman who was working overtime to send her child to a parochial school. All kept up on paperwork to get them applied to a lottery to get into a charter school. All pressured their children to do homework.
And not just any charter schools, but KIPP (which stands for Knowledge Is Power Program) schools, which have been getting stunning improvements over regular public schools. They have tighter rules for teacher productivity than regular public schools, and put more pressure/apply more support on kids to succeed. Yea! Our country is saved as long as we find the courage to bust the teacher’s unions and model public education on the KIPP schools! Or get rid of public education altogether!
OK, wait a minute…
When I see two systems that perform at wildly different rates, the differential might be in the system itself, but I also want to look at the inputs. Are the systems acting upon identical challenges, or is there some kind of filter going in? The documentary suggests without examining the assumption that public-charter KIPP schools and ordinary public schools have comparable student bodies. The major dramatic focus is on the random lottery that selects admissions, so it has to be fair, right?
This is the major logical flaw in the documentary’s premise, and it’s right there on-screen for anyone who is willing to see it. Yes, it is “fair” (whatever that word means in this context), but the student bodies are not equivalent. The first input filter is that the kids in those gymnasiums tensely awaiting lottery results, have exceptional parents. Their legal guardians have gone to the extent of working overtime to put them in better schools, of going to parent-teacher conferences, and of going through the not-at-all-simple application process to get their kids into the KIPP academy. These are the parents who, once the child is accepted, are willing to sign a contract that says they will extend the educational process into the home. This is wonderful and I wish all kids had parents who were that available and who cared that much, but kids don’t choose their parents. It’s one hell of an input filter.
The second input filter is that KIPP schools accept fewer special-needs kids than normal public schools. And the third filter is that if kids underperform or cause problems in a KIPP school, they’re not obliged to deal with them; they can ship ‘em off to a lower-performing school. Taken together these filters put the lie to (mostly for-profit) charter schools’ claims of having found a magic formula to fix education.
Another thing that made me uneasy is that the documentary contains a couple of Conservative dog-whistles. One is the “Bad DOE” whistle, in which the Department Of Education is at fault for everything. Another is the “Bad Union!” whistle. Cheap-labor conservatives have had it in for public employee unions since pretty much the first one, and they’re not exactly being honest in how they play it either. I’ve learned to take any Conservative claim about any union with a grain of salt. For instance, when the national teacher’s union supposedly wouldn’t vote on a proposal to trade tenure for higher salaries (cue footage of union convention leaders looking ashamed and nervous) I really had the feeling something was being, uh, left out of the story.
And Cons love privatization; the free market is their preferred model for anything whether it fits or not. They want to privatize schools, airbase security, the TSA, the EPA… they’d privatize the Fire Department if they could.
And where the film tosses aside funding concerns, the cruel fact is that schools in poor districts are poor, while schools in rich districts are rich. Pointing to an average total spent on education belies that reality. Excuse me, lies about that reality.
I might compare teachers to soldiers, who don’t make foreign policy, but are charged with fixing things when it fails. Teaching is an impossibly difficult task fraught with idiotic political pressures. This is undoubtedly the reason for the excessively generous tenure situation. The latter won’t change until the former does.
Finally – and I’ll shunt this off to another post sometime – standardized test scores are at best a very crude measure of “success”. Unless the information economy somehow generates wealth from people sitting around taking tests, I don’t know. We’re entering a time in history where the stuff you know is of less economic value than how well you solve new problems.
Points of agreement:
Handing out automatic tenure after 2 years is indefensible. The documentary notes that in Illinois, a public school teacher has only a 1 in 2500 chance of losing their professional license, versus 1 in 57 for doctors and 1 in 97 for lawyers. Just as there are probably five percent of soldiers, cops, or fry cooks who do a disproportionate amount of damage, I have no doubt at all the same is true of teachers. How about it, teacher’s unions? Are teachers really that much better than everybody else? That needs to be fixed right now, and hopefully the film will put some pressure on the unions to change it. I just hope that the public will understand the need for specific political protections for teachers that will give them room to do it.
Expecting kids to fail – that has to stop. The “soft bigotry of low expectations” is undoubtedly the greatest thing George W. Bush ever said (and I am mystified that it wasn’t included in the movie).
The idea that bad schools – in the long term – cause poverty rather than poverty causing bad schools is to me a dichotomy where we should be describing a feedback loop. But it is an important insight anyway.
And finally, the message that kids go on suffering and our economy spirals downhill while so-called “adults” go on squabbling over political issues is, sadly, right on target.
Not at all finally…
How did the films creators overlook such glaring flaws in their analysis? At the risk of armchair psychoanalysis, they might be desperate for a simple answer. But there are very, very few complex problems that allow of a simple, ideologically clear answer.
If you saw the film, what did you think?
- New York Times review of the documentary
- Yes, I am fully aware that Guggenheim produced An Inconvenient Truth and has been an Obama supporter. Doesn’t change one bit the cheap-labor conservative dog-whistles in the film.
- It appears I am not the only one who found the film crucially flawed: Not Waiting For Superman
- Washington Post: “Guggenheim edited the film to make it seem as if charter schools are a systemic answer to the ills afflicting many traditional public schools, even though they can’t be, by their very design. He unfairly demonized Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and gave undeserved hero status to reformer and former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. Guggenheim compared schools in Finland and the United States without mentioning that Finland has a 3 percent child poverty rate and the United States has a 22 percent rate.”
- Blaming the teachers can’t overcome problems of poverty in educational achievement