Waiting for Superman is a documentary that is likely to leave you both angry and frustrated. It does a pretty good job of illustrating the problem with America’s schools, but it is much less credible when trying to suggest a solution.
The basic facts are indisputable. America has among the worst, maybe the absolute worst primary and secondary education system in the rich world. American students consistently rank among the lowest in the developed world in math, science and language skills. They also consistently rank highest in their estimates of their own abilities. The combination of high self-esteem and low accomplishments seems particularly dangerous.
The system absorbs tremendous amounts of money, far more than other industrialized nations spend per pupil. In the suburbs a lot of the money is obviously going for shiny new school buildings. A lot of money is also spent in the inner cities, but it is not clear where it is going; the schools are dumps and the kids have no supplies.
Who is to blame? While acknowledging that there are many skilled, dedicated and hard-working teachers, the movie suggests that much of the blame lies with the overly-powerful teachers unions and the system of “tenure” which makes it impossible to fire bad teachers. This produces some dramatic footage. Around the country teachers who are incompetent, teachers who spend the class time reading a newspaper and ignoring the students, even teachers who sexually abuse the students prove impossible to get rid of. They end up being shuffled from school to school, or in New York City being paid full salary and benefits to sit at a desk in a “rubber room” and do nothing.
This is surely part of the problem but it is hardly the whole story. Interestingly the movie totally ignores the mirror-image problem that it is typically equally impossible to get rid of students who are disruptive and violent. It takes only a few such students to make it impossible for anyone else to learn.
Numerous politicians and educators have vowed to fix the system and have generally failed miserably, blocked by an impenetrable wall of opposition when they tried to make any meaningful reforms. We see a lot of Michelle Rhee, the Chancellor of the Washington DC school system. After taking over one of the worst urban school systems in the country, she was able to make some reforms in the central bureaucracy, fire some of the worst principals and shut down some of the worst-performing schools. But when she tried to reach a compromise with the teacher’s union, offering to double the pay of teachers who voluntarily gave up tenure, the union bosses would not even let their members vote on the proposal.
(The movie leaves out the end of this story, which happened after filming completed. In the Democratic primary a few weeks ago the union arranged to have the mayor who appointed Rhee voted out of office. Local politicians around the country will take notice of what can happen to anyone who tries to upset the status quo.)
If the movie sees any hope it is in the “charter school” movement. These are a small number of independent public schools, generally set up by idealistic parents and educators, which operate outside of the control of the regular educational bureaucracy and unions. The movie focuses on four children who are ill-served by the regular schools and hope to get into high-performing charter schools. The four schools in question have far more applicants than they can accept and are required by law to use a lottery to select incoming students.
Three of the hopeful applicants are the sort of poor inner-city kids who usually feature in stories like this, but one is a middle-class girl who attends a beautiful suburban school, where she is floundering. Such schools tend to do a reasonably good job of educating the top 20% of their students, but the rest tend to get short shrift.
The movie briefly mentions but otherwise ignores the fact that only 20% of charter schools outperform the regular public schools–the high-performing ones shown here are thus not typical. This isn’t really surprising. The point of charter schools was to allow educators to experiment with new ways of doing things. It is only natural that many of the experiments will fail. The problem is that there is no system in place to allow the successful charter schools to expand and shut down the unsuccessful ones. (On the contrary, the teacher’s unions have been working hard to shut down all the charter schools, whether successful or not.)
In the end the movie leaves us with some rousing calls to “get involved,” “join the campaign,” “go to www.waitingforsuperman.com,” and “Text POSSIBLE to 77177.” While I can only wish them success, the failure of past attempts at reform makes this seem almost inane.