Freedom to Learn
by Jo Ann Skousen | Posted November 14, 2010
Documentaries have often been the unappreciated stepchildren of the movie industry. Usually earnest and hardworking, they nevertheless find little room at the cineplex next to the family of fictional feature films. Waiting for Superman is an exception. It created a sensation at the Sundance Film Festival last year, and an even greater sensation when it was picked up by the talking heads at FoxNews. Now it is being screened in large studio theaters side by side with blockbusters and indie films. And some of the viewings are even sold out.
The film's premise is the failure of what one speaker calls "our implicit promise to students: that the idea of public school could work." It suggests that the biggest problem in public schools is the stranglehold of the teachers' unions and a tenure system that makes it virtually impossible to fire mediocre teachers.
Failing schools create failing neighborhoods, and not the other way around. Without a doubt we have perpetuated several generations of failure.
The film follows the experiences of half a dozen students trying to get a better education than the one offered by their local public school. Most of them are minority kids attending schools in the inner city, in neighborhoods that are in shambles — rough places where education is not a priority for the majority of young people. But the filmmakers also visit Redwood City, California, a well-to-do town near San Francisco. There the percentage of students moving on to college is also dismally low because of "tracking," the practice of labeling people early in their school career as either "college track" or "vocational track."
Once a student starts down a lower track, it is virtually impossible to move up to the college track. This system was designed 50 years ago, when only 20% of students went to college anyway, and the rest got blue-collar jobs in the robust post-WWII economy. Today, by contrast, factory jobs are being mechanized out of existence or sent overseas, and everyone is thought to need a college education. But not everyone is being prepared for it.
The film's title comes from an interview with Geoffrey Canada, president of Harlem's Children's Zone, an organization that provides community support, tutoring, and even charter school education to families in a 100-city-block area of Harlem. He describes the despair he felt when his mother told him that Superman was not a real person. It meant, he said, that "no one was coming with enough power to save us." As a young child, he could see the problems that poverty, crime, and unemployment created in his neighborhood. He needed a superhero. As an adult, he realized that super power comes from superior education.
Over 2,000 schools are failing nationwide, causing many of them to be called "Dropout Factories" instead of high schools. Most are in poor urban neighborhoods, where many young adults end up either dead or in prison. But dropout rates are high throughout the country, not just in the South or in the inner cities. The administrator of one school admits in the film that its freshman class normally numbers 1,200 or so, but by sophomore year the number has dropped to 300–400, an astounding loss of 75%. The filmmakers ask a provocative question: do failing neighborhoods produce failing schools, or do failing schools produce failing neighborhoods?
Union bosses mandate uniform pay, uniform benefits, and a system of tenure that makes it virtually impossible to fire a bad teacher.
The real enemy, according to this film, is not the parents or the neighborhoods but the teachers' unions that control the supply and demand of teachers. Union bosses mandate uniform pay, uniform benefits, and a system of tenure that makes it virtually impossible to fire a bad teacher. In Manhattan, for example, teachers awaiting disciplinary hearings are sent to the infamous "Rubber Room," where they receive full pay for sitting all day, reading the newspaper, playing cards, or taking a nap. Some of them have been sitting there for as many as seven years, waiting for their hearings. Some become so bored that they quit and find a job doing something else, but most stick it out. After all, they get paid whether they work or not, so why work? Manhattan pays these teachers a shocking $100 million a year not to teach.
As Liberty contributor Gary Jason has pointed out in many articles, under union rules, good teachers and bad teachers are paid the same wage. In most states it is illegal to give merit pay for a job well done. So why should anyone try harder? Teachers have been heard saying, "I get paid whether you learn or not" as they play computer solitaire or read newspapers, and their students goof off. Try doing that in any other job or profession, and see how long you would last.
Like the federal government (and governments at every level) schools have also become bloated with administrators and bureaucrats. In Washington DC, school superintendent Michelle Rhee was hired specifically to cut costs and fix the ailing system. She fired several central bureaucrats, eliminated some principals and vice-principals, and even closed a few schools. With those savings she was able to bring back programs that had been cut, including music, art, physical education, libraries, and nursing service on every campus. When she offered teachers the potential of nearly doubling their salaries if they would give up tenure, many seemed interested. But worried by the looming loss of power, the union would not even let her proposal come to a vote. That's how frightened they are of competition.
They are also frightened of losing their control over Congress. Waiting for Superman claims that teachers' unions are the largest contributors to political campaigns, giving around $55 million per year to various politicians. About 90% of that money goes to Democratic candidates. This has successfully kept teachers' unions off the table when politicians discuss education policy. As Rhee comments sadly, "It's all about the adults."
Waiting for Superman suggests that charter schools provide the best hope for improving education. These schools are a kind of hybrid, using public school funding but run independently like private schools. Many charter schools have particular themes, focusing on specific areas of study such as science or performing arts. But many are dedicated simply to teaching students the basics and preparing them for college. Admittedly not all of these schools are effective, but the top charter schools are sending an impressive 90% of their students to college.
Some argue that the success of these charter schools is personality driven — that they rely on the unusual talents of a few charismatic teachers who would be just as successful if they were teaching in public schools. Challengers ask, can their success be replicated?
The answer seems to be yes. To cite an example: the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Schools, highlighted in the documentary, were started by two very successful teachers, Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg. They have now nearly 100 schools nationwide, all producing successful, college-bound students. KIPP schools push their students to close the so-called "achievement gap." They rely on longer school days, shorter summer vacations, Saturday classes, and even inner city boarding schools. Other charter schools take an opposite approach: for a while my daughter attended a charter school designed for serious figure skaters, where classroom work took up very little of the day. The point is, charter schools give parents and children the opportunity to choose what is best for them.
Teachers have been heard saying, "I get paid whether you learn or not" as they play computer solitaire or read newspapers.
Why should this matter to people who have no children, or to those whose children have already graduated from college? The answer seems obvious. Students are our workforce for the future. As Bill Gates states in the film, "We can't sustain a system of continued growth without an educated work force." If people can't get jobs, they'll be living on welfare. This matters to all of us.
Although teachers unions are portrayed as the villains in Waiting for Superman, teachers themselves are portrayed as heroes. They are the Supermen and Superwomen for whom too many students are waiting. The film ends with this paean: "A great teacher is like a great athlete or a great musician. Teaching is a work of art."
Unfortunately, for too many students great teaching is out of reach. Schools need flexibility, accountability, and competition in order to improve. I'm not sure that this documentary provides all the answers or that it sees all the causes of the problems. Certainly a difficult home environment contributes to the failure of many students. But I like the director's notion that failing schools create failing neighborhoods, and not the other way around. Without a doubt we have perpetuated several generations of failure.
Moreover, the film's assessment of the stagnating effect of unions and the tenure system is sound. Motivate teachers with the risk of failure, the incentive of merit pay, and the freedom to innovate, and let's see how quickly the best teachers rise to the top. Other teachers will soon follow, as they see that greater effort will garner greater pay. As this documentary makes abundantly clear, it's time to end the stifling system of tenure and unions in public education. Those who teach well have nothing to fear. Those who can't teach effectively should go find another profession.
Editor's Note: Review of "Waiting for Superman," directed by Davis Guggenheim. Paramount/Vantage, 2010, 102 minutes.
Jo Ann Skousen teaches writing and literature at Mercy College and Sing Sing Correctional Facility, and is the founding director of the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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