Freedom to Learn

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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.



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Doing Time

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“Convict.” Verb: to prove or find a person guilty. Noun: a person serving a prison sentence.

“Conviction”: an unshakable belief in something without need for proof or evidence.

The title of the film Conviction is perfectly ambiguous, focusing on both the guilty verdict of the defendant in a murder case and on the unshakable belief of his sister that he is innocent. The movie is based on the true story of Betty Anne Waters, who spent 18 years earning a GED, a BA, and finally a law degree in order to get her brother released from prison, and who now serves as an attorney for the Innocence Project. Along the way she lost her marriage and fulltime custody of her children; her brother Kenny lost his relationship with his daughter, who was a toddler when he was arrested. As presented in the film, the case involveddirty politics, suborned witnesses, and the rush to remove criminal types from the community, even if they are not actually guilty. And it demonstrated the indefatigable love of a sister and a brother.

The film opens with a walk through the bloody murder scene, reminding the audience that a brutal crime has been committed, and a victim is dead. It's appropriate to remember the victim in any crime story. But convicting the wrong man is also a crime of violence, a crime often overlooked in the rush to convince voters that the district attorney's office is doing its job to keep criminals off the streets.

Police and prosecutors involved in the case do everything they can to stonewall the new investigation and prevent the truth from coming out.

After the murder, Kenny (Sam Rockwell) is immediately brought in for questioning, because he has a record as a barroom brawler and petty thief. Kenny takes the arrest with the wisecracking aplomb of a man who is constantly hauled downtown every time a crime has been committed. Betty Anne (Hilary Swank) arrives at the jail with the same longsuffering resignation of a sister who has done it all before. He is released, and all is forgotten — until two years later, when he is arrested for the murder and eventually convicted, with a sentence of life without parole.

The film uses flashbacks to show the kind of life Kenny and Betty Anne had as children. Their mother has nine children by seven men, and is often absent. As they grow up, they are in and out of foster homes and in and out of trouble, mostly trespassing and vandalism. Kenny in particular is seen as a wisecracking hothead, the kind of guy who has a biting sense of humor and makes everyone laugh, even when they're exasperated. Because of their difficult background, the two siblings are unusually close.

When Kenny is convicted, Betty Anne vows to get him out by earning a law degree. She doesn't even have a high school diploma, and she is often at the bottom of her class. Her husband leaves her, and eventually so do her sons, who choose to move in with their father because their mother is so focused on her brother. In many respects, when Kenny goes to prison, so do Betty Anne, her family, and Kenny's daughter.

During her legal studies, Betty Anne comes across a brand new line of evidence: DNA testing. She contacts Barry Scheck, founder of the Innocence Project, and the search is on to gain access to evidence that has been locked away for 18 years and possibly destroyed. As the movie tells it, far from serving the cause of justice, police officers and prosecutors involved in the case do everything they can to stonewall the new investigation and prevent the truth from coming out. Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) drily explains, "People don't like to admit when they've made a mistake."

One must recognize that this film is a dramatization, not an analytical report; one must allow for dramatic license in its telling of this particular story and its representation of the characters. Betty Anne Waters has said about the film, "The movie is so true to life. Not every scene happened, but every emotion happened." But the family of Katharina Brow, the woman Kenny Waters was accused of killing, have hired Gloria Allred to represent them in a suit for not presenting Brow in a better light.

A person who has been wrongly accused and convicted faces a double dilemma: the agony of knowing he did not commit the crime, and the knowledge that he will probably never earn parole.

The film emphasizes a number of problems that actually exist in the criminal justice system, especially as it is applied to poor people. Too often, police and prosecutors justify a swift arrest and conviction with the "unshakable belief" that "if he isn't guilty of this, he's guilty of something." In the film, Kenny can't afford the $25,000 to hire a private attorney, so he uses a public defender, whose case load is too heavy to give any real attention to his clients. The prosecutor takes one look at Kenny's juvenile record and believes it is in the public's best interest to get him behind bars. This is not untypical of the system. In addition, like many small-time criminals accused of hefty violent crimes, the Kenny whom we see in the film is at the mercy of police officers and prosecuting attorneys who have the power to coerce testimonies from petty thugs and frightened acquaintances willing to lie to protect their own freedom. Juliette Lewis gives an astounding performance as the pathetic, broken-toothed former girlfriend who testifies against Kenny after investigators threaten her with losing custody of her child.

A person who has been wrongly accused and convicted faces a double dilemma: the agony of knowing he did not commit the crime, and the knowledge that he will probably never earn parole. A person who is truly guilty can serve the minimum time, go before the parole board, express contrition and regret for the crime, and get out. A person who is not guilty must either lie and pretend to be sorry for the crime, or maintain his innocence and never get out, because parole boards never grant parole to convicts who do not acknowledge their remorse. Catch-22. If the inmate does decide to lie, that confession can be used against him if he ever earns the chance for a retrial. Consequently, convicts who have been wrongly accused of murder almost never get out.

The emergence of groups such as the Innocence Project, however, is changing the system. Kenny Waters was convicted because he had the same type of blood as the perpetrator, Type O. But O is the most common of blood types. It was easy to convict defendants on the strength of matching blood types, but DNA evidence is much more precise and individualized. Since DNA testing became admissible as evidence, 254 prisoners have been exonerated and released from prison. I personally know three people who spent two decades of their lives or more in prison for crimes they did not commit. If it weren't for the Innocence Project, they would still be behind bars.

But in many ways, they are still imprisoned. They have each lost 20 years of technology, job training, and social experience. Their children have grown up without them. Many such people have earned large financial settlements from the state, but no one can give back the time they lost. People like Betty Anne Waters and Barry Scheck are true heroes who understand the meaning of the word conviction.


Editor's Note: Review of "Conviction," directed by Tony Goldwyn. Fox Searchlight, 2010, 106 minutes.



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