Yesterday I went to see the film Waiting for Superman. It’s the story of what’s broken with the education system in the U.S. It’s an important film and the most important topic of our generation if we as a country want to remain competitive in a world that has globalized.
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 neighbours 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 neighbourhood schools are north of 50 per cent. They are often raised by single mums, 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 neighbourhood, but was unable to attend graduation because her mum got behind on payments. It shows a young boy being raised by his single grandmother because his father overdosed on drugs and his mum abandoned him. And his stated goal at his young age is to get an education so his kids can grow up in a better neighbourhood.
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 per cent 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 maths (let along sciences). In every state the proficiency rates (people reading and doing maths at 12th grade level) hovers between 20-33 per cent 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
- 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 neighbourhood. 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 per cent. 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. Bernard Pollack via FlickrAFT President Randi Weingarten
- 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 licence 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.
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