Yesterday I went to see the film Waiting for Superman. It’s the story of what’s broken with the education system in the US. 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 neighbors 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 & 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 & 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 neighborhood schools are north of 50%. They are often raised by single moms, 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 neighborhood but was unable to attend graduation because her mom got behind on payments. It shows a young boy being raised by his single grandmother because his father overdosed on drugs and his mom abandoned him. And his stated goal at his young age is to get an education so his kids can grow up in a better neighborhood.
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% 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 educations 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 & 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 math (let along sciences). In every state the proficiency rates (people reading and doing math at 12th grade level) hovers between 20-33% 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 4 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
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 & upper class ones due to environment issues such as problems at home and trouble in the neighborhood. 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%. 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.
- 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 license 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.
*** Appendix (personal note only for those interested)
This movie has a particular appeal to me. I grew up in Sacramento, CA where nobody that I knew sent their kids to private schools. I grew up in public schools and so did my wife. Those were different times and it was a different city. We were lucky.
I had a high IQ and tested into the “rapid learner” program starting in the 3rd grade. I never even thought about it back then that there were kids who were on the “normal learner” program and how that must have felt. Looking back on it it’s clear to me that this “track system” that the movie talked about was in place and I was a beneficiary.
The obvious point of the film is that teachers make a difference and have the highest level of influence over our future success as students and as human beings. Incentivize teachers to perform at their best (through merit-based pay & training) and incentivize the best people to come into education (through merit-based pay) and you’ll improve the quality of our country’s teachers.
Our imperfect system produced some teachers that changed my life. And honestly others that completely let me down. My economics teacher, Mr. Thorn, ran computer simulations of lemonade stands in which each student had to build a local business and decide: how much supplies to order, how much to sell the lemonade for, how to respond to competition and how to change plans based on the weather. To say I found this engaging was an understatement. I poured myself into planning and I won the class-wide competition. I graduated this class and at all of 16 years old wanted to be an entrepreneur. He is the reason I majored in economics in college.
My English teachers in middle school (Mrs. Wolters) and high school (Mr. Lawrence) both helped me master the rules of writing and tap into my creativity. I know that I make grammar and spelling errors in this blog but I promise it’s through speed of writing, typing and publishing and not through a lack of knowledge. Mr. Lawrence’s high school project was to write our college essays early in the year so that we’d be done early and have written with passion and creativity. I’m forever grateful for this. From a young age I loved writing, which fueled my interests in reading, in politics and one day in blogging.
My spanish teacher, Mr. Gonzales, failed to get me interested in Spanish. But he was a geek and loved computers. So he & I would spend time after class building macros in … wait … VisiCalc! and then in Lotus 1-2-3 to help him automat the reporting of grades and attendance. As a result of this our high school typing teacher asked me to teach a course in ‘advanced computers’ to other high school students (she didn’t know enough herself) and he also helped me get a job at 17 in a computer store called Software Centre. I know that 17 year olds these days seem to all program computers but this was 1985. I was talking with adults about the differences between PC-DOS and MS-DOS about Word vs. WordPerfect about Harvard Graphics and about PeachTree accounting software. I was fast tracked. By a teacher. Yes, these are incomplete sentences. It’s for effect
And in other areas I was failed. To this day I really know nearly nothing about chemistry. Nothing! I know that sounds crazy but my teacher, Mr. LaDue, was literally as bad as the worst examples of the undercover footage in the movie. He would start the class, give us an assignment and then disappear into a side room for most of the hour. We goofed off. He gave tests that were the same as those he had always given. Everybody knew the questions in advance. It was pathetic. If all of my classes had been like that and if I didn’t grow up with active parents, I can’t imagine where I’d be today. I had the same experience with Mr. Linde in World History where every lesson was “read 30 pages” and then he’d leave the room. He cheated us and we cheated him back. But it was we who lost.
In college I stayed an extra year to get a second degree in political science (first degree was economics). I was so intrigued to read about the history of China, of the conflict in Vietnam, Soviet / US relations, the Middle East conflict, etc. These were all foundations I should have had in high school but though interest I eventually spent much time immersing myself in world affairs.
My parents … well, my mom in particular, encouraged me to get involved with extra-curricular activities. I took acting classes, music, dance and went to the theater. We weren’t “posh” but she made sure we went to gourmet restaurants & bakeries to experience new things (she eventually opened up a few bakeries and a French/Californian restaurant herself) and encouraged us to travel the world. So in addition to economics, writing & computers I had great exposure to the arts and to music.
I’m socially liberal, fiscally moderate person. I believe in merit based pay. I believe in capitalism but I also believe in a safety net. I believe the safety net is in all of our best interest in addition to being the morally right thing to do. I don’t believe in long-term welfare because they destroy incentives. I saw this first hand working in Germany and France where talented young people stayed at home in stead of working due to protectionist, archaic BS, that one day will go away. And I certainly don’t believe in teachers’ unions. I’m sorry if I offend anybody in saying this. I’m not anti teacher – to the contrary. I want our best public teachers to make a lot of money. And our worst should be fired. Public school tenure for k-12 is archaic and should be abandoned. Can you imagine if we ran our tech industry this way?
For the record, my second grade son is currently in a public school. We’re lucky that it’s one of the best in LA. We have the resources to send him to a private school. Every year we have the debate. Eventually he will go private – probably in middle school. Maybe earlier. We’re trying to work within the system. I have the same emotions as those discussed by Guggeneheim in the film.