Please go see “Waiting for Superman” – Here’s Why:

Posted on Oct 10, 2010 | 79 comments

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.

Please go see the film.  And better yet if you do as Fred Wilson recommends and book your tickets via Fandango or MovieTickets and get the $15 gift card.

*** 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.

  • Greg Bettinelli

    Great stuff, Mark. Growing up in Petaluma, CA, we were the same way. Private school was an after thought, either for the rich or the religious. I can remember the good teachers and having to think hard to remember the bad – the guy in wood shop is coming to mind. I can only imagine what the API score for McNear Elementary or Petaluma Jr. High. I know for certain that my parents had no clue, despite them being professional and very intelligent people.

    One element I think you are missing is the impact on community and local business on schools. I know for a fact that the active involvement of parent groups and local businesses (from Togo's to Bank of Petaluma) dramatically enhanced my public school experience for the better. It is sad that the local community involvement and those with the means do not support public schools with anything other than lip service.

  • Joshua March

    Great article. I'm based in the UK and we see exactly the same situation here – it's something I feel strongly about, and it's great to see this film galvanising people to really stand up for this. Hopefully it will push education forward, on both sides of the Atlantic.

  • jonathanjaeger

    One of the most powerful movie trailers I've seen in a long time. On another note, season four of the HBO show The Wire delved into some of the issues of inner-city schools in Baltimore. A series worth watching from start to finish.

  • jeremyhanks

    Awesome! I too fall into this line of thinking: “I'm the product of public education (growing up on a farm in rural Southern Idaho” so why shouldn't that be OK now for my kids too?” But I forget my version of things that your “Appendix” brought up–the best part of this post BTW. I too was put into an accelerated program. In 5th grade. I had teachers like Mr. Waite and Mr. Reed and Mrs. Potthast that taught me computers/programming, English, and Chemistry with passion. I still remember vividly those learning experiences. I also remember vividly the teachers like Mrs. Matthews who taught French and it was such a joke. Two years of French in High School and we all learned NOTHING. So the question becomes, what's the likelihood my two kids get lucky with the right teachers or programs at the right time of their education? Or do I try to take luck out of the question for them? Appreciate you sharing your thoughts/experiences. And I can't imagine running the tech industry or companies this way. It'd be the definition of insanity. In education, has to be the same. Let's catch up these systems to at least the 21st century. The education system is based on a paradigm that's hundreds of years out-dated. Thanks for sharing!

  • Dan Munro

    Haven't seen the movie yet (and I will), but there's another related issue that Craig Barrett raises in a Q&A last week – test scores. When asked for bullet points on what needs fixing – his #1 was K-12. On test scores: “We do not compare ourselves to the best in the World. We compare ourselves to each other (state-by-state). That's inappropriate (and contributes to the 30% high school drop-out rate which he suggests is a boat anchor around the economy's neck).

    We actually have 2 really large failed institutions in this country. Education and Healthcare (where PWC estimates wasted $'s equal 8% of our GDP). These are the bookends of a society – and on the global stage – we're not doing well at all in either category.

    I'm personally committed to healthcare – and I could probably be persuaded to work for a startup that disrupts Education – but for either side – we need more disruption (and commitments – both personal and financial ;-). Somewhat disappointed to see that out of 130 companies @ Disrupt recently – there were only 3 that were loosely in the healthcare space – and I don't think there were any at all for Education (?). I wasn't really expecting it to be any different than it was (and it's still an amazing event), but Vinod did get my applause when he said we need to “stop innovating around the edges.”

    Sorry for the long comment/rant (not my blog) – but these are big issues that IMHO deserve more debate. I will see the movie.

  • Joe

    I think it's an economic drag to pay for bad schools and then pay again for expensive private schools. If people were truly doing their jobs, the private schools would not be the necessity that they are for some residents of LA. My sister sends her two kids to private school for $40k-plus per year, money that could better be spent on building her business, starting another business, investing for retirement, etc. Anything but paying twice for an education.

    If you haven't heard of it, also see Madeleine Sackler's film The Lottery (2010), which is much along the same lines of Waiting For Superman. It leaves you with the same feeling, but tackles the more narrow subject of charter schools in NYC.

  • Kai Lukoff

    Mark- powerful post. I now live and work in China, where the government–and parents–have done a laudable job on access to education and retention of students. The quality of the educational content is questionable, but slowly improving.

    Greg- I also grew up in Petaluma, CA (northern California) and attended Cherry Valley elementary, Petaluma Jr. High, and Petaluma High, all somewhat above-average public schools. I had awesome, inspiring teachers, but there were also a number who had mailed it in–the same lessons for the last 20 years, more interested in coaching the football team than teaching, etc. Also, I generally got the best of the bunch bc my parents closely followed the reviews of all the teachers and by high school I was in all of the Honors/AP classes.

    The system in Petaluma is a world away from the dire inner-city schools in Waiting for Superman, but I do think merit-based reviews would have improved things. Schools should use not only test scores, but also conduct 360 degree reviews (and, starting in HS, that should include students too). And Principals should, with reasonable checks, have the power to fire seriously underperforming teachers–that's still virtually impossible at public schools today.

  • Dan Munro

    60 Minutes did a piece on Geoffrey Canada too – late last year –

  • audreywatters

    Mark, I haven't seen the film yet. But as someone who cares deeply about teaching and learning, as someone who has worked in education her whole life, I really can't subscribe to the anti-teacher rhetoric that Waiting for Superman seems to be spurring. There are good teachers, and there are bad teachers — the profession is no different than any other.

    Unions do not prevent teachers from being fired. Tenure for teachers means that there must be due-process before this happens, so that teachers cannot be fired simply because they upset the principal or the wrong parent or because they have beliefs and pedagogies that upset those in power.

    I am pleased that people are starting to talk about education. The US system is dreadful. But implementing widespread standardized testing — which is what a lot of these schools do — does NOT improve learning. It just creates students who are good test-takers, something that doesn't encourage creativity or critical thinking. Finland is an excellent model for us to consider: Finnish teachers are unionized. Finland pays for teacher education programs (teachers must have graduate level training before entering the classroom. And despite what Teach for America promises, teacher education is crucial). And Finland has done away with standardized testing.

    Here is a good of article that offer some rebuttals to the messages of Waiting for Superman:

  • Dave W Baldwin

    Going to paste in what I wrote in Fred's blog, dealing with the straw man:

    In reading some of the comments, I think it is important to remind everyone that there is no simple, one size fits all solution.

    As far as teachers, those looking at the 2-3 years toward retirement are a little different compared to the naive newcomer 2-3 yrs. in. Yes, some are better than others and there are just as many who realize corralling a bunch of kids with no support from home is… just not for them.

    We can develop tools that increase the productivity for the teacher related to one on one time we all want. Trust me, we can.

    You can line up the straw men to blame for the problems, but that will not solve anything.

    If you have a 5th-7th grader struggling through those endless worksheets proving he/she will flunk the next one too, you end up with a child doing the countdown to age 16.

    The 7th-9th graders living in a community with no growth conclude school is a waste of time. Unfortunately, those thoughts are backed by their parent(s).

    The issue of knowledge (hopefully useful) and its importance to our society is important. And we had better get started.

    Volunteer at your local school. Be willing to guest lecture in the classroom showing what you do and its importance to the community/region. Present your lesson using a 'thinking forward' scenario.

    Trust me, you will probably be surprized just how smart most of those kids are.

  • msuster

    It was not anti teacher at all. See the film. It was anti teachers' union. And on this point I'm in total agreement with the film. How do you justify not having a system of pay-for-performance for teachers?

    My appendix says exactly how I feel emotionally. My best teachers changed my life and I went to public school. They were paid the exact same as my teachers who were totally absent and taught me nothing. In middle school a teacher through an eraser at me and hit me in the head. We brought him forward for action. He laughed. He said 1-2 parents did it every year and he had tenure so he wasn't worried. He humiliated students regularly. I was spared because I was good at math. But if you weren't you must have felt like an imbecile in his class. That wouldn't be tolerated in a free market system.

  • Claudius

    Mekadia is trying to solve exactly this problem. I applied for techstars NYC. If you would like to know my approach on solving education write me an email at

    This is my spam email as I will inedibly get spam by posting it on an open msg board.

  • Dave W Baldwin

    Thanks for the very passionate column Mark. We do have the chance to make a difference and it will require a lot of push from the public.

    We have been through the talk show host syndrome of throwing praises at teachers for ratings and the usual demagoguery from politicians…so i think we have the chance this decade to make a difference.

    It is a matter of maturity from the public side that stops looking for easy answers that turn everything into irrelevent arguments. This way, we can truly talk about things that are here now and moving forward rather than wishing for the good old days…that is not fair to the kids.

    I wish there were a way to improve the economies of the communities the schools are in. If the kid thinks that is what is waiting for them, that reduces incentive (as per my reply below to Audreywatters).

    On that note, I'm p/o'd over this throw hundreds of millions at New Ark to do a big showcase school improvement thing….nice for the PR machines but if you're that single mom in Detroit…….

  • Dave W Baldwin

    Oh, and I forgot Mark, you're remaining a part of the public schools means a lot…I know that is a hard annual discussion you and the Mrs. have.

  • Peter Fleckenstein

    Thank you Mark for this amazing post. Above all else, I am most passionate about the subject of education. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, is more important than ensuring every single child receives the best education. Every day. Every week. Every month. Every year.

    We can all call for a complete abolishment of the Department of Education which I fully support. Ok. Now what? Where do we start?

    It starts from the beginning – with parents. Every single parent must get fully involved with education. Each parent must fully involve themselves daily with their children. Each parent must get fully involved with their schools and Boards of Education. If this does not happen then the long term goal of education reform will fail.
    The 2 questions to be asked everyday by every parent is:

    “Does this benefit my child in getting the best education?”
    “Does this benefit the other children in getting the best education?”

    “Waiting for Superman” just got into Phoenix and I'm going to see it tomorrow.

    I'd like to leave you and the community here with several links to get our collectives minds thinking:

    Diana Rhoten and Startl

    Flip-Thinking /Reverse Teaching and Karl Fisch

    Karl Fisch's Blog

    Aaron Sams and Jonathan Bergmann – The Original Teachers of Reverse Learning

    For you Mark – Too bad we both didn't have Chemistry teachers like these two

    Thanks again Mark. I hope you post more about education. I share your passion.

  • David Semeria

    It's not just in the States, it's a problem in Europe too.

    Teaching is a vocation, and the very best teachers are not in it for the money (though obviously they wouldn't say no to a bit more….).

    But so many tell me how the 'system' just wears them down in the end.

  • Arnie Gullov-Singh

    100% agree with merit based pay for teachers. Does the film give examples of how the education system works better in countries with higher math + science proficiency scores?

  • Jesse

    The movie was provoking and raised many of the same issues and feelings I had when reading Jonathan Kozol's “Savage Inequalities.” I found the film humbling and made me grateful for the education I have had the fortune to experience.

    As a San Francisco native, I am always surprised that documentaries and books always focus on, as you said, “African American, Latino & rural Caucasian” children and very rarely focus any time on Asian children and families. Growing up in San Francisco, Asian students made up a significant portion of the student body, both in private and public schools.

    I wish I could ask Davis Guggenheim why.

  • Jason Lehmbeck

    Loved this movie. Got me thinking about ways we could harness the budding start-up community in LA to make a difference. What do you think about organizing a “Startup Weekend” with a focus on hacking education? We could get the broader startup community engaged with the education innovators in LA (Green Dot Schools, KIPP LA, …), have some fun and maybe a few ideas/businesses will spring out of it.

  • audreywatters

    I'll definitely see the film. But I think the film makes an argument (as you do here as well) that's about *labor* and not about *learning*. At the end of the day, it's administrators, not teachers' unions, that grant tenure. So maybe administrators need to do a better job evaluating teachers, finding the “bad ones” early and mentoring them.

    That being said, paying for performance concerns me, in no small part, because of what we use to assess performance in schools — which is standardized testing. So, conceivably as long as your eraser-throwing math teacher got students to do well on statewide mandatory tests, he'd be a “good teacher.”

  • Reclix

    Mark, like Audrey, I'm glad that education is getting some well deserved attention, but I too question many of the solutions put forth by the movie. I'm an entrepreneur, and so of course I by nature hate the concept of unions and feel as though introducing competition and creating a free market might work.

    One thing worth pointing out is that free markets work because people are inherently driven by a desire for money . Yet education defies this model. Do educators become educators for the money? Will offering to pay them more make them do their jobs better? Studies suggest otherwise:

    Audrey makes another excellent point when it comes to test scores – I'm an SAT tutor and I can say without a doubt that the SAT, for example, certainly does not measure the level of a student's education (and is proof that tests can be gamed and overcome, not to mention cheated on). It's scary to think that our nation's teachers will be forced to teach to a specific test decided by our government, rather than giving them the freedom to educate their students holistically.

    I urge you to follow Audrey's advice to learn about Finland, as an example of the right reform steps – isn't it interesting that all of the reforms proposed by the film fly in the face of current, successful education models? Here's more about what we can learn from schools in Finland:

  • COD

    I think the film is still missing the point. The real problem with schools is not teachers unions, or funding, or the lack of merit pay, or rich people pulling their kids out of the system. The single minded obsession with test scores, that started with Bush's No Child left Behind and is accelerating under Obama is the real culprit. Somebody in the comments said there is no universal solution. That is correct. National mandates for curriculum and even more fill-in-the-dot-tests are only going to make things worse. Test scores may go up, but the test scores are not true indicators of learning They are indicators of how well you do on that particular kind of test. Schools need to focus on developing a joy of learning in kids, and equip them with the tools to learn anything they want. Those tools, more or less, are the ability to read, write, and basic math up through about Algebra I. If you can do that, you have the basic tools to learn just about anything else you may want. The schools should be reorganized around the idea of getting every kid to have a solid grasp of those fundamentals by 8th grade, along with a healthy amount of elective time to explore whatever other subjects catch their fancy. 9th – 12th grade essentially becomes all electives, allowing the kids to go deep on the stuff that really interests them, or stay broad and dabble in all sorts of subjects.

  • msuster

    Agreed. Where I grew up there wasn't strong industry so we really didn't have business community involvement. Where my kids are going (public) there is a very active parent community and there are (for the record) AMAZING teachers. The LA Times just published data showing the performance of teachers and my kids public school scored one of the best in the region. Why on Earth people would be against publishing performance data is beyond me.

  • msuster

    I hope it will, too. But given the lobbying efforts of the teachers' unions it will take active parents to encourage change. I fear it won't come quickly.

  • msuster

    thanks, jonathan. I love The Wire but haven't gotten my wife interested in it yet so haven't gotten beyond season 1. I'll have another go. See the film – even more powerful than the trailer (as you can imagine)

  • msuster

    thanks, jeremy. the decision is so hard in los angeles because I don't live in the suburbs. I really don't see options at the middle school or high school levels for us to stay public. that's a shame. but for now it's working. realistically only because I live in an area where the public schools have a lot of money and very active parents. I'm mindful that not everybody has this opportunity.

  • msuster

    You're comments are always welcome here – don't worry about the length. We have one healthcare investment in our portfolio and it's one of the best performing companies in our portfolio. Often when we see healthcare companies we're worried about the bureaucracy that they'll run into. But as you say, the big upside opportunities are for working on stuff that doesn't innovate at the edges.

  • msuster

    I'll check it out, thank you. Yes, having to pay for private is not only expensive but a waste. Private always needs to exist to give people options. But it would be nice if we could all feel comfortable about choosing the public option.

  • msuster


    Thanks for writing.

    In Los Angeles the LA Times recently published teacher performance data. It probably isn't perfect but it's the only public data source on the issue. Teachers' unions seemed to oppose this. I can't understand how anybody could argue against transparency. Yes, there will be some bias in the data. So let's correct that. But we can't tolerate a system that is opaque when it comes to teaching the country's youth.

    BTW, I have volunteered teaching time at my school. But at second grade I think it's too early to tell.

  • msuster

    We're trying to make it work. But admittedly we live in an affluent area so even our public school isn't truly representative.

  • msuster

    I'd love to see more powers in principals as teacher administrators to make hiring / firing decisions with a review board for misconduct. It will never be a perfect system, but neither is the commercial world where people are fired daily and often by bosses who are not competent.

    I don't think the films argument is about *labor* – it's more about how the bureaucracy has made the system fail despite having great and caring teachers.

  • msuster

    thank you for the pointers – I'll check them out. BTW, I would love it if teachers were motivated by money. Not obsessed by it – but motivated by it. To an extent we're all a balance of being motivated by money AND wanting to do good. People have a different balance of both. I spend a lot of time on activities to help others that will have no correlation on my earnings. But if that were my SOLE motivation I'd volunteer or work in inner city education where I could have (I would hope) a bigger impact. If at the margin pay could attract 20% more people to be teachers that would have to be a net positive for the industry. Not to mention giving more financial rewards to our dedicated high-performing teachers that are already doing such wonderful work.

  • msuster

    I agree that we need stronger parental involvement. That's a given. But we need a system that catches all children – even the ones unfortunate enough to be born into broken homes with absent parents. The movie profiles a young man who's mom left when he was a baby and his dad overdosed. Thank God his grandmother took him in and dedicated herself to making his education a priority. She talks openly about how it wasn't when she was young so the cycle of involvement wasn't built. But this boy deserves a chance, too.

  • msuster

    It doesn't go into other systems and how they work so much as it shows how they are getting higher scores. The only deep dive profile it does is on KIPP, and it's truly inspirational.

  • msuster

    I'd love the idea of LA startups getting more involved with education. But I doubt a hacking weekend would be enough. Those tend to be superficial and solve small or consumer problems almost by definition.

  • msuster

    Disagree. I accept that standardized testing isn't perfect and I'm sure smart people could improve upon this system. But it is not the “core” of the problem. Eliminating standardized testing and keeping the same teachers' unions policies with tenure and standardized pay scales would not improve our education. And while I'm no Bush supporter – the problem was around long before he took office so scapegoating him doesn't seem appropriate. He's left enough real things to criticize.

  • Scott Barnett

    Fabulous post. I've told my wife (a middle school science teacher) and my parents (retired high school math teachers) they must see the movie. My wife and I have had some interesting conversations about this topic, because I have been more vocal about pretty much the same opinion you have voiced. In particular, within our own school district in NJ, the union was fighting hard against having the teachers pay a small percentage of their health benefits, as most of the rest of us do. I can argue all day long that teachers are underpaid (I strongly believe they are), but that is just not a good reason to have a merit and value-based system where the best teachers are rewarded, poor teachers are let go, and the economics work within the school district.

    I have argued for years that somebody needs to figure out how to turn teaching into a “spectator sport”. Once it becomes truly competitive with an output that the general population has an interest in, we will see dramatic improvements. I don't have the silver bullet for how to do this, but it certainly seems that pay for performance, accountability and rewards for true academic success are a good start.

  • Peter Fleckenstein

    I completely agree with you. The second question I posed for all of us to ask pretty much says it: That not only do we need to be involved with our own children's education we must be involved with every child's education. We as individuals and as a society have a vested interested in doing so.

    Just wanted to ask why my original comment was flagged for review?

    Keep up the great writing Mark.

  • Dave W Baldwin

    Figured you volunteer.

  • audreywatters

    I agree with you there. I think that bureaucracy (in schools, in states, in districts, oh yes in unions, at the federal level, etc) definitely stands in the way of improving education.

    I care a lot about this subject, and on one hand, I am thrilled to see folks in the tech world start to pay serious attention to educational matters. My big concern is that the voices represented in Waiting for Superman offer only one small window into what's happening — and what may be needed — in schools today. Charter schools are not a silver bullet.

    But as always, Mark, thank you for this blog. I really appreciate your willingness to engage in conversations here. And at the end of the day, I agree with you wholeheartedly: this is a crucial issue for us to pay attention to, to tackle. And I feel the tech world has a lot to offer in terms of solutions. These solutions, however, have to recognize the realities of the classroom, and not just the talk of the punditry.

  • Nihal Partha

    Though it seems that money doesn't necessarily improve performance, I think you're definitely right about using money to attract high performing people to the profession – I love that Finland has accomplished this by creating government scholarships for the top tier college graduates who want to get masters degrees in teaching. The scariest thing about going to grad school to become a teacher is that the teacher's salary isn't enough to pay for the loans (unlike med school, for instance). I think removing this financial barrier could definitely attract top college grads.

    This is definitely what my eventual philanthropy dollars will be spent on – scholarships for teachers.

  • Nihal Partha

    Just came across this excellent TED video on motivation:

    Interestingly, 'Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose' seem to be a focal point of the Finland system.
    Autonomy in that schools are given their budget and have freedom to spend it in the way that makes the most sense to them (rather than strong top down requirements). Teachers can be creative an inventive in their lesson plans, and are not judged purely by student scores on standardized tests, which gives them the freedom to place their own emphasis on concepts within the curriculum.
    Mastery in that a huge focus is placed on ongoing professional development / teacher support – if I could change one thing in schools, it would be to improve this across the board.
    I'd argue that Purpose is innate in educators.

  • vishigondi

    Love what Sal Khan is doing with the Khan academy.

    Am sure the rise of mobile phones and tablets will be used to put studies on rails.

    All thats needed would be to standardize the rails, so it can be enforced.

  • Joules

    What people fail to see is the lack of money for the classroom, not for the teacher's salary, but for supplies! What people fail to admit is that teachers work with the materials they are given to try to create an engaging environment with lessons that keep the children engaged the entire class period and still if they children don't put forth effort and if the parents don't support the child & the TEACHER, then failures will happen! What people fail to see, is that we are raising a generation of spoiled children who demand attention their way, demand that their parents give them what they want, not what they need, and when the child misbehaves or is disrespectful, the parent immediately blames someone else or the teacher! When do we start holding parents accountable for their child's actions at school? When we took discipline out of the school, trouble began! When the rumor spread across the country that spanking your child was a horrible thing, children began to misbehave and get out of control. When class sizes are 26-1 or greater and you are including special education students in the general ed classroom without proper support of a highly trained special ed teacher, it is unfortunate for all the children in that classroom; and to then say the general education teacher is a poor teacher because he/she could not get the students to perform is irresponsible! Teachers are doing the best they can, but we are not robots, we have a college degree, more than 50 hours of year of professional development to stay updated on the newest strategies, and we spend more than 10 hours each day working with and for our students! I personally arrive at school at 6:30am and don't leave until 10:00pm on most nights! I have also already spent $1,000 of my own money for my classroom for technology, supplies, books and copy paper! Put the blame where it belongs on parents, administration and lack of proper funding!

  • Rcf

    We have a merit pay system, in a sense. It's called local funding via property taxes. I am fortunate to live in newton ma, where we have a terrific public school system, and the pay for the teachers is higher than other towns because the city as a whole is more affluent. This is in spite of the special education mandates, which are laws that require that children with even severe disabilities be in the regular classes with a one to one full time aid. In my personal experience, it is the parents that make the difference, and less so the teachers. Having raised two children of my own, one out of college and one a sophomore in high school, what I usually see is that if the parents set expectations and provide a stable environment, children do well in spite of the rather normal distribution of teacher abilities. In our case, my daughter had trouble in high school with chemistry. I think it may have been the teacher, but, I wasn't going to waste time arguing about that. I emailed some chemistry professors at Boston colllege, and got a graduate student to tutor my daughter for a few months to get her back on track. My father was an electrical engineer, and also taught high school math. He taught my sister math when she was little( we had a blackboard and chalk in the kitchen) and she ended up going to mit as a math major. Why is it that you see so many Asians excelling in schools, when other groups do not? It's because of the culture and expectations.

    In addition, one might expect a bell curve, more or less, of abilities of students, other things being equal. In my high school days, it was known by about sophomore year who was going to go to college and who wasn't. However, for those who were not, there were reasonable jobs available where they could get paid enough to raise a family. This was in central new York, and the names I recall were GE, carrier air conditioning, Columbia rope, Chrysler, Alcoa. Now it seems that there is just wall mart. So, what do we do with those people who , for whatever reason are to the left of the mean?

    So, in short, it's a cultural problem. We have people criticizing east coast “elites”- college graduates?- and then complain about the lack of education. I tell my kids that if they have a problem with a teacher to learn to adjust, because you're going to have good teachers and bad teachers throughout 16+ years of education, just like you will have good managers and stupid managers in your work life.
    Time is too short to complain about stupid people.

    This is all said from the cozy position of an affluent suburb with good schools. But, merit pay and all that isn't going to solve anything. I might add that given what I've seen recently in the financial sector, we don't seem to have much merit pay in the private sector. I'm not sure how the current bunch of banking CEOs merit their current pay after being bailed out by the government.

  • Bob Aholt

    Here's a nice link to an article that gives a view into school choice. To summarize, choice is a step in the right direction, but not the “panacea.”
    IMHO, the Money paragraph
    The path forward requires that choice advocates overcome the legacy of their inflated expectations and promises. The insistence that school choice simply “works” helped put a saleable, amiable face on the tough medicine that champions of school reforms sought to deliver — but often at the cost of silencing discussion about how to make choice-based reform work well. In fact, to even question the claim that “choice works” has frequently been deemed a betrayal by choice advocates; this has left the field to a coterie of enthusiasts eager to talk about moral urgency, but disinclined to address incentives or market dynamics.”


    Having been on the inside as a site council rep, bond oversight committee member and having done a bit of teaching, I can say that there are certainly many obstacles to improvement, but the “potential” is there. Our teachers are very dedicated and certainly motivated by more than the money (but yes Mark, they still like the pay!). Committed parents influence and mold the school environments.

    On the flip side, districts play the middle man between the teachers, school admin and parents and thereby just inhibit progress. Better teacher get displaced by tenured ones. There is a lot to do to get to our Lake Wobegonize, but education isn't a zero sum game.

  • Paddu G

    I hope the attention on schools will not fade away. Unless the schools are fixed (including administrators, teachers and unions), more and more students (even those who do not drop out) will come out of schools without any real skills or capabilities. It is a shame that unions command such respect and political backing in an advanced country like USA. It is not just teachers union, police union, firemen union, auto workers unions, … The concept of collective bargaining should have been long dead. As far as unions are dominating, the employment numbers will keep shrinking.

    I guess little bit of attention will soon shift to higher education also. Colleges in America spend billions of dollars for unwanted stuff such as sports and games, tenured professors, wasted research, bloated books, etc. and produce couch potatoes. College services are way over priced; it does not matter whether these are state funded or privately funded.

    It is unfortunate that the so called educators and academicians are to be educated by movies. There will be natural corrective actions in the next 10 to 20 years, which will be painful. If people could realize the issues and take proactive steps, the pain could be reduced significantly. Unfortunately our schools and colleges have forgotten their main objective – education; instead they focus on everything else.

    Lastly the concept of volunteering should be used primarily for education, not just for fun stuff. Most of the current volunteering is directed at extra curricular activities which again does not result in improvement of education quality; in fact it reduces the focus on education and results in distraction to the students. Student have enough distractions already in this electronic world; let us not add to it.

    To sum up, education needs a mindset makeover. Of course, we should not forget to appreciate the good services of many educators and teachers, in spite of the environment.

  • Tomblondi

    Great post, Mark.

    Couldn't agree more with your position. It's always amazed me that like many things, unions started out for all the right reasons but soon became consumed with their own power and greed. That alone is not going to “fix America” but it will certainly help and imagining an education system where some of our best and brightest want to actually teach because your performance dictates how well you'll be paid is pretty cool.

    Active parenting will still need to be a key ingredient, but can you imagine with bright teachers and active parenting what kind of American education system we could have…quickly??

    Thanks for raising this in a tech blog, Mark.

  • Gorilla44

    It's not a teacher or system problem. It is a parent/family problem. I had immigrant parents who had barely a 4th grade education, but they were on my and my brothers' asses if we screwed up or did not do our school work. Today, I'm CEO of a biomedical company, my older brother is an executive at a Fortune 100 company, and my younger brother is a teacher of inner-city kids. 2/3 of us have masters degrees.

    Our schools did not have computers or fancy equipment and there were 30 kids in a class. But, teachers were respected/feared and kids (except for the typical stupid things kids do) got discipline from their parents. We don't have that today. How can a teacher really impact a kid when his homelife is so screwed up?

    Like I said, it is not a school problem but a parent problem.

  • Joules

    THANK Y O U!