Jeff Haanen


Anybody with even a cursory interest in the 57 million children in America’s public school system should see the 2011 documentary Waiting for Superman.  Davis Guggenheim’s documentary on failing American public schools succeeds on many levels. First, it’s a helpful overview to how the school system works.  The complexities of federal, state and local power in public schools are made clear, and quirks like the tenure system in K-12 education are brought to light.  Second, it succeeds emotionally.  Following the stories of five families from low income areas, and their struggles to provide a decent education for their aspiring children, had my wife and I at the edge of our seats at the conclusion of the movie. Third, it succeeds as polemic.  The film is obviously biased against teacher’s unions and in favor of charter schools and other public school alternatives.  But it is biased with good reason.  And this is the point of this posting: introducing competition, even mild competition, to the school system will reap great benefits for those on the lower quarter of the social totem pole.

Let’s start with the tenure system.  Tenure was introduced into the university system to protect professors with politically unpopular opinions from being fired.  It started as a free speech issue.  But the practice has been adopted into the K-12 system.  Teachers who can still walk and breathe (walking is optional), after 3 years get tenure.  Although some school districts have quality evaluation processes during this period, for the majority this means that some terrible teachers get secure jobs.  The film showed a scene of the “rubber room” in New York City, where dozens of teachers are paid to sit, read the newspaper, sleep and not teach because they’re protected in their job.  This apparently costs $100 million per year.  And yet they can’t be fired.  The film also claims that if only the bottom 1/5 of teachers in the US were fired and replaced by only average teachers, our national test scores would reach those of Finland, more than a dozen places higher on international exam scores.  Waiting for Superman shows the struggles that administrators like Geoffry Canada and Michelle Rhee faced when trying to fire bad teachers, but were unable to because of the protection unions had given to tenured teachers.  Rhee comments that tenure helps adults, but hurts the kids.

Second, the film takes a healthy crack at teacher’s unions.  As the protectorate of the bad and the good teachers, unions have prevented comprehensive education reform by disallowing poor teachers to be fired without an absurd 24 step process to remove the offending pedagogue.  Through recruiting young unsuspecting teachers, often through heavy handed guilt trips in the first 2 years of a teacher’s career (my wife received several of these), many are enrolled into paying dues to the union.  Surely, some unions have had a good purpose.  And there are obviously good teachers in public schools (my wife, my sister, and my mother are good examples). But with state budgets across the country being squeezed, the unions find themselves under fire.  Just look at the battle in Wisconsin.  Times are changing.

Third, the film is quite blatantly pro-charter school.  The film culminates with a dramatic scene of five kids who are desperately hoping to have their numbers drawn to be enrolled in a high-performing charter school.  Knowing that this kid’s future is in many ways determined by his or her school choice leaves the movie-goer with a palpable desire to see the child get in.  All but two don’t get in, and are forced to go back to their “drop-out factory” schools.  Our hearts sink.

The rise in charter schools in the past decade, especially prominent movements like KIPP, is notable.  They are introducing competition into the public school system.  They must perform, or they lose their charter, and thus their funding.  This pressure often times produces results.  Even though various studies have shown that many charter schools are no better than their public counterparts, the presence of significant freedom from public regulation in exchange for results has had tremendously positive impacts.  The film highlights many charter schools, like Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Success Academy, that are having superb results in the most difficult socio-economic circumstances.  As I drove home last week, I saw an open house banner at Homestead Elementary, a public school by my house, advertising “Now Enrolling.”  Charter schools are clearly having an effect.

So, what’s the solution?  How do we get better schools?  The movies suggests, by way of the high performing schools highlighted, that the answer lies in teacher accountability, longer hours, and higher standards.  Longer school hours mean more opportunities for learning, and high standards mean they won’t accept some kids shooting for just okay.  But the real key, I believe, is great teachers.  School districts and individual schools, whether they be public or private, with systems for rewarding excellent teachers and getting rid of bad teachers are the most important elements in student success.  Administrators would be wise to ignore about half of their current responsibilities and find ways to hold teacher’s accountable to the highest standards of student success.

Let me finish with this idea: the title “Waiting for Superman” introduces a hidden issue, one not addressed by the film.  Guggenheim mentions that students are waiting for a superman who will come to save them from their plight.  The film concludes, however, that the superman is really “you” who must take action in education reform in America.  As inspiring as this is, it hits a certain chord with secular minded people trying to “change the world.”  Education, it is thought, is the key to bringing about justice, equality, and even a version of “salvation” to the world.  But education can’t do it.  Poor children stuck in bad schools are indeed waiting for a Superman; they are waiting for a Savior (as is the whole human race).  Education has become the quintessential secular moralist’s cause of our generation.  It’s no coincidence that 10% of Ivy League graduates applied for Teach for America last year.  But education alone cannot bring about the superhero results we hope for.  Only a true Savior can do that.

The lessons of Waiting for Superman ought to be considered by all those making decisions about education in America.  The plight of poor children in under-performing schools, the silliness of the K-12 tenure system, and the counter-productive effect of many teacher’s unions ought to cause the people of the Kingdom of God to ask the question, How shall we build a better educational system for tomorrow?  But at the same time, let us not forget that Superman has come, and He gives real, enduring hope to all people, literate and illiterate alike.  May this hope shape an ethic of educational change for the sake of the 57 million children with pencil in hand, ready to take hold of a better life.

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