Monday, April 25, 2011

GSL Movie Review: Waiting for "Superman"

We recently saw the education-policy documentary Waiting for "Superman", directed by David Guggenheim of Inconvenient Truth fame. The film interviews a number of noted reformers, including New York charter school pioneer Geoffrey Canada and former DC Public Schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, and follows children hoping to gain admission to charter schools in New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. The admissions in question are decided by lottery, which is the movie's central drama: the one chance these children will have to escape failing schools and enjoy a bright future comes down to the lucky bounce of a lottery ball.

Tell everybody waiting for a Superman, that they should try to hold on the best they can.
The failure of public schools is one of the tougher public-policy questions in America today. And to its credit, Waiting for "Superman" gets its critique largely right: contrary to public opinion, the failings of our schools aren't due to lack of money, but to the absence of any incentive toward excellence and to unions' protection of awful teachers. Union contracts and soft tenure standards make it almost impossible to fire teachers, even those guilty of gross incompetence and even criminal behavior. Many districts even go through an annual ritual that Canada calls "the dance of the lemons", in which bad teachers are shuffled around to new schools within the district. In New York and elsewhere, they have what's called "the rubber room", in which teachers sit doing crosswords and sleeping for days on end while waiting to be reassigned. And because it's almost impossible to reward good teachers financially in public schools, their performance tends to reflect the regression to the mean you'd expect. Further, this isn't a phenomenon limited to poor, inner-city public schools; one of the students the film follows attends a high school in uber-wealthy Woodside in Silicon Valley, trying to get into a charter school that doesn't "track" students (i.e., funnel them quickly into less-challenging curricula). Underlying all of this is the basic fact that the system produces the outcomes that most of its stakeholders seem to want: the teachers have unlimited job security and, in many cases, very generous compensation; the unions have a large and enthusiastic membership; the bureaucrats have power; and the parents get their children educated for free. And the voices of those speaking for the children in these schools are too far and few between to be heard.

Nonetheless, we had two main criticisms of the film. One is its assumption that fixing public schools can somehow solve this problem. Waiting for "Superman" makes no mention of homeschooling, and treats private schooling like a shameful (if necessary) evil. (As we do at every opportunity, we'll recommend John Taylor Gatto's fabulous book on American public education.) In Waiting for "Superman", a private academy in New York, which one of the children attends before her mother can no longer afford the tuition, is depicted as effective but heartless. This tempts the cold-hearted bastard in us to ask: since when is a free education for your child something you have the right to demand? We (okay, I) say this as the child of parents who put us through private schools despite being not at all rich. You have the right to demand that schools educate your children to your satisfaction if you send them there, but only if you actually pay for that service; if your school gets its money from bureaucrats who couldn't care less about your children, you should expect the results you get.

Our other criticism concerns the assumption that American children are effectively doomed if they can't escape these failing schools. They even trot out Bill Gates to explain why American children need a full college education so that "we" can compete in the economy of the future. We want no part of the bleak idea that anyone's existence is predetermined by bureacratic institutions inflicted on them without their consent. Kids, if you're reading this and you go to a crappy school, trust us: your life isn't over already. You're just going to have to do a little more work to figure out how to get ahead in the world. But the film also fails to point out that the Bachelor's degree is up there with mortgage-backed securities as one of the world's most overvalued assets. As this excellent piece from the Ludwig von Mises Institute points out, the flood of easy college loans over the years has created a glut of students graduating with marginal skills and six figures' worth of debt, and it's reasonable these days to ask whether these kids might be better off starting small out of high school, learning simple trades, useful skills, and personal responsibility, especially if the soft, high-paying jobs they've been led to count on don't exist anymore.

Ofcourse, the film's title did remind us of a tremendous Flaming Lips song, which should be worth at least an extra half-star. So, let's just call it an even three out of four stars for Waiting for "Superman".


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