Review: Waiting for Superman

After discovering Waiting for Superman through a few articles on education, I posted the trailer here at OB&B. Shortly thereafter, I was pleased to find Waiting for Superman at a local RedBox and promptly rented it. Having viewed it multiple times now, I think it is a film every American should watch.

The film was made by the the same director as An Inconvenient Truth and The First Year. In that documentary, made in 1999, he followed three public school teachers in their first year of teaching, but 10 years later, he ended up sending his own kids to private schools. He made Waiting for Superman aware that he wasn’t living up to his own ideals.

In this film, he follows five families in their attempt to flee the public school system. Four of these families are in some of the worst school districts in the United States: Washington D.C., Los Angeles, the Bronx, and Harlem. The remaining family is in a suburban school district in Redwood City, California. All of these families have opted for an excellent charter school in their district. The urban children are all quite charming and their families stories are touching, while the suburban family’s story might surprise.

They also interview and follow some education reformers, notably Michelle Rhee in Washington D.C and Jeffery Canada in Harlem, but also some others. The film draws its name from a story Mr. Canada relates at the beginning: as a child growing up in the ghetto he had cried when his mother told him Superman wasn’t real. She thought he had taken to crying because it was similar to Santa, but he said he cried because no one with enough power was coming to save them.

The film shows a brief montage of Presidents ranging from LBJ to Obama, all promising education reform – then the facts start. Since 1971, we have more than doubled education spending per student, from $4,300 in 1971 to $9,000 today – adjusted for inflation. Yet, our test results have flat-lined, and no progress has been made in the so-called “achievement gap,” test scores between poor students and rich students. In fact, minority students who once did well in 5th grade begin to slip into poor students by 7th grade.

In studying this, Robert Balfanz of John Hopkins University came to label failing schools as “dropout factories.” Poor performing elementary and middle schools supplying under-prepared students for high school. He found 2000 such schools throughout the US, like Roosevelt High in Los Angeles. The principle there said in 40 years the school has had 60,000 students. 40,000 have dropped out. Between 9th and 10th grade he loses 800 students.

In Pittsburgh, another education reformer, Bill Strickland, says 68% of all prison inmates in Pennsylvania are dropouts, and calls the prisons “expensive hotels.” Since inmates don’t work and don’t pay taxes, it’s a one way money hole, he says. It costs $33,000 a year to house an inmate in Pennsylvania. The average private school costs $8,300 per year. In four years, the average prison term, the state will have spent $132,200 while a K-12 private education would cost $107,900.

In a piece I posted here at OB&B about education, Eric Hanushek had found in his research that replacing poor performing teachers would raise tests scores. This film spoke with him as well about more of his research. He found the cost of a bad teacher on students was the loss of one academic year. A bad teacher covers about 50% of the curriculum while a good teacher can cover 150%.

And therein lies the rub. You can’t fire a bad teacher – even if they’re proven bad – thanks to tenure. States have different ways of dealing with bad teachers like “the lemon dance,” “pass the garbage,” and “the turkey trot,” but in New York they have a “reassignment center” where 600 problem teachers are sent – fully paid – to face hearings. Some NY teachers are there for chronic tardiness, others for criminal activity like sexual abuse. These hearings can cost more than a criminal proceeding. The reassignment center’s cost to New York tax payers: $100 million per year. All of this because tenure and union contracts are off limits to superintendents.

The two teachers unions – the NEA and AFT – are the largest campaign contributors in America. In total, they have given more than $55 million over the years to political campaigns. That’s more than the Teamsters and the NRA. Of that $55 million, 90% has gone to democrats. It is the unions’ position that distinctions between teachers should not be made – that a teacher is a teacher is a teacher. How hard is it to get rid of a bad teacher? In comparison, 1 in 57 doctors lose their medical license. 1 in 97 attorneys lose their law license. Teachers? 1 in 2,500. In the meantime, America’s top 5% of students rank only 23rd out of 29 countries, and 50-60% of incoming freshmen into the University of California system need remedial course work.

This is where the suburban Californian family comes into the film. Turns out suburban kids are doing poorly as well. Because suburban schools attract higher performing students, they mask the result of te other children and inflate tests scores. In California, they also have tracking. Kids with lower tests scores are placed on a low track, with lower expectations and oftentimes worse teachers. The charter school this family is looking at doesn’t track and sends over 90% of their students to college – fully prepared.

For generations, failing schools were blamed on failing neighborhoods. Because the achievement gap has shown no signs of improvement, some in education were resigning themselves that poor kids just couldn’t learn. But reformers began to look at the situation differently – failing schools create failing neighborhoods; poor students can learn. The film uses Chuck Yeagar and the sound barrier as an analogy to successful charter schools like Jeffery Canada’s in Harlem and the Kipp Academies in Houston and the Bronx.

Canada selected the worst neighborhood in Harlem – with the highest rate of foster care and unemployment. He increased class hours, had Saturday and summer classes, and all with a singular focus on achievement. The Kipp Academy students went from 32% proficiency in reading to 60%. In math, they went from 40% to 82% proficiency. For low income kids, these numbers were unheard of. Kipp and Canada’s students not met the achievement gap, they broke the barrier. They said they couldn’t reproduce these results on a mass scale. Today, there are 82 Kipp Academies, with the same results. When a good charter school is established, they get more applications then spaces available. Charter schools are obligated by law, in these cases, to hold a public lottery. A Kipp school in Los Angeles is where one of the film’s families has applied, while the 2 families in New York are applying for Jeffery Canada’s school.

The reformers say great schools start with great teachers. Michelle Rhee, hitting road blocks with her reform agenda, says she now sees, “why things are the way they are. It all becomes about the adults.” In 50 years, the global economy has changed but our schools haven’t. This is what prompted Bill Gates to take an interest in education. As he correctly puts it, sounding very Adam Smith-ish, the only thing keeping the economy growing is a trained, well educated work force.

For those concerned about the future economic growth of the United States – this film is a must see. Whether you’re right-wing or left-wing, Waiting for Superman will certainly give some food for thought as watch these 5 families go through their lottery process. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll seethe.

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