Sunday, October 10, 2010

Waiting for Superman

Last night I watched the highly acclaimed documentary Waiting for Superman. The movie is a punch to the gut, serving as a much-needed reality check on education in this country. Watching children being denied the opportunity to attend a good school is enough to make you reach for the Kleenex (literally -- a number of people in the theater were dabbing their eyes at various parts), and ultimately some pitchforks and torches as part of a march towards the nearest city hall/congressman/governor's office.

Directed by Davis Guggenheim, who directed and produced An Inconvenient Truth and Barack Obama's biographical film shown during the 2008 National Democratic Convention, the film's opening minutes feature a stark admission on the director's part: every day during his drive to drop off his children at a private school, Guggenheim drives past three public schools, which represent the kind of ideals he thought he held so dear (the confession reminded me of Irving Kristol's quip about a neoconservative simply being a liberal who had been mugged by reality -- in some ways the movie is about Guggenheim's own mugging). How had our schools deteriorated to such a point that even a good liberal like Guggenheim was unwilling to trust his children to the government?

In seeking to explain the shortcomings of the country's education system, Guggenheim profiles five children, four of which attend failing inner city schools in Washington DC, New York and Los Angeles while the fifth attends a leafy suburban school in Silicon Valley (her inclusion is particularly valuable, as it demonstrates the problem is not simply a lack of money). In each instance the parents seek to move their child to a better school (invariably a charter). In each instance the parent must submit their child to a lottery process to determine whether they can be admitted. Such is the farcical state of education in one of the richest countries in the world, where a child's future literally depends on the luck of the draw.

The cast of characters should be familiar to anyone with even a passing familiarity of the education debate. The heroes are the rebel educators such as Geoffrey Canada and DC's own Michelle Rhee attempting to fight the system, the villains are the teacher's unions who fight tooth and nail to preserve the status quo and the victims are, of course, the children -- the ultimate pawns. Indeed, the movie's key message was a point that was I believe raised by Canada, who said that the battle over education isn't about the children, but rather the adults.

Although the movie shows glimpses of the ingredients used by the successful schools -- the firing of bad teachers, longer hours, etc. -- the emphasis is clearly on the system's failings. We are introduced to New York City's "rubber rooms", teacher tenure that goes into effect after two years and teachers unions that dispense hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions (95 percent of which goes to Democrats), including $1 million in a successful bid to undo reforms led by Michelle Rhee.

While the emphasis is not on solutions, with the director hesitating to call for any specific action to correct the problem, some conclusions are inescapable. Quite simply, the government needs to be removed from the business of operating schools, a mission it has performed abysmally for decades. Whenever politicians are placed in charge, political considerations will predominate.

Rather than a system of top-down direction, educational entrepreneurs such as Rhee and Canada must be empowered to innovate. Competition must be unleashed, with each school fighting to win the business of students and parents. This competition will allow for competing philosophies in education to play out, with the best schools succeeding and the worst failing and being driven out of business. As the famous Chinese saying goes, "Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend."

Government-run schools have been failing students literally for generations. Tinkering at the margins will not suffice. It's time to smash the entire system and start over.

Related: Also see this great speech from a British educator speaking at a Conservative party gathering. It shouldn't sound altogether unfamiliar to American ears.

1 comment:

David said...

I can't wait to see this. The Durham premiere is next week.