A few weeks ago I reviewed the companion book to Waiting for Superman. Finally I went to go see the movie this morning. I was accompanied by my teacher wife and public charter school principal Mother In Law.
As with any documentary it doesn’t really show the whole picture. But I thought it was worth seeing and what it did show was pretty accurate.
There are three basic points to the movie. 1) Schools are broken (no one really debates this point, just the manner and amount of brokenness is really at debate). 2) Teachers have the greatest influence over student learning at the school level. (This section is mostly focused on firing bad teachers and the role that teacher unions have played at blocking many modest and reasonable reforms. I wish there was equal time given to finding and encouraging good teachers). 3) There are some charter schools that have shown that it is possible to teach low income and minority students. (This is focused on KIPP schools which have replicated themselves at over 80 locations and two schools that would be very difficult to replicate.)
I have a few issues with the union portion, simply because areas without unions have the same issues. Georgia, where I live, and much of the south do not have teacher unions, but have much the same problems of unionized schools. Last year hundreds of new teachers were laid off but only a handful of teachers where fired for cause in Cobb County with more than 106,000 students.
The movie showed that over the past 30 years spending per student almost doubled (inflation adjusted) but the spending changes don’t take into account changes in special education requirements (roughly half of the increases in spending in the last 30 years). And while it said money is not a big issue in reform, the Harlem Children’s Zone and the Seed program are both over $30,000 a year per student. They have great results but no where near the average $8000 a year private schools that were cited as a comparison.
My take away is that good teachers produce good students. Good teachers will not stick if there are not good administrators. Good administrators do not stick without good bureaucracy. Good bureaucracy (like Michelle Rhee) cannot reform without public support. The reforms that Michelle Rhee was trying to institute in Washington, DC were the primary reason the mayor of DC was not re-elected (and the mayor directly appoints the head of DC schools). So if parents and voters will not support reform (she balanced the budget and moved millions into classrooms in addition to her more controversial changes) then who should be responsible for reform?
In the end I am mostly hopeful for schools. In spite of the static graphs that the movie show there are improvements happening in many areas of education. I hope more people see the movie. It will likely be nominated for an Academy Award this year and will be out on DVD in February.