Yesterday I wrote about education reform and Waiting for Superman in general terms. Today I’ll give you a more detailed review.

I want to believe in public schools, but …

One thing I like about the movie is that it makes clear that it isn’t just libertarian-minded economists who want structural reforms in schools. As it starts, we hear Davis Guggenheim, the film’s director, talking about his hopes for public schools. He mentions a film he made in 1999, (The First Year), which tracks (and lauds) teachers in their first year of service. He speaks of the hope that public schools will be an integral part of American democracy.

Sometimes after his 1999 movie, he became a father, and had to figure out which school his child would attend. Almost apologetically, he says that he drives past three public schools on the way to dropping off his child at a private school. Many families, he notes, don’t have that option.

This is all good. To paraphrase the first step in 12-step programs, the first step to fixing a problem is to acknowledge that you have one. And with public schooling, we have a problem.

The faces of five children  behind the statistics

“Superman” then addresses a mixture of topics, scenes, and people, moving from interviews with experts to data-laden graphs to interviews with parents and children. It uses enough statistics (spending trends, national test scores, international comparisons, drop-out rates) to give you the big picture. Here it is: Test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are flat, even after inflation-adjusted spending on schools has soared. Dropout factories abound. Even middle-class schools aren’t that good. American kids do poorly on international comparisons, except when it comes to self-esteem.

The power of the movie comes from meeting some people behind the statistics, which is to say, children: Anthony, Bianca, Daisy, Emily, and Francisco. The five children live varied lives. They are Hispanic, white, and black. They attend kindergarten, first grade, fifth grade, and eighth grade. They live with grandmothers, one parent, and both parents.They live in the Bronx, Harlem, Washington DC, LA, and Silicon Valley. They live in affluent neighborhoods and ones that aren’t.

Despite their differences, the five children face a similar problem: The school that’s assigned to them by the local school district isn’t good for them. Daisy wants to go to college and then medical school so she can “help people.” But if she follows the default path to high school, she’ll attend a dropout factory: Only 4 out of 10 students who start there graduate, and only a handful actually go to college. Francisco, meanwhile, is having trouble reading, and his mother can’t get the attention of his teacher. Even Emily, who’s contemplating attending a “good” high school in Silicon Valley, would be ill-served the the path assigned to her by the political process. She’s trying to avoid tracking, which the nearby high school practices.

We meet these children and their parents, visit their homes and schools, and come to hope against hope that they find a place in a good school. The interviews are good and touching. The honest answer of one of the children brought laughter from the audience.

Frustrated reformers

Some of the leading “talking heads” in education show up, too, such as Bill Gates (education is a matter of national economic competitiveness), professor Eric Hanushek (the impact of a poor versus a good teacher on student learning is profound), and Jay Matthews (education columnist for the Washington Post). Joe Trippi, a Democratic Party consultant, brings the perspective of a member of the political class who is ready to shake things up–even if doing so upsets his party’s largest backer. Hanushek’s message is especially powerful, and serves as the intellectual foundation for the movie’s call for making systemic changes to teacher tenure and pay.

We also hear from people who have tried to make reforms from the inside out. Howard Fuller, former superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools, talks about his frustration in trying to fire teachers who are not merely marginal, but derelict. Geoffrey Canada, a former teacher, thought that within 3 years of starting his teaching career, he would have reformed education–nationally. Now he run a charter school in Harlem. Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the DC Public Schools, gets significant air time, and we learn about her work in firing ineffective principals and teachers, and reducing the bloated central district staff. Rhee offers to double teacher pay in exchange for an end to tenure, but the teacher union refuses. In fact, leadership won’t permit a vote of its membership. There’s a fair amount of footage showing teachers holding signs and chanting in protest of Rhee’s ideas.

If providing effective teachers is the most important thing a school can do, it’s clear that tenure and current contracts get in the way. In DC, the district must take over steps to remove a bad teacher, and if the district misses but a single deadline, it has to start all over. In some school districts, it takes longer to remove a teacher than it does to conduct the average criminal trial. The result? Nationally, doctors and lawyers lose their license to practice at a rate that’s much higher than the comparable rate for teachers. The problem with schools isn’t bad people, it’s bad rules.

If I win the lottery

If an overly zealous system of tenure and foot-high teacher contracts are the problem, what’s the solution? Charter schools, which by design are free of many state rules are a good first step. Not coincidentally, they’re also usually free of teacher unions.

For various reasons, each of the five children we’ve met seeks entry to a charter school. To get there, they have to win a lottery. Not the one that pays millions of dollars in annual payments, but a different kind. The best charter schools don’t have enough room to admit all the children who want to attend, so by law they must conduct a lottery.Towards the end of the movie, we see, in five different rooms throughout the country, hundreds of families gathered. They are hoping and praying that their child’s number is called–one of the dozens of numbers that represent the opportunity for an alternative. The movie pans from room to room, and a counter on the screen shows the number of available slots ticking down. As they hear the results, the families are pensive, frightful, hopeful. Most end up stunned and disappointed, though as I watched it all, I did have an opportunity to cry for joy.

Overreaction to real  risks creates far greater harm

Michelle Rhee nails it when she says (several times) that the problem with school districts is that the schools are run by adults for the benefit of adults. The adults go along to get along, which means they overlook the needs of the alleged beneficiaries of public schooling, children. Tenure laws and contracts induce an entitlement mentality that says “If I’m a teacher, I have a job for life.”

How did we get here?  In part, it’s because we’ve overreacted to the problems of the past. Perhaps teachers should have some procedural protection against arbitrary dismissal, though you have to ask: how many private sector employees have that benefit? But the safeguards for teachers that we’ve built into public schools have become so massive that they produce far more harm than they prevent. In exchange for protecting teachers from principals, we’ve exposed students to incompetent teachers who set their education back in the course of a school year.

It would be as if, to eliminate any risk of traffic accidents, we set a national speed limit of 2 miles per hour. The good we would attain from that move would be far outstripped by what we would lose. In education, extensive due process rights for teachers doom children to academic failure.

Where I beg to differ

While I find much to commend in the movie, I do take issue with a few points Guggenheim makes. He suggests that we need fewer school districts and more national, top-down control. To that end, he supports national standards. But some states (Massachusetts) have good standards already, and nationalizing standards is as likely, over time, to lead to bad standards as to good ones. More generally, decentralization limits the damage that can be done by poor decisions.

Guggenheim also suggests that more children need to go to college. More children need to graduate from high school, and more need post-secondary training. Do more need a bachelors degree? I’m not convinced.

There’s one final, unasked question: Why must these good charter schools hold lotteries? Why aren’t there enough of them? It would have been useful, though beyond the scope of the movie, for Guggenheim to ask that question.