Waiting for Superman Documentary Thoughts

waiting for superman film

I’m watching Waiting for Superman, wondering where’s the zeal that my friends conveyed. The plot is slow. I’m waiting, waiting for the solutions. Waiting for the feel-good motivation that every American documentary has. For the third arc of the story where after the hero is beaten down, he starts to get back up and overcomes all challenges. In this case, our hero being America’s failing schools.

The awareness for education reform has been increasing as our schools seem to only get worse despite all the money and research the government throws at it. America ranks not even in the top 10 in reading and math. The Chinese and Indians are taking over our professional and technical jobs. Amy Chua’s Tiger Mom created an uproar when American white parents (let’s be real here) were forced to reflect on their parental methods. Even as a U.S. born citizen who’s spent his life in America’s schools, I share the perception that “American kids are lagging behind in education.” The first half of Waiting for Superman is basically a harsh look at the failure of our American schools where countless students do not complete high school.

The third arc begins. Michelle Rhee makes an apperance. She was the revolutionary superintendent of Washington D.C. schools who made a lot of enemies by shutting down failing schools and firing incompetent teachers and unnecessary staff.

michelle rhee time cover

Then Geoffrey Canada, the passionate, charismatic teacher who started us on this journey, is revealed to be the founder of Harlem’s Children Zone which along with the Kipp Schools have proven a school model to take any American child and help them achieve a real education.

geoffrey canada harlem children zone

Dr. Eric Alan Hanushek also makes an apperance with some mind blowing statistics.

  • A great  teacher teaches 150% of the curriculum in a year whereas a bad teacher only teaches 50% of the circulum in the same time.
  • Removing the bottom 6% of the worse teachers with average teachers would lift American schools to among the world’s best.

I’ve had a long time fascination with public education. I’ve gone through public schools my entire life. I saw Michelle Rhee give a passionate speech in DC three years ago. I believed in her message and became a fan. I read Dr. Hanushek research. I also read about Kipp Schools in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers:

In the mid-1990s, an experimental public school called the KIPP Academy opened on the fourth floor of Lou Gehrig Junior High School in New York City. Lou Gehrig is in the seventh school district, otherwise known as the South Bronx, one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City.
KIPP is a middle school. Classes are large: the fifth grade has two sections of thirty-five students each. There are no entrance exams or admissions requirements. Students are chosen by lottery, with any fourth grader living in the Bronx eligible to apply…Three-quarters of the children come from single-parent homes. Ninety percent qualify for “free or reduced lunch,”
An enormous amount of time is spent talking about reducing class size, rewriting curricula, buying every student a shiny new laptop, and increasing school funding-all of which assumes that there is something fundamentally wrong with the job schools are doing. But look back at the second table, which shows what happens between September and June. Schools work. The only  problem with school, for the kids who aren’t achieving, is that there isn’t enough of it.
The school year in the United States is, on average, 180 days long. The South Korean school year is 220 days long. The Japanese school year is 243 days long.
90 percent of KIPP students get scholarships to private or parochial high schools instead of having to attend their own desultory high schools in the Bronx. And on the strength of that high school experience, more than 80 percent of KIPP graduates will go on to college, in many cases being the first in their family to do so.
Outliers argues that both lucky access to resources and a long committed time to practice equals mastery or success. Waiting for Superman mentions increased classroom time but the focus really is on bad teachers and inability to innovate due to political and social friction.

I’m not sure why Bill Gates is in the movie. He did do a TED Talk on American Schools recently though, I haven’t watched it yet. I hadn’t heard about Geoffrey Canada. I plan to rectify that soon.

Whenever the topic of education is brought up, people seem to fall back on stereotypes.

  • Hungry, impoverished  kids can’t focus in school.
  • Poor parenting is to blame.
  • Intercity schools need more money.

As the movie points out though, the Kipp Schools and Harlem Children Zone intentionally are in the worse neighborhoods in urban cities and produce far more competent, high school graduates than even the average suburban, well off public school.

In short, I agree with the message of the movie and all these advocates. The most important factor (that we can actually influence on a public policy level) is making sure we have high quality teachers. It makes sense.

My Best Three Teachers

I look back over my years in public schools and can immediately pinpoint three teachers that had a pivotal influence on my life.

My middle school history teacher, Mr. Cheeseman who sadly passed away 4 years ago. Walking into his room was walking into a new world where history was real. The room was filled with historical souvenirs like pieces of the Berlin Wall and Time Magazine covers everywhere dating back decades. His teaching practices were a little unorthodox. We re-enacted the founding fathers debating over the Constitution. We watched pieces of Schindler’s List. And we learned a hell of a lot. It was obvious that Mr. Cheeseman was the archetypical teacher like Mr. Keating from Dead Poets Society. My lifelong interest in history and social justice started in that classroom and indeed the careers of many history teachers began in his classroom. No student could possibly pass through Mr Cheeseman’s class and at least not remember his name.

In my high school, I had another great history teacher named Gus Highfield and a computer science/math teacher named Elliot Seifert.

Highfield’s life was the school. He yelled and ranted at us, but it was because he had high expectations for us. And those high expecations (along with our fear of his wrath) pushed us to our best. If our parents didn’t care how we did, he sure as hell did. He had this annoying practice of publicly posting our exam scores for everyone to see. I imagine the fact that he was unmarried and without kids made him particularly fond of each of us. He retired a few years ago but said to still visit the school often. I also earned a total of 12 AP credits in his classes, the equivalent of 4 college semester courses! This means he taught college material at a college pace. I basically got four college classes for free.

Elliot Seifert, on the other hand, was young. He was around 23 when he started which coinceded with my first year of high school. I admired his ability to get along with all the teachers and students. His courage and character to walk away from a high paying tech job to teach public school children. I learned ALL my computer programming and computer repair from him. I also easily got a college job as a computer technician and skipped my first year of required computer science classes because of everything I learned from Mr. Seifert. Sadly, he retired a few years after my class graduated. I imagine the stress of being a teacher, the lack of meaningful change, and becoming a father was just too much for him. Last I heard he was a web developer for a company and loving life.

From those two high school teachers, I got the education of 6 college classes before ever stepping foot on campus. That was a huge advantage for me and allowed me to pursue a second major that I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.

I wonder who replaced those great teachers? Because without them, I could see myself having gone down a far darker path.

I’m no expert just because I watched a film but..

The fact of the matter is that I’m not an expert in education. I’m not a teacher. I’m not an education scholar. I’m not even a parent. Statistics can be twisted. Facts can be skewed. Like almost every issue where I’m not deeply involved, I take it on trust, my personal bias, and rational thought that this movie and its proponents are correct. At the very least, we should be able to agree that we want at least competent teachers for our nation’s kids. That it doesn’t make sense to give a teacher lifetime tenure just because they have passed  a minimum time mark. Not to mention, no one can possibly enjoy performing poorly in their daily work especially when it comes to educating our next generation of students.

Underlying Paradigms
After the movie ended, I thought about some of the deeper issues too.

  • The idea of bad teachers not teaching well because “they get paid no matter what without any consequences.”
  • The idea that every institution and system wants to perpetuate its own existence and fears any changes in the status quo even if the change is in their self interest in the long run. In this case, that would be teacher’s unions.
  • The fact that America is slowly losing its dominance as the world’s super power.
  • The sense of entitlement, laziness, and inability to fundamentally shift our approach to issues whether it’s Green Energy, Health Care Reform, or Education Reform.

Each of these social and national trends are mirrored in each of our own personal lives.

  • We who work just to get through the day rather than trying to contribute something extraordinary.
  • 20 something year old professionals who realize their current job isn’t their true calling yet unable or better put unwilling to change.
  • The sense of entitlement that we deserve by birth a certain high level of lifestyle. It’s easy to lose  perspective that we live like kings compared to the vast, majority of people in the world.

Ovarian Lottery

I remember as a teenager wondering in angst, “why me?” I know I often wondered why God so uniquely choose me to suffer in life. Or wishing we had the loving parents that Bobby had. Or wishing we got that new car like Mary did. It’s easy to grow bitter when you compare yourself against people you perceive to be better off. But, watching a video like that, the question is reversed, “why not me?” Why do the majority of kids end up growing up in places that don’t even have a school whereas I had a free one with some excellent teachers? Why am I so lucky? As Warren Buffet would say, “I’m lucky to have won the Ovarian Lottery.”

Researchers once came to my high school and interviewed some students. In one of the small group talks, they asked us, “why do some students do so badly and drop out of school?” We responded that the bad performing students get the worse teachers. Many of our classes were labeled in levels of difficulty from the worse to bad to average to honors to AP classes. What the movie termed “tracking” students. The AP Classes always had at least good teachers. The worse classes had horrible teachers.

The researchers then asked us whether it would be a good idea to integrate all the students together into one class. The answer was a categorical no. We expressed our feelings that integrating us with “them” would mean everyone would suffer.

Years later, I feel ashamed by that conversation. I often wonder and worry what it means that the most well off Americans who are given the priviledge of having the best teachers and opportunities are distant and uninterested in social justice, in helping the vast majority of Americans that surround them. Only 1/4 Americans actually graduate college. Most of my friends now are all professionals. Lawyers, doctors, nurses, engineers, accountants, scientists, and professors. We are insulated in our bubbles. I take solace that my generation is nevertheless a hopeful one who do wish to both live a satisfying, fulfilled life and enact meaningful, positive change in the world.

Finally, I leave this film with more faith in my belief that school reform in the coming years will mean weeding out the bad teachers and attracting and rewarding great teachers. I also have more intellectual ammo and justification for my views rather than a fragmented memory of books, vidoes, and memories over the years. I definitely recommend Waiting for Superman to people.

But I am also left with even more troubling questions.

Recently, the Wisconsin protests ended when the state republican law makers voted through a loop hole to end the right for collective bargaining.  The biggest group opposing them was the teachers of Wisconsin. The very group that was the closest thing to a villain in Waiting for Superman. Appreciate the teacher, hate their union? I hate people, but I love individuals.

### Random Notes ###
There are so many directions I would love to take this in. One piece that I wanted to cover was, despite these best efforts, how good is a college education anymore? It’s increasingly clear that a college degree no longer promises a career, let alone a job. More people are questioning whether the investment in college is even worth it anymore. What’s the difference between getting students able to have middle class professional careers vs developing real leaders and self-sufficient enlightened individuals? I’m starting to believe that the happiest and most successful people are entrepreneurs. Becoming a lawyer, doctor, or whatever is great but also seems like just a bigger prison with better amenities. Well, let me step back. Those are all great careers anyone would be lucky to have. But it feels like young adults don’t have many options, and many end up in careers they don’t actually enjoy or fulfill their potential. If you love your work then kudos to you, disregard this statement. I guess anything is better than a populace that can’t read or do math though.

Asian schools do tracking from an early age. But they also much more career opportunities and school options. It seems like American education is either get advanced degrees, be a college graduate, be a high school graduate, or be a dropout.

The expectation of high effort and achievement I think is a huge motivational factor for anyone. A great teacher I think instills both a high demand on/in the student and a faith on/in the student that they can indeed succeed.

I hope no one’s too depressed by that youtube video. I would note that a lot of people in the world, while they may not have access to the privileges we enjoy, they do seem to enjoy life a lot more. In becoming industrialized and high achieving countries, we seem to have lost the innate capacity to enjoy life.

A really good piece going into the details about KIPP Schools. I’m a little disheartened about the idea of documentaries and news as sources of entertainment. They’re great at building momentum and spreading awareness. But that’s really step 1 of many. Let’s use this information to actually make changes and take action. But then again, here I am writing a blog post.

This is the longest post I’ve written here with over 2k words. I want to improve my writing. I apologize if this was a horrible read. Previously, I tried to cut the # of words to as little as possible. But I feel like that also came off as lifeless. Now, I’m trying to balance detail and keeping it interesting. Ideally, a post should only have 1 central message, but I feel like this one has at least 2 or 3.

I’ve been meaning to write more, but I’m pressed for time. Weekdays and weekends blur together now as my project tasks only grow. I also lost some of my previous writings which was pretty discouraging.

I planned to write about my RV, but I couldn’t get by without writing about this first.