Flying to Israel the other day (apparently, my visit pushed Mubarak over the edge), I watched what is easily the best movie of 2010 – one that was entertaining, moving, informative and even tear-jerking, and one that was not nominated for any Academy Award. Not only did it fail to garner a nomination for “Best Picture,” but it was also shamefully deprived of a nomination in its natural category, “Best Documentary.” I refer to Davis Guggenheim’s compelling “Waiting for Superman,” about the declining state of public education in America, and the abject failure of society (read: teacher’s unions) to come to grips with the role that it has played in the dismal educational fortunes of America’s youth.
And “fortunes” is an apt word, because many parents are routinely denied choice in their children’s educational settings, and by the millions, children (especially minorities and the under-privileged) are effectively sentenced to inferior instruction and facilities unless they win a lottery to one of the few successful schools that turn out students who will likely attend college. For the rest, even for the willing among them, they are forced to deal with deficient facilities, desultory teachers (some of whom were caught on film telling their students that they are tenured, and nothing will happen to them even if they don’t teach; others are sleeping in class), crime in the schools and thus a bleak future.
One would have thought that this cause was a natural for liberal poseurs, who find racism everywhere and who abrasively and loudly promote the plight of the downtrodden and the beauties of public education. Instead, the teachers unions are subtly but scathingly criticized, and Sandra Feldman, liberal icon and late of the UFT, seems particularly clueless and detached as she defends tenure for burnt-out, failed teachers, a labyrinthine process that makes dismissal of teachers almost impossible even for cause (they can wait for years, doing nothing while collecting full salaries), vehemently opposes merit pay and staunchly advocates for seniority as the only barometer for retention of teachers in an era of cutbacks, and attributes every problem to a “lack of money.” This, notwithstanding that the federal and state governments have increased spending on education ten-fold in 40 years, while student test scores have declined precipitously to the point where the United States fares a little below mediocre in international competition. More “money” only means higher salaries, but how giving inferior teachers higher salaries improves education for the children is a bit of illogic that goes unaddressed.
And the torment through which Michelle Rhee, recently departed school superintendent in DC (the nation’s worst district), is shameless. Typically, her plan to pay good teachers six figure salaries and terminate the bad ones was ditched by the union. Unions, of course, served a meaningful purpose about a century ago, when organizing union members won for them rights, decent working conditions and privileges they could never have won individually. They were a necessary tool to prevent abuse by employers. These days, the situation has been turned on its head, and unions by and large exist to abuse employers – especially public sector unions who feel that the taxpayers’ trough is unlimited. Teachers’ unions especially fear accountability and competition, as they wish their claim to the public dollar to be exclusively theirs.
Hence the anger at the charter school movement – public schools funded by taxpayers that operate outside the traditional system and have been a lure for many parents. In our neck of the woods, New Jersey recently approved the opening of a Hebrew-language charter school, which will be rich in Hebrew culture. It has been controversial for several reasons. Some people, trapped in the Supreme Court jurisprudence of 30 years ago, raised constitutional objections that are unfounded. Others see in this school either the demise of traditional yeshiva education (as parents will avoid the high cost of yeshiva tuition, and provide their child a similar education – some of will take place during school hours, and some of which will require supplemental Torah education after school) or the slippery slope to Jewish ignorance and assimilation (as such a school will never be able to equal a yeshiva education either in Torah knowledge, spiritual ambiance or the Jewish commitment of the student body).
Likely, everyone is right and wrong. The school seems a step up for parents who would otherwise send their children to public school (Israeli expatriates, for one group), and a step down for parents who would otherwise send their children to yeshiva. Parents who do it solely to reduce their tuition costs are setting a poor example of the worth of a Jewish education for their children, and undoubtedly will pay a price for it. In that sense, we are a weaker and more hedonistic generation, as I personally recall parents depriving themselves of any luxury in life –living in small apartments, never taking a vacation, not even dreaming of the obligatory “hotel for Pesach” – all in order to pay their children’s yeshiva tuition. Ultimately it is a decision based not on finances but on values. That being said, school competition is good even for Jews, and if this school educates a product that to the untrained eye appears not much different than a yeshiva student, then that itself is both an indictment of the current system and perhaps an inducement for further improvements. For us, though, it is a blessing to have many choices.
“Waiting for Superman” (the title is derived from the theory that only a super hero can save the current system) makes clear that many Americans lack those choices.
In addition to extensive interviews with participants in the system – teachers, administrators, union leaders, politicians, journalists and moguls – the thrust of the movie follows around six families whose children are competing for slots in the charter schools. One school had over 700 applicants for 40 places. And the children – mostly from single-parent, minority led homes – are desperate, as are the mothers, who – despite whatever limitations they have – are selflessly devoted to providing their children with the opportunities they didn’t have and a way to avoid the mistakes in life they made. All the children have dreams, and all see themselves in college someday. But the likelihood that any of them will achieve that goal absent a transfer from their inner city public school to the desired school is extraordinarily slim.
Interestingly, the documentarian omits any real discussion of the fact that most of these children are from single-parent homes. The absent-father syndrome that has devastated the American black family is ignored. Yet, more than 70% of black children today are born out of wedlock, a shocking figure that perpetuates poverty, dysfunction and reduced opportunity. (Football’s NY Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie achieved some infamy recently when it was revealed that he has fathered 9 children with 8 different women in the last five years alone, and on a video struggled to name all of them. That anti-social conduct is so irresponsible and reprehensible that one wonders why the NFL doesn’t discipline him for that as it does other players for lesser offenses.)
Well, the tension mounts towards the movie’s end as across the country the choice schools conduct their public lottery, literally pulling children’s numbers out of a box. Mothers and children sit there anxiously, prayerfully, knowing that their child’s entire future is riding on pure luck. Some make it, others don’t. Mothers cry with joy, and others cry that they will not give up – but really have little recourse. These mothers – winners and “losers” in the lottery – are really the heroines of the story. And one black child is shown being admitted to his new boarding school, where he promptly affixes to the wall a picture of his father holding him as an infant, a father who was unmentioned, unseen and uninvolved, but obviously on the thoughts of his son as he journeys forth from his mother’s home to make a better life for himself.
It is a movie worth seeing and absorbing, and a challenge to those in the educational industry system to make the necessary changes whatever the obstacles. And, for the sake of the children and America’s future, pull no punches and get it right.