The Economist : Inconvenient Truths About US Public Schools
Saturday, October 16, 2010
FOR America’s children the education system is often literally a lottery. That is the main message of a new documentary about America’s schools, “Waiting for ‘Superman’.” Made by the team that gave us “An Inconvenient Truth”, and supported with the sort of marketing budget that other documentary makers can only dream of, it is intended to create a surge in public support for education reform at least as great as the clamour to do something about climate change generated (for a while) by Al Gore’s eco-disaster flick. The timing could hardly be better. The “jobless recovery” is finally bringing home to Americans the fact that too many of those who go through its schools are incapable of earning a decent living in an increasingly competitive global economy. The number of jobs advertised but not being filled is increasing even as the unemployment rate stays resolutely high. And despite its depressing enumeration of the failure of so many schools, particularly in poorer urban areas, its miserable ending, and the bleakness of its title, the movie also has a message of hope: there are good schools and teachers in America, whose methods could make its education system as good as any in the world if only they were allowed to.
That truth, recognised by anyone who has spent even a few hours in, say, a KIPP charter school, is an inconvenient one to the teachers’ unions, which the film rightly identifies as a big chunk of kryptonite standing in the way of a dramatic rescue for the children of America. For example, the film features efforts to reform the school system in Washington, DC, led by Adrian Fenty, the mayor, and Michelle Rhee, his combative schools chief, including a scene where Ms Rhee’s offer to double salaries for teachers in exchange for them giving up tenure and accepting “merit pay” (performance-related wages) is rejected by the unions. Right on cue for the launch of the film, Mr Fenty has just lost his local Democratic Party primary to a more union-friendly rival, so Ms Rhee may well be leaving. The $1m spent during the campaign by the American Federation of Teachers played a crucial role in Mr Fenty’s defeat. The teachers’ unions have resolutely opposed efforts to pay good teachers more than mediocre ones, to fire the worst performers, and to shut down schools that consistently fail to deliver a decent education. This, coupled with underfunding in poor areas, has resulted in a shortage of good schools; so the few that are worth getting into are hugely oversubscribed, with places allocated by the public lotteries which provide the grim climax to the movie. Ms Rhee upset the unions by refusing to accept all this, closing dozens of schools and firing 1,000 teachers, including the head of her own children’s school.
Perhaps the most important thing about “Waiting for Superman” is that it is liberal, Al Gore-friendly types who are highlighting the fact that the teachers’ unions are putting their worst-performing members before the interests of America’s children. Class(room) war may be about to break out within the Democrats. Teachers’ union members are a vocal group within the party; but its rising stars—such as Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, who has just persuaded Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, to donate $100m to improve the city’s schools—are making school reform a priority. To be fair, the unions are not all bad. As Bill Gates has pointed out, they are taking part in an initiative funded by his foundation to develop new measures of teacher performance, which could be the basis for a form of merit pay. Moreover, he notes, reform cannot succeed without the support of the majority of teachers. Even so, the fact is that the teachers’ unions are the primary obstacle to reform—which presents leading Democrats, and above all, Barack Obama, with a crucial test: will they be willing to confront a core part of their membership in the interests of America’s children? Mr Obama has gone further than many expected in pushing school reform, not least by setting up the Race to the Top competition for additional money. If he has any doubt as to which side he ought to be on, he need only ask that bellwether of public opinion, his old friend Oprah Winfrey. She recently invited Ms Rhee onto her show, where the audience gave her a standing ovation.