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Oct 10

Waiting for Superman

Saw a screening of Waiting for Superman tonight. It’s a well constructed documentary which looks at the state of the American public primary and secondary education system. Some of the revelations in the movie are startling. The biggest one is that high school teachers gain tenure after two years of teaching. That’s right – what it takes university academics years and years to attain, high school teachers get in only a couple of years. That assures them a job for life and the rationale behind this isn’t entirely clear (for university professors, the theory is that it allows them freedom of expression and freedom to pursue whatever interests them, free from the risk of being fired for political reasons). This means that even the worst of teachers can hang around – some are shown to read newspapers while their students shoot craps in the back of the classroom. This bottom 5-10% of teachers has a disproportionate and devastating effect on the overall quality of education American kids are receiving.

Public school teachers are also paid lock-step: the bad teachers get paid the same as the good teachers and union contracts prevent them from being paid otherwise. Interestingly, the teachers’ union emerged as the villain here – under the guise of “promoting harmony” among teachers for the sake of the children – they steadfastly and stubbornly stick to the status quo. Their argument is ultimately unconvincing, because they’re all talk and no results. Clearly, when things are declining or not getting better, you need to change what you’re doing. Yet, the intensity of vested interests prevents this change from happening. The documentary makes a great observation – the focus has shifted from the children to the adults, no matter the rhetoric being overlaid by the union.

This problem is of course seemingly endemic in American politics. Intense partisanship means opposing parties seem to always fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo. Call me cynical, but even when things aren’t working, a party opposing a proposal will do their best to stymie the other side. Not because the other side’s views are worse, or even because they think the other side’s view are worse… but simply because they are the other side. It’s the ideology of extremism – of black and white, all or nothing, with us or against us.

The movie closes with a lottery, where underprivileged but endearing kids try to get into better public schools via a lottery. The odds are stacked heavily against them, and most walk away empty handed. Why should getting a decent education be a lottery? See also this review in the New Yorker, which raises some thoughtful counterpoints.

I went with a friend who had a unique educational background himself – he arrived in America without knowing English. On the first day he lost his wallet, containing all his cash and ID cards. He overstayed his tourist visa. Working a full time job, he somehow put himself through community college, worked his way up through an associate degree, and then a bachelor’s at a state university. His job also had to support his brother and mother, who were staying with him in a small one bedroom apartment. He ended up with a full scholarship at Stanford where he’s working towards a PhD today. Each week, he spends half a day teaching at schools in the area – he’s taught in the affluent Palo Alto High School (“Paly”), as well as Charter schools, and “tougher” schools in East Palo Alto and San Jose. We had a long conversation afterwards in which he painted a vivid picture contrasting the vast differences in schools which are only miles apart.

The bonus part about the screening was that it was arranged by John & Ann Doerr, Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and Dave Goldberg, who were all in attendance. It was an interesting crowd. Zuckerberg gave a little introduction, opening up with the line: “I’m not recommending people to go to the movies much these days, but…”

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