Thoughts on "Waiting for Superman"

I missed "Waiting for Superman" when it was in theaters and recently got a chance to see it during a long flight, yes, on one of those tiny LCD screens. The film was rather controversial in educational circles when it came out and I was expecting a large reaction to its point of view, or approach to the subject or its choice of culprits for the current state of things. Not so. I thought the movie was quite sensible, that it made a number of valid points and that it was pretty fair.

One thing I did not enjoy was the focus of the ending on the lotteries that would decide whether the kids we had been following would get into their respective Charter schools, schools that would be the difference between success and failure. Dramatically the scenes work and we're on the edge of our seats waiting to see if they make it in (most do not!), but the emotional kick from these scenes undoes a very important point the movie makes about Charter schools: just like normal schools, some of them work and some of them do not.

There were several points I thought the film made well:
  • Teacher tenure is a disaster.
  • Teacher Unions get in the way of real reform.
  • The achievement gap is real and cannot be ignored.
  • "Tracking" is problematic.
  • Charter Schools are an option but not a panacea.
But before that, an important note about the all important issue of money.

OK, what about the money?

The film makes makes this point very early on: per pupil money spent in the US has been rising consistently over the past few decades and yet test scores remain flat. Therefore, money is not really the issue and we can move on to examine other aspects of the educational system.

As a parent in California schools I cannot let this point pass uncontested. In first place, California spends much less per student than other states in the nation.

Furthermore, even if we did manage to raise per pupil spending in California over the past few decades, in the last years all we've experienced is massive cuts. We've already cut those "nice to have" items, like art, music, physical education, transportation, etc, to the point where there's nothing left. And we're facing the prospect of massive cuts this year, when the Republicans in the legislature won't even accept to let the voters decide whether taxes should be extended to avoid disastrous reductions in service at all levels of the government.

School funding in California is further complicated by a system based on inequality. Funding comes from property taxes, local parcel taxes and donations to education foundations. Redwood City (a Revenue Limit district) is surrounded by richer (Basic Aid) districts. The result? The Redwood City school district, in the midst of Silicon Valley, receives much less money per student that districts like Woodside and Palo Alto. And while our district and teachers make heroic efforts to provide a quality education, the differences in funding are real and their effects palpable. Just ask anyone who has recently moved from Redwood City to Palo Alto for example. I know it's hard, but try it.

Money remains an issue that cannot be ignored. Now, onto the main points from the film.

Teacher Tenure

The section on teacher tenure is incredibly painful to watch. First we find out teacher tenure exists and that in some districts teachers get tenure after a mere 2 years of employment. Once tenured, they cannot be fired, unless there are incredibly blatant self-incriminating circumstances. Most bad tenured teachers just stay around until retirement and their district needs to figure out ways to mitigate the damage they may cause.

One option is to shuffle them around. At the end of the school year, schools move their "lemon" teachers to other schools in the district, in the hope that the lemons they get are better than the ones they let go.

Another option is to park those bad teachers into a warehouse, paying them full salary and benefits but keeping them away from the classrooms. This is really done in some districts. Truly amazing.

I don't know how this came about, but the notion of automatic tenure after a few years of employment seems (ahem) problematic to say the least. In University environments it takes years to make tenure and there are limited tenured spots. Applicants go through an extremely long, painful and rigorous process with lots of peer review before they make it in.

One argument I've seen is that without tenure districts would choose to fire older teachers who by virtue of having been around the longest are collecting the largest salaries. In these times of cuts to public education you can see how a district could avoid draconian cuts by replacing experienced teachers with young, enthusiastic ones. Still, using tenure as a solution to this problem seems out of proportion, as it ties your hands forever.

As a parent of kids in public schools, or any school, you know when you have a good teacher. You can see it in the kids, how excited they are to go to a class, how much they enjoy the new things they're learning, how much they respect their teacher. Their eyes light up when they talk about what they do during those periods. And in the same way you know when you have a bad one. You can easily see it in lack of achievement, when your kid starts failing tests, or in plain lack of enthusiasm, if your kid manages to pass the tests anyway. And when you have a really bad teacher you know with complete certainty. As a parent I don't want those teachers to be teaching. Period. There should be a fair process in place for parents to use to report teachers that are failing the children. A process with follow up by the district, proper validation of claims to ensure fairness, even a probation program to let teachers get back into good form, etc. Companies do this all the time, with yearly performance reviews, tracking of performance and placement of under achieving employees in improvement programs. Tolerating a bad co-worker for a while is a pain, but tolerating a bad teacher for years is just unconscionable.

Teacher Unions and Reform

I said it once and I'm saying it again: I'm 100% pro union and I'm in awe of our teachers and their work. That said, the Teacher's Union comes across rather poorly in the film. The film focuses for a while on Michelle Rhee, then Chancellor of DC Public Schools, trying to reform the compensation system to pay more to high performing teachers in exchange for relaxing the rules of tenure and seniority. The film shows the Union rejecting the proposal, even though it was later passed in some diminished capacity. Regardless of the merit of the idea, it was shocking to see the attitude of Union leaders, seemingly unconcerned with the state of education as they fought to preserve a system that's obviously not working for the kids.

We experienced some of this in Redwood City a year ago, when facing an untenable situation the District had to ask the Union to accept fewer work days in order to close a huge budget gap. The Union eventually agreed, but it took a while and the tone of the discussion was adversarial and a bit unsettling. It did not feel like we (teachers and parents) were a team, in this mess together, trying to do the best for the kids in the district.

The Achievement Gap can be closed!

The film presents the data that shows the achievement gap: kids do about the same until they enter middle school and then you see significant discrepancies in performance for groups of different socioeconomic status. The amazing point shown by the movie is that the gap can be closed. How? Basically by massively increasing the amount of resources devoted to a smaller group of children. One example highlighted is the KIPP program. Here are its operating principles, from Wikipedia:

The schools operate on the principle that there are no shortcuts: outstanding educators, more time in school, a rigorous college-preparatory curriculum, and a strong culture of achievement and support will help educationally underserved students develop the knowledge, skills, and character needed to succeed in top quality high schools, colleges, and in the competitive world beyond.

And a major component is something we know from comparative studies: more time in school matters:

Most KIPP schools run from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on select Saturdays (usually twice a month), and middle school students also participate in a two- to three-week mandatory summer school, which includes extracurricular activities after school and on Saturdays. As a result, KIPP students spend approximately 60 percent more time in class than their peers.

The achievement gap can be closed, but it requires more resources, that is, more money. Not an option for our public schools. Not closing this gap when we know we can is just criminal.

"Look Ma, we're famous!" or Tracking is Problematic

Redwood City makes an appearance in the film, in the context of a discussion of "tracking". The movie explains that "tracking" is where someone in the educational system decides which kids are good enough for college and which kids aren't and divides education into two tracks: one with more advanced work geared towards the privileged future professionals and one with simpler classes geared for the underprivileged mass of workers. It further points out that this approach made sense in the 50s when there was a great need to educate masses to work in the factories, and that now that factory jobs have been outsourced, the students in the wrong track are being failed by the system. If such an explicit plan did exist, it does not necessarily seem irrational to me. Educational systems in Europe are known to channel people that don't do well academically into apprenticeship programs allowing them to develop a profession with a living wage. The film notes in righteous indignation that the success in life of your kid depends on an obscure decision by a bureaucrat in the school system. It all makes for a rather convincing narrative but I think it just misses what's really going on.

At that point on the film, we leave drab urban schools to gaze from afar at the manicured installations of Woodside High School, here in Redwood City. The lawns are beautiful, the buildings stunning... quite a contrast from the dilapidated schools we had been spending time in up to that point. It's hard to tell why there's something ominous about the school and there the film talks about tracking and showcases a girl who's doomed to attend Woodside High School unless she can get accepted through a lottery into Summit Preparatory School, a small Charter School in Redwood City.

I know people with kids at Woodside and had trouble sympathizing with the plight of the student in question. I assume she and her family wanted to go to Summit, were heavily invested in their decision and their anguish was heartfelt. But the I felt the film was dishonest here. It wanted to talk about tracking and used Woodside High School as a convenient example. In an eloquent letter (quoted at the end of this post), two Woodside parents point out the many ways in which the film mischaracterizes the school. They also make this crucial point:

Waiting for Superman does not take into account that Woodside must accept every student, whether they are English Language Learners, special education students or students with learning disabilities.

Which brings me back to tracking and whether it exists. To me the question is a basic one of available resources. Say you're a large school with a thousand or more students coming from various backgrounds. Some of these are academically inclined, some less so. Many come from low income families where very few family members have gone to college. Others come from complex family situations, not necessarily conducive to focused academic work. And, of course, many kids come from families lucky enough for all conditions to be set to let them excel in school. You have very limited resources. Class sizes are large and there are limited hours in the day. What to do?

One option: mix everybody up, resulting in classes containing those ready to perform at their class level and those who are not. If you do this, teachers can choose to teach to the more advanced kids or to the least advanced kids. If you choose the first option, you will leave behind the kids that cannot keep up. These kids need personal attention and more school hours and we don't have the resources to offer either to them. Over time they will fall further and further behind making the gap wider in a vicious cycle. If you choose the first option, the advanced kids will be bored and their parents will notice they're not getting the level of education they expect. When this happens, the middle and upper middle class parents will leave the public schools for private schools, another vicious cycle, where the low income people are the only ones "condemned" to a public system that has fewer and fewer resources. As the political class leaves the public schools, public schools will loose their voice in the political debate and will end up loosing more and more of their funding. This might be already happening.

This is all extremely painful when we consider that we know how the achievement gap can be closed. But we don't have the resources to close it, so we're forced to consider nasty "rational" alternatives.

One alternative is to offer "advanced" classes and let kids find their spot. Kids can enter the advanced classes and drop to the (ahem) "normal" classes if they cannot keep up. Unfortunately this system segregates the kids from affluent families from the low income children. In a way, it's a system that admits failure. We know we cannot give all the kids the attention they deserve to pull them out of the achievement gap, but we won't ruin it for the other kids. This system keeps middle class families in the public schools and helps other kids with the example that high achievers provides, but still, it is inequitable and unjust. But with limited resources there's no magic.

We know the difference resources can make. Orion is a K-5 Public School that requires parent participation. Because of this, the small staff is complemented by a large number of parents that help in the classroom and provide the personalized attention kids need to succeed. Orion parents, through fundraising, are able to hire additional support staff that can help the kids that require special attention. At Orion, 50% of children are from low income families and yet, all kids do very well. In fact Orion's test scores rival scores from the more affluent schools in the district.

So, is there tracking in our schools? Yes, it's a rational response to the endemic lack of resources.

Are charter schools the solution?

The short answer is: no. The film makes this point when it states that only a fraction of charter schools are more successful than public schools. But then the film contradicts itself at an emotional level when it focuses the whole final act on the plight of kids waiting to see if they win the lottery that lets them into one of those few charter schools that do work and make a difference.

Here in Redwood City, the film compares Woodside High School to Summit Preparatory School, a new, small charter school that sounds like a great place. I know a few people that send their children there and are extremely satisfied. Summit might very well be one of those charter schools that outperforms the public schools, and that's totally fine. At the same time our local high schools, are doing very well. So, the way I see it, charter schools are not a panacea. Some work, some don't, just like public schools.

Personally I think that as kids grow older it's good to expose them to more opportunities, a larger, diverse population, more variety of classes and thus I'm tending towards the larger high schools, as the natural progression to the even larger world of college. But then again, some kids might certainly benefit from the attention they can only get at a smaller institution.

Final Notes

So, all in all, Waiting for Superman brought up a number of significant issues and generated lots of discussion. Meanwhile in the real world, here in California, we're bracing ourselves for another round of cuts, which this time could be even more gargantuan than in the previous years. If the Republicans in the legislature can't even allow the people to vote on tax extensions, if the people can't bring themselves to support taxes for basic services, if our neighbors in Redwood City can't tolerate to pay an extra $80 in property taxes a year (a year!) to support their local schools, how can we stop what looks like the inevitable decline of public education. Will our children be able to send their kids to public schools? Or could we be witnessing the very last generation of middle class children in public education?

Appendix: Letter from Woodside Parents Regarding WFS

We had an opportunity to see Waiting for Superman recently. What a powerful documentary. It presents many of the problems in our education system, suggestions to fix it and many success stories. Unfortunately, the information presented about Woodside High School, located in Silicon Valley, left an impression that Woodside does not do a good job educating its students, when in fact, it is an outstanding high school where students receive a top notch education.

The filmmakers were offered an opportunity to learn more about Woodside, but regretfully, they declined. Had they visited Woodside and talked with staff, students, administrators or parents, they likely would have avoided some of the mischaracterizations and misrepresentations in the film.

The information presented in the film about graduation rates and college acceptances is very misleading. Those statistics came from a UCLA study that uses data which tracks students from 9th to 12th grade. The study does not take into account the number of incoming freshmen who are enrolled at Woodside and decide to attend a private or charter school, or move out of the area, without notifying the school before the school year begins. Nor does the study include the number of students who move out of the area during their high school years. Even more inaccurate, the study only includes the seniors who go on to attend California colleges, and leaves out the 10-20% who choose to attend private universities, vocational schools and out-of-state public universities and community colleges.

In fact, looking at Woodside’s entering freshmen class of 2004 through the graduating class of 2008, 92.4% of those students graduated. The dropout rate was 4.9%. The other 3% of students either moved out of the area, changed schools or were reassigned to special programs. The film should have just used the graduation rate and drop out data, but that would have inconveniently disproved their thesis.

The Woodside staff is very focused on qualifying students for admittance to college. Most recently, 93% of the graduating Class of 2010 were accepted and committed to attending either a four-year or two-year college. The other seven percent joined the military, went to technical school, decided to work, or chose a gap year experience. The film seems to make an issue of students attending a two-year college. For some students, going to Community College is definitely the right move. Two-year colleges can have smaller class sizes than a four-year university and cost much less. There is a wonderful policy in California which offers a student who completes the required courses at one of the Community Colleges, to be automatically admitted to a California State University, and even receive priority admission to a University of California school as a junior. For some students, this is a golden opportunity.

As for tracking, the film is flat out wrong - Woodside does not track. Students are given opportunities to advance in subjects if teachers and students think they will succeed. Woodside offers a great summer program, open to all students, which allows a student to advance an entire level in math so that they can get ahead in their math studies.

Waiting for Superman does not take into account that Woodside must accept every student, whether they are English Language Learners, special education students or students with learning disabilities. It does not talk about all the support services offered to Woodside students who need extra help. The school has an Academic Resource Center open all day where students can meet with a certified teacher to get the extra help they need. They have after school tutoring in the library. They have an AVID program that prepares first-generation college students, or those students in the academic middle, for college.

WHS also has the Counseling and Advocacy for Teens program - a counseling program staffed with a licensed clinical social worker and interns from local colleges. These counselors provide assistance to students experiencing academic, social, personal, or crisis counseling needs - a great benefit for those attending Woodside High School.

Waiting for Superman suggests that Woodside High School is living in the past. This could not be more wrong! If anything, WHS is not only keeping up with the world around it, but is an innovative leader. WHS offers many great programs that are essential in today’s world. These include an extensive offering of Advanced Placement courses, robotics and engineering classes, environmental (green) education classes, and a Mandarin language program. In addition, Woodside is about to break ground on a state-of-the-art digital and media arts building where students will be able to learn about photo, audio and video production, animation and web design. WHS hosts a "College Day" in October where the freshmen take a field trip to Cal or Stanford, sophomores and juniors take the PSAT, and seniors spend all day in workshops learning about college applications, financial aid, and career opportunities. In March, the College and Career Center offers “March into College” a series of four evening workshops where parents and students learn together about college choices, the application process and financial aid.

Waiting for Superman paints an inaccurate picture of Woodside High School and has regrettably tarnished the school’sreputation. Again, had the filmmakers actually visited the school, this mischaracterization would never have happened. Unfortunately, there is no way for those of us who know the truth about Woodside to reach everyone who sees the movie. We appreciate this opportunity to shine a light on a wonderful school and set the record straight.

Sarah Blatner
Donna Habeeb
Woodside High School Parents


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