Daily Archives: April 25, 2011

Movie Review: Waiting for Superman

On a recent international plane flight, I got a chance to watch the movie ‘Waiting for Superman’.

Waiting for Superman As a Movie

Like all documentary-stye movies, it first must succeed as a movie and then succeed as a purveyor of informative and factual information. Far too often a documentary-style movie cannot maintain interest long enough for the viewer to make it through the movie. And in particular in on-demand situations like NetFlix, viewers are quick to cut their viewing short if a movie does not hold their interest. As a matter of fact, I still have not seen all of ‘Supersize Me’ even though people told me that it gets much better after the exceedingly dull and self-absorbed first 45 minutes.

The good news is that ‘Waiting for Superman’ is well crafted as a film. They hook you early, tell you the source of the film’s name, introduce you to lots of characters and give you just enough detail on each of the characters to make you want to keep watching. I loved the interplay that mixed families with experts along with really cool narrated graphic sequences. I love the geographic diversity and socioeconomic diversity. It made it so that as you watched the film, it was very hard to pretend that this was about ‘someone else’ – the movie is about all of us and applies to all of us. We are all involved.

As the plot unfolds, the drama increases and we are ever more deeply drawn into the lives of the characters. We see the lead up and are given lots of context about each student’s situation. We see both sides of the ‘tracks’ in the form of the schools the students are currently enrolled in and the schools they hope to be accepted into. The film makers repeatedly draw the line between glorious success and abject failure, punctuating their description with beautifully animated graphics with facts and figures to draw us in and make sure that we never think that the issues are small or isolated.

But the time the film reaches its climax and all the charter school lotteries are happening, the film makers have the audience eating out of their hands. And like all good movies about education (i.e. Stand and Deliver) I was dabbing my eyes with kleenex (in seat 17G) throughout all of the final scenes. The heart wrenching emotions that the parents and students are feeling and talking about on camera make for some damn good film making.

And for all of my movie reviews, I need comment on editing. I felt that the movie was very well edited. They had a lot of threads and lots of different kinds of footage and they never seemed to linger on a shot or a plot line for too long. It suggests they had a lot of footage, and through editing presented us with the bits that told the story without wasting the viewers time.

Where I agreed with Waiting for Superman

I thought one of the strongest (and quite novel) points that the movie made was about the correlation between bad schools and bad neighborhoods. Their point as that certain schools had become ‘factories for failure’ and that bad schools created bad neighborhoods instead of the more widely held notion that bad schools are caused by bad neighborhoods.

Lets say (for argument’s sake) that we wanted to improve a neighborhood and that we had lots of money and lots of discretion. Imagine for a moment if we took a completely failing school and re-did it to be a showcase school and filled it with talented teachers and small class sizes – and were able to somehow sustain it for 20 years (half of a generation) and then look at how the neighborhood might have been improved by a better school. Of course there are lots of challenges with my scenario – but remember that we have unlimited money in my little thought experiment.

Then turn the thought experiment around. Is there any way we could invest the money in the neighborhood outside the school (more parks) better housing, cleaner streets, a nice community center, nicer police patrols, etc etc. And somehow if those actually did make the neighborhood better – would the school naturally be better as a result?

As far fetched as the ‘invest in the school to improve the neighborhood’ scenario might be, the ‘invest in the neighborhood to make the school more effective’ is far more unlikely. Neither scenario is likely – it just gives a device to think briefly about where the cause and effect might lie in the high correlation between failing neighborhoods and failing schools.

I also agree that ‘bad teachers do not produce bad schools’ but instead ‘bad schools manufacture bad teachers’ using a similar logic.

Where I disagreed with Waiting for Superman

I think that the movie pretty much got ‘who the villain is’ wrong. The movie makers selects teacher’s unions as their clear villain. It is funny. At one point the movie makes a statement that people so fear the teacher’s union that they barely mention it.

I think that the actual villain is the education bureaucracy which I refer to hereinafter as the Vogons. I think that the film tries to cast Michelle Rhee in the role of the token Vogon. This is a mistake at least two ways: (a) in her role as Chancelor she is not one of the Vogons – she is at the boundary between the local environment and the Vogon culture and (b) unlike the Vogons Michelle Rhee actually was open minded and willing to think outside the box and try new things even if some of those new things kind of crashed-and-burned.

I think that it is somewhat gutless of the film makers to turn Randi Weingarten into the villain. They made her the villain not by what she said or what she did but instead by their clever editing and voice-over narration. Gutless and not particularly true to the documentary principles where you let the story tell itself. Oh by the way very entertaining.

At least Randi had the guts to appear in the film and I respect her for that. I am sure that most real Vogons would not be willing to be filmed at all and if they were filmed they would hide behind patriotic-sounding words all the time. Come to think of it, perhaps some of the people in the film *were* Vogons, but since they are so good at sliding around under the radar – we never noticed them. Again – at least Randi was who she was and stood for what she stood for.

Perhaps, the code word for the Vogons is “assessment”. Literally every time someone mentioned “assessment” unless they were saying “assessment sucks”, I got white-hot with anger. But I never remembered the names of the “assessment parrots” because that is how Vogons are. They hide behind meaningless but destructive platitudes and no matter how many ways you ask the question, all you ever get back is the “company line”. Grrr. You can see my rant on the ‘assessment parrots’ in my earlier blog post

The Elephant in the Living Room

From this point on, I will likely piss a few people off. I am trying to be balanced on this topic and trying not to speak from a pre-computed perspective (ok yes I do hate Vogons), but trying to make sense of the complex situation that ‘Waiting for Superman’ makes us think about. So perhaps it is a good point to reveal my political position on unions. I am a political moderate, neither left nor right. I am a teacher but not in a union since I am a professor. I have spent a portion of my career in a union and other parts of my career without a union. I have never worked in a position where my union was particular strong or activist. I fully understand that whether we are in a union or not, we all owe a debt of gratitude to unions who fought for reasonable working conditions and benefits over the past century and before. Their sacrifices and efforts of unions an union organizers benefit society well beyond their direct effects and immediate members.

So I tried to deflect the rabid criticism claiming I am ‘wild left’ or ‘wild right’ – it probably won’t work – but I tried :)

Unions have a purpose in a free society and capitalist economy. At some level, the only way a free society and capitalist economy works is when there is ‘balance’ between competing stakeholders. The union movement rises out of a natural reaction to situations where management holds ‘all the cards’ and management regularly takes advantage of their unbalanced power positions.

It is not natural to want to form a union when there is a respectful and collegial relationship in a workplace. Forming a union is a risky proposition and so a rational employee will not do it unless they see themselves and others at some greater risk is the union does not exist.

In cases where unions exist and union/management relationships work well, it is because of mutual respect on both parties and a focus of both parties on what is important in their relationships.

For example, at the University of Michigan, we have a very strong Graduate Employees Organization (GEO). (This is my personal observation) The GEO seems to be a very strong, active organization that cares deeply about its members. The rest of the university are very respectful of the GEO and work very cooperatively with the GEO. No one in their right mind would go up against the GEO – because we all know we would lose.

In a sense, the university has a great financial temptation to try to ‘work around’ the GEO since when it comes to employing its own graduate students, the university and faculty could completely ‘rig the game’ and take advantage of the students. In particular, with a strong GEO, it is highly likely that any organization in the university that started sneaking around avoiding the GEO, they would be quickly caught because there are graduate students *everywhere*.

But in a situation where ‘management’ is highly motivated to cut corners to save money, and the union ‘has teeth’, things go remarkably smoothly because all parties understand the issues and it is much simpler to cooperate than to fight.

So my core hypothesis as to the mechanism that causes teachers and teachers unions to behave the way that they do is that there is no real way to have a respectful relationship between the workers/union and the ‘management’. Strong combative unions are the natural effect of bad management.

But What is Management?

The problem in K12 is that “management” is an undefined, undifferentiated mass of bureaucracy that crosses national, state, and local boundaries. School principals, superintendents, boards of educations, are part of management but they are not management. Michelle Rhee as the Chancellor of the Washington DC system was part of management, but she was not management. Management includes all of the state departments of education, the US department of Education, and the state and federal government. Management is answer (d) – it is ‘All of the above’ – or perhaps better termed, ‘everyone except for the teachers’. Or in its saddest formulation, ‘e) None of the Above’.


The “management” of the US educational system is a terrible interconnected mess where no one takes any responsibility for the entire problem. Just as a microcosm, look at the sequence in the movie where Michelle Rhee offers the teachers a significant increase in salary to no longer be covered by the union. The idea does not even come up for a vote. Why? Well the film makers would like to suggest “bad unions” and “smoke-filled” rooms. My interpretation is that majority in the rank and file (I am sure a few folks wanted the fast cash) knew that Michelle was a short-timer and as soon as the teachers agreed to the union-free high-pay new deal, Michelle would leave and go on the lecture circuit leaving them with some Vogon-like replacement that would slowly crawl up their spine and eat their souls from within.

The people in management are not ‘bad people’ – in a sense they are as stuck in a system as the teachers are. No single member of management has the guts to switch sides and start fixing the system so even the management hates the management. We limp alone in a perfect but horrifying Nash Equilibrium (Video Lecture) and Evolutionarily Stable Strategy where everyone knows there is a better way but on one is willing to take the first step to make things better because while such a selfless act might save the species in the long-term, the short-term consequences for the individual are usually grave – it is why ESS works the way it does.

The teachers knew that Michelle was only part of their management and while for a bit she might have been a bright light that seemed to be open to cooperation and building respect, the teachers knew that the interlocked system would close in and eliminate her once the cameras stopped rolling and the special funds/initiatives dried up.

So they needed to pull into their union shell turtle-style and hold on until the violent rocking motion went away. Which it did surprisingly quickly as Michelle went on to bigger and better things. Do you think that 20% of the teachers hearts were breaking in the room when the issue did not come up for a vote? Do you think some went home and cried themselves to sleep, knowing that an opportunity for things to be better had been lost? Of course! They want the system to improve too – they want bad teachers to get out of the system – they want the pride back in their profession. But they knew Michelle was not the path forward because the bureaucracy is just too deeply entrenched.

So my choice as the correct ‘bad guy’ in the film is the unspoken and undescribed ‘management structure’. That structure is the enemy of teachers, enemy of the students, and then enemy of reform minded administration as well. At least Randi Weingarten and then unions have the courage to stand in public for what they believe.

Those that manipulate and destroy the system for their own selfish benefit hide in plain daylight. You can usually detect them because they use words like, “assessment”, “measurement”, “metric” or other misguided vocabulary borrowed from statistical process control as if they were describing improving the shelf-life of Little-Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pies using a new food additive. They cloak themselves in patriotic-sounding phrases to mask their own incompetence and lack of understanding of the real situation.

Summary of the Film

The film mistakenly wraps up the solution to the problem in the few “stellar” charter schools featured in the film. They mistakenly suggest that there *is* some kind of scalable solution that is about a ‘system’ and not about celebrating amazingly talented individuals.

To the extent that those charter schools are a success, it is about empowering and celebrating the administration and teachers in those schools. And doing things right is infectious. With these schools able to limit their intake, limit their class room size, have some control over keeping the good teachers and letting bad teachers go, and funding well above average, they can (not surprisingly) create pockets of excellence.

I would suggest that the common thread of all the success depicted in the film are situations where real control and decision making are devolved to the edges. For whatever legal, structural, or political reason, the administrators in these schools feel empowered to ignore the management above themselves and focus on teaching and focus on the success of their children. And at some point their success crosses a threshold and they become a “sacred cow” to the management above them and the management starts protecting them and then “adopts them” and then starts flowing resources toward these “success stories”.

My guess is that quite often these bright lights of isolated success, have a half-life of 7-10 years and that they are more fragile than the movie depicts, and that at some point, the central management ‘reels them in’ by funding and kindness and brings them back into the fold. (Just FYI: This would be a good time to read Page 152 of the Book the Spider and the Starfish.)

It is tiring to fight the man forever in the game that the man has designed and holds all of the cards.