25 October 2010


Special Lady Friend and I saw Waiting for 'Superman' last Friday with some classmates from her teaching certificate program.  Overall I thought it was a very good piece of work.  Comments:

• The narrative structure was very good.  For a polemical documentary, it did a good job of creating drama.  I found myself emotionally invested in whether the students Guggenheim profiled won the lottery to get into their charter schools.  This is not a typical reaction for me; indeed I started the movie rather bored with the biographical sections devoted to the individual students.

• Just as a sociological note, I found it very interesting how differently people at each of these lotteries around the country reacted as the results were read. In some groups people remained quiet when their names were called, some offered subdued celebrations, some boisterous ones, some groups offered polite applause for each name read. SLF pointed out that we have no idea if they were given instructions before hand regarding applause, etc. Nevertheless I always find it fascinating the way groups of people quickly fall into an agreed, implicit convention about how to behave in situations like this. Consider this another look at the sit-or-stand at concerts norm.

• Guggenheim very clearly places blame on the teachers' unions.  I can't fault that.

• I do wish he had examined a little more why unions are often impediments to reform.  They are not obstructionist for obstruction's sake, after all.  He could have made the point that, like all large organizations, there is an agency problem: the incentives of the union decision makers are not perfectly aligned with incentives of members.  Or he could have talked about why union members would chose to vote down merit pay: median-voter behavior plus a mild amount of risk aversion can mean that the 51% of members at the bottom of the distribution form a powerful voting block.

• Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT, gave a perfect example of what I hate about education union rhetoric.  She explicitly claimed that what is good for the teachers' union is congruent to what is good for education, so that if you oppose the union, you are by extension opposing education as a whole.  I believe this conflation is the single most powerful rhetorical trick the unions have up their sleeves.
Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.

— Frederic Bastiat, "The Law"
• Weingarten was also shown at a union meeting that reminded SLF of a megachurch service in both tone and layout. One of the lines that stuck out was her telling all her members/congregants that they were "heroes."  When you have a body of people being told they are heroic for doing God's work it is no wonder they respond with religious fervor to political, bureaucratic and economic challenges to their position.

• I posted a couple of weeks ago this stat from the movie, which remains shocking:
About one of 57 medical doctors and one of 97 lawyers loses his or her license annually for malpractice. In contrast, only one in 2,500 unionized, public school teachers with tenure gets fired each year.
• A similar stat also stood out. I don't recall the exact figures, but of the several hundred school districts in Illinois, only 60 or so have ever attempted to fire a single tenured teacher, and of those only half have succeeded. That is absurd. There is no organization in the world that can hire tens of thousands of people without making a mistake and ending up with someone who is not right for the job. You can't run an organization if you assume that once someone has made the decision to hire X, that decision can never be revisited or reevaluated.  It's impossible, and I don't use that word lightly.

• I part ways with Guggenheim in the Bill Gates section dealing with higher education. He is right to point out that compared to students around the world American teenagers do poorly in math and science. But if you examine 22 year old Americans do extremely well because we have the best university system in the world. The film moves right from high school math and science to talking about a lack of trained workers, skipping over the effects of college.

• In fact the entire emphasis on college prep I found to be poorly considered. It's nice to think that we should be preparing every single high school student for college, but that isn't a realistic or desirable goal for many reasons. ("Among college freshmen who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their high school class, 76 of 100 won't earn a diploma, even if given 8½ years." And of course that's the bottom 40% of people who actually were graduated, so dropouts are excluded.)

Many people actually think less college is what we need (e.g. Peter Theil's entrepreneurship grants to people who forgo college, or Bryan Caplan's view of higher education as signalling). In criticizing, for instance, California for preparing 20% of it's teenagers for college, he assumes that this number is too low. Now maybe it is, but that's not something he attempts to demonstrate. If that is too low then what is the right number?  30%? 50%? 22.5%? There were many assumptions Guggenheim made about higher education that maybe could be supported, but he never bothers to attempt that. There was too much assertion of facts not in evidence whenever it came to college.

• Tracking gets a very bad image, as it tends to these days. One charter school is praised for giving every student exactly the same classes. This is great if you're a median student, but Guggenheim ignores that the effect of not having any students in lower level classes is that no student can be in an upper level class. The problems of tracking are ones of execution rather than concept, and by eliminating it entirely I feel that school systems flirt with hatchet-axe-and-saw equality.

• Some of SLF's classmates didn't like that that Guggenheim did not criticize the concept of testing enough. He presents all sorts of evidence underpinned by state-wide testing. ("X% of students in Arizona are below grade-level in reading," and so forth.) I didn't have a problem with him not addressing testing more thoroughly; I thought testing was ancillary to his topic. Maybe some details about what tests were being cited would be useful, but it's not like there's a different set of tests whereby every Washington DC student is an excellent reader, or American students are vastly better than Japanese students as physics and so on. There are, AFAIK, no sets of test results that make achievement increase in proportion to spending in this chart, a version of which Guggenheim presents:

• There's a difference between presenting the results of tests and advocating that we continue to arrange school systems around standardized test taking.  Guggenheim does the former, not the latter.  Using test-derived evidence isn't an endorsement of "teaching to the test," and all the rest of the testing issues enhanced by No Child Left Behind.

• There are obviously a lot of problems with our testing regime.  I was certainly no fan of having to sit through the MSAs and MSPAPs and all the rest, as well as the endless days of preparing for them so our school could juke the stats.  But just because something like educational achievement or teacher quality is difficult to assess doesn't mean it doesn't exist.  Just because we don't have a good way of measuring a phenomenon isn't a reason to ignore it.

• There is an undercurrent throughout the film of how cruel it is to put students' fates in the hands of lotteries for charter school admissions. Guggenheim doesn't directly criticize this system, but I can imagine many people walking out of the theater with one of their major conclusions being how immoral such random systems are. I wish he had made the point that while arbitrary, allocating the limited seats in charter schools is the least bad way to do things since the alternatives are prices (which would make them identical to private schools), queuing (which is both arbitrary and rewards people rich enough to spend time waiting around in line), or by fiat of the principal or other official (which is too subjective and prone to cheating and bias).

• Some of the stylistic choices in the film were a little heavy-handed. I understand the metaphor, for instance, of the poverty gap being like the sound barrier, but I didn't need to see stock footage and re-enactments of Chuck Yeager time after time after time. I get it. I blame the unions for much of the disfunction in American schools, but you don't need ominous, funereal music when you show a union rally.  I get it.

Many of these comments seem negative, but I really did enjoy the movie. Treat the criticisms above as the ways in which I think it could have been even better.


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