Whether it’s this post or Oprah, today may be the first time you hear of the movie “Waiting for Superman” but it won’t be the last. A flood of pissed-off parents, Charter Schools and reformers and deep-pocketed billionaires and millionaires will make sure of that.
But the other reason you’ll keep hearing about this documentary on the state of America’s public education system is that it’s just a really great documentary.
I’ve never quite understood how the public school system of the wealthiest country in the world–one where every President pledges to “fix” education and one where education spending continually goes up–could be so intractably horrible. The problem seems too big, bloated, complex and confusing to even have a smart debate around, much less try to fix. Fortunately, since I’m not a parent, it’s an issue where I can just throw up my hands, assume any politician saying they’ll fix it is lying, and start saving for the private school I’ll one day need when I do have kids.
But the brilliance of “Waiting for Superman” is in how it breaks the problem with education down into mostly one simple problem: Bad teachers can’t be fired, good teachers can’t get rewarded for being good, whether that’s promotions or merit-based raises. Two of the most shocking scenes depict both sides of this coin. One showed a “rubber room” where teachers awaiting disciplinary hearings– accused of crimes as extreme as sexual assault– get paid a full salary to do nothing for as long as eight months. Another told the story of Michelle Rhee, who proposed that teachers in DC could double their incomes if they swapped to a merit-based rather than tenure system. It was so threatening that the labor unions wouldn’t allow the issue to come to a vote. Equally shocking was something called “the Lemon Dance” where public schools in one district just swapped their horrible teachers they couldn’t fire in hopes of getting a less-worse lemon.
It’s absolutely antithetical to the way Silicon Valley — and America’s private sector at large– operates. And that’s the biggest reason a hoard of Silicon Valley big-wigs have gotten behind the film. Ali Partovi of iLike saw it at Sundance and immediately Tweeted it was the best documentary he’d ever seen. At an after party he reached out to the producers to help get the word out, hosting several screenings locally. Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, venture capitalists John Doerr and Bill Gurley and San Francisco mayoral candidate Joanna Rees have all hosted screenings to raise awareness of the film. Bill Gates of Microsoft is interviewed in the film, and has attended high-level screenings. And Jeff Skoll, formerly of eBay, was one of the producers. Part of it is, as Gates says in the film, America needs a smarter work force if we’re going to be a “knowledge economy” — not to mention one that is becoming more hostile of letting in immigrants. But the bigger thing is the cultural disconnect of a system that isn’t based on merit or performance where people who do a bad job cannot be fired.
Silicon Valley elites were horrified by the “bailout nation” days post recession, but there’s a big difference between loathsome banker fat -cats keeping their jobs or even the outrage over job banks at large automobile companies where people are paid full salaries to not work. The impact of those bail-out examples is just wasted money and ultimately a failed company with disappointed shareholders. The impact of the lack of accountability in schools is it hurts children, especially in inner cities. The film shows this in a dramatic, heart-wrenching detail by following a handful of kids who are desperately vying to get picked in a lottery to attend better schools. Most of them don’t win. There’s something tragic about watching kids try to break their own cycle of poverty and self-interested adults propping up a broken system that stops them.
The movie is opening in selected cities this week and expanding later on. I hope everyone who has the chance sees it. Get ready to get mad and get motivated.