You have to admire the marketing savvy of Paramount Pictures UK. It has picked the perfect moment to release Waiting for Superman, a 111-minute documentary about the crisis in American education. It comes out this Friday, following hot on the heels of the government’s White Paper on education and Ofsted’s report on Labour’s education record.
The conclusion of both the White Paper and Ofsted is that nothing is more important to educational attainment than good teachers and that is also the theme of Waiting for Superman. It follows the fate of half a dozen children, all of whom have applied for places at charter schools. We’re introduced to them at the beginning of the film and then taken on a whirlwind tour of the difficulties besetting American public schools. The main problem is that bad teachers are impossible to sack. In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, we’re shown footage of the ‘rubber room’, an office in New York where teachers are sent if they’re literally unemployable. Some of them are awaiting the outcome of tribunals which, because of clauses in their contracts, can take decades to be resolved. In the ‘rubber room’ they spend the day sleeping and playing cards.
The reason the charter schools featured in the film are better than the public schools is because they have the flexibility to reward good teachers and sack bad ones. They’re not just a bit better, either. They’re miles better. Which is why they’re massively over-subscribed. The odds of the six children getting in are not high.
The reason bad teachers can’t be sacked in the public school system is because of America’s all-powerful teachers unions. One of the film’s heroes is Michelle Rhee, who until last month was the chancellor of the District of Columbia’s public schools. In 2007 she suggested to the unions that teachers under her jurisdiction be offered a choice of signing new contracts, reducing their security of tenure in return for being able to earn much higher salaries if they performed well, or sticking with the old ones, guaranteeing tenure but with no performance bonuses. The unions initially refused to discuss her proposal, but eventually caved in and the first thing Rhee did was fire 247 bad teachers and put a further 737 on notice.
Needless to say, public education in DC improved dramatically. At the beginning of Rhee’s term of office, children’s test scores in DC were some of the lowest in the country. By the time she left, scores had increased by 14 percentage points in reading and 17 percentage points in maths.
We have the same problem in this country. Ofsted concluded that Labour’s record on education was poor. In spite of increasing spending by tens of billions of pounds, standards are too low in half of England’s secondary schools. Why? Because pupils are being subjected to ‘dull and uninspiring’ lessons. The solution, according to Ofsted, is to get rid of the bad teachers, but that’s impossible thanks to Britain’s teaching unions. As a recent edition of Panorama revealed, only 18 teachers have been sacked for incompetence in the UK in the past 40 years.
While the White Paper confirms Ofsted’s findings, it stops short of proposing that heads be empowered to sack under-performing teachers. Instead, all they can do is suggest that they seek employment at other schools and offer to write them glowing references in return. In Waiting for Superman, this practice is referred to as ‘the dance of the lemons’ and it’s as common here as it is in America.
At the end of Waiting for Superman most of the six children fail to win places at charter schools and are condemned to a second-rate education in a variety of failing public schools. The viewer is left in no doubt about who to blame for their plight: Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, who is every bit as intransigent as Christine Blower, the head of the NUT. Weingarten is a ghastly, fire-breathing dragon who puts the interests of her dues-paying members before those of the children they teach. She is bitterly opposed to charter schools for the same reason the NUT is opposed to free schools: because they have a little more flexibility when it comes to teachers’ pay and conditions.
I urge everyone to go and see Waiting for Superman. I cannot imagine a more eloquent statement of the case for free schools.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.