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Review: Waiting for Superman

  • Posted on May 20, 2011 at 1:14 PM

Waiting for Superman is a thought-provoking documentary.  Artistically, I think the filmmaker did a good job of creating a narrative arc and providing a dense piece, full of information.  However, I would caution any viewer from “buying” the message entirely.  The film was full of information; some of that information was factual and some of that information was opinion.  The danger is that much of the opinion was presented as facts.  It’s difficult to sort the two out without extensive research, so the entirety should be viewed with skepticism.

One thing I find very important in this film is that they stress how essential good teachers are to the education of children, but how the system—including, but not limited to the teachers’ unions and politicians that keep bad teachers in their positions—is dysfunctional.  That focus, that differentiation is very important.

Before writing this, I read quite a few scathing critiques.  Not surprisingly, many if not all of these critiques were written by people who have a vested interest in the status quo.  I would recommend against “buying” their messages as well, for much the same reason.  Facts and opinions are not the same, and yet both sides present their opinions as if they were facts.  This is unethical and it is not done in the best interests of the recipients of these services, namely the children.  Furthermore, over-simplifying and filtering an opponent’s message in order to set up a straw-man—which is what most of the critiques I read did—is unethical and logically fallible.  We’re talking Critical Thinking 101 here, so it’s especially sad that it was done by our teachers and administrators who should know better.  Finally, while these critiques occasionally would admit the problem is real, none of them offered a solution besides pushing forward with what we know doesn’t work.  These people are barriers to change and, for the sake of our children, change is necessary.

That does not mean that the changes proposed in the film are as solid and successful and inclusive as the makers of Waiting for Superman would have us to believe.  The narrator of the film referred to “every child,” meaning that even poor children and children “lost” in the worst neighborhoods should have access to a top-quality education.  And that’s fine.  I’m on-board with that message.  BUT that message does NOT include every child.  This film failed in addressing the needs of every child with the filmmaker’s choice to exclude special education from the discussion and from his documentary.  The discussion of quality education must address the needs of all children!  That not only includes the poor performers, but also children with special educational needs that require educational services other children do not need. 

Granted, that issue is not the point of the documentary.  However, it is my opinion that it should not be a separate issue.  Successful schools are schools that can meet the needs of all their students.  Changes in education cannot exclude the needs of children with special educational needs, including those who are behind due school failure and those who need special services to succeed in any school setting.  We must acknowledge that “what works” for many children will not and cannot work for ALL children.  There is no single SOLUTION.   This presentation, this complete absence of all things special education, damages the credibility of the entire documentary in my opinion; and yet, reading so many negative critiques of the film that offer no solutions, no alternatives, and no change leaves me feeling that we’re right back where we started.  It was even in the film.  This dialogue is not about the kids.  Instead, it’s about the adults, each with their own bias and their own self-interest and their own ideas.

The Bureaucratic Failing

  • Posted on February 11, 2011 at 8:26 PM

Human societies have this nasty habit of needing something long before they figure out how to meet that need.  The need creates the motivation to fulfill that need, which, by necessity, means we hurt until that need is filled.  The hurt grows until it motivates us to develop the means to meet the need.  This is a natural, normal process which has led to a great deal of human progress.

Bureaucracy is one socio-technological system we’ve devised to meet certain needs, mostly related to managing the volume of work created by our massive societies.  In theory, bureaucracy is efficient.  In reality, bureaucracy often sacrifices effectiveness for efficiency by divorcing decisions from reality.

Consider health care:  Many of us believe health care is a basic human right.  From a social justice perspective, I would agree.  It is unjust to have health care and not to disperse it to the whole population.  From a more pragmatic perspective, the idea is problematic.  The freedom of speech, the freedom of ideas, the freedom of association—these are basic human rights.  Health care cannot be a basic human right any more than food or education can be a basic human right.  You see, from a pragmatic perspective, the freedom to communicate, share ideas, and choose with whom we associate requires others not to hinder us.  Whereas, the supposed rights to health care, food and education requires others to provide for us.  These are two very different concepts.  On the one hand, the freedom to communicate would best be described as a right we naturally have unless we are deprived of that right.  Whereas, health care would be best described as an entitlement we’d like to claim.

Furthermore, providing these entitlements require us to be technologically advanced enough to develop systems that can effectively provide these goods and services.  No such systems exist.  We have health care systems, but they do not provide health care goods and services to everyone.  We have food systems, but they do not provide food to everyone.  We have educational systems, but they do not provide education to everyone.

To help compensate for the lack of an effective system, we use bureaucracies to allocate limited resources.  These bureaucracies choose who gets what goods and services.  Currently, our health care system relies on a hodge-podge of bureaucracies with different goals.  There are federal bureaucracies that regulate the resources themselves—further limiting the resources that are available in attempt to ensure those resources are safe for use.  There are federal and state bureaucracies that provide limited resources.  There are private bureaucracies that provide limited resources for profit.  There are private bureaucracies that provide limited resources without the pursuit of profit.  There are federal and state bureaucracies that distribute access to the limited resources that are available.  There are private bureaucracies which distribute access to the limited resources that are available for profit.  There are private bureaucracies which distribute access to the limited resources that are available without the pursuit of profit.  In effect, these bureaucracies are often at cross-purposes and make a mess of things.

These cross-purposes make a mess of things all by themselves.  This mess is exacerbated by the fact that the nature of a bureaucracy often sacrifices effectiveness for efficiency by divorcing decisions from reality.  You see, in a bureaucratic system you have someone sitting at a desk with a piece of paper or information on a computer screen.  That person has to make a decision based on that information.  This person makes hundreds of decisions like this a day.  It’s a job.  It can be a tedious and thankless job.  That decision is influenced or dictated by decisions made by other people sitting at other desks.  None of those people are connected to the provider or the recipient.  The decision is divorced from reality.  For the decision maker, the significance of the decision resides in how it will affect the person’s job, not in how it will impact the provider or the recipient.  The real impact of the decision is unknown and unimportant to the person responsible for making it.

That is our system.  That will remain our system after Obamacare is enacted.  To solve our problems, we need new systems that can supply the entitlements we’re demanding.  Obamacare doesn’t do that.  Right now, we lack the technological sophistication to do that.  In the meantime, while we’re waiting and hurting for the progress that will make that possible, to satisfy the requirements of social justice, we need to dismantle the broken systems and replace it with systems designed to meet the needs to the best of our abilities.  Obamacare doesn’t do that.  The system itself is broken and Obamacare adds layers of bureaucracy to a system already broken by bureaucracy.  Bureaucracy is the best we can do, because we haven’t devised something better.  But Obamacare is not the best we can do.  Obamacare complicatedly adds more cross-purposes, not fewer.  Obamacare further divorces decision makers from the people their decisions affect.  And, worse still, Obamacare turns the entitlement we want—that which we want to be provided—into a legal obligation we cannot avoid.  It gives more power to the government.  It takes away the freedom of choice—the choice not to pay into a broken system—and forces people to entrust their health care into the hands of bureaucrats who are, of a necessity, divorced from their reality.