“Dropout Factories” and “The Lemon Dance” in Waiting for Superman

Last night I saw Waiting for Superman the much-acclaimed documentary that follows the charter-school lottery odyssey of five students hoping to escape from failing schools.

Without giving away too much one thing that impressed me was how the director translated research findings into powerful visuals. Two in particular worth mentioning are The Dropout Factory and The Lemon Dance.

What is a Dropout factory? It is a high school where no more than 60 percent of freshmen make it to Senior Year. The phenomenon was first identified by Bob Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University. How many are there in the U.S.? About 2,000. And only Utah escapes the distinction of not having such a high school.

And The Lemon Dance (also known as the Turkey Trot) involves schools swapping their worst-performing teachers at the end of the year on the bet that their lemon isn’t as bad as another school’s lemon. The reason: it’s impossible to fire a teacher for anything short of a criminal act, ergo, New York City’s infamous “Rubber Room.”

The film offers a good diagnosis of what prevents school reform (politically powerful unions). As to what works? Good teachers. That is the conclusion of Eric Hanushek of Stanford and scores of reformers, parents and students. But one connection is not made as clearly as it might be. Not only must students be free to learn, but good teachers must also be free to teach. The status quo punishes innovation and tolerates a baffling degree of teacher incompetence. I left the theater suspecting there are many more educational entrepreneurs like Geoffrey Canada who are instead trapped in this dysfunctional system: teachers- who much like their students – are prevented from offering their full potential.