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Perhaps you, already impressed with “An Inconvenient Truth”, eagerly awaited the release of “Waiting for Superman” this fall. Despite the merits of “An Inconvenient Truth”, this writer was of the firm opinion that it glossed over some critical information and was designed to spare their audiences some rather unpleasant truths. But upon seeing “Waiting for Superman”, the sense of being subjected to a slick overextended infomercial was inescapable.
Just before entering the theater, at a membership-supported arthouse venue, someone was conveniently stationed outside the entrance handing out promotional literature, offering the chance to win $1,000, which could be applied to the cost of an education. Having been my very first ever encounter with such an approach, troubling questions arose before the previews even began.
Not unlike a prosecutor’s opening statement, essentially every tidbit of information provided lent itself conveniently to the case for dismantling public schools, only to replace them with for-profit charter schools. By doing so, it seems that our nation’s young people, disadvantaged or not, can become like those from the mythical town of Lake Wobegon, “where all the children are above average.” Unfortunately, the myths are not just confined to the town limits of that provincial little Minnesota community. Ironically, or not, although its exact location is somewhat open to debate, Lake Wobegon most likely lies within the boundaries of Minnesota’s fabled 6th congressional district, home to Minnesota’s pride and joy, the Gopher State’s answer to Sarah Palin, the incomparable and unsinkable Michelle Bachmann.
Diane Ravitch, a New York University historian of education, provides us with a compelling counter-argument, which lays bare the highly selective, skewed nature of this incendiary and probably highly misleading sales pitch masquerading as a serious documentary. Her critical review, entitled, “The Myth of Charter Schools”, appears in the November 7th issue of The New York Review of Books. For those who haven’t seen the film yet, it endlessly repeats the mantra that our public schools are flawed, and that destroying teacher’s unions, firing underperforming teachers, and turning over the education of our nation’s young to the profit-driven private sector represents the answer to all our problems.
If you’ve seen the film or are planning to do so, here are a few caveats to keep in mind…
1-We have heard about the phenomenon of people hating Congress, and at the same time loving their own congressperson, but such a tendency seems to extend to our public schools as well, as suggested by the following:
The annual Gallup poll about education shows that Americans are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the quality of the nation’s schools, but 77 percent of public school parents award their own child’s public school a grade of A or B, the highest level of approval since the question was first asked in 1985.
2-Near the beginning of the film, its creator, Davis Guggenheim recounts passing by public schools while driving his two daughters to a private school, musing that not every parent is able to exercise such an exclusive privilege. He, conveniently, it seems, fails to mention the following, however:
Guggenheim is a graduate of Sidwell Friends, the elite private school in Washington, D.C., where President Obama’s daughters are enrolled. The public schools that he passed by each morning must have seemed as hopeless and dreadful to him as the public schools in Washington that his own parents had shunned.
3-High profile individuals such as Geoffrey Canada, CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone; Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public school system; and David Levin and Michael Feinberg, who have developed a network of high performing charter schools over the past sixteen years are presented as the ones wearing the white hats. Of course, the “good guys” must have an arch nemesis, so video clips of Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, are inserted at key points during the film, providing the audience with well-timed opportunities to boo and hiss at our education system’s female counterpart to Usama bin Laden. Apparently, either successful public schools do not exist or Guggenheim has decided that such information would only muddle the argument he is trying to make.
No successful public school teacher or principal or superintendent appears in the film; indeed there is no mention of any successful public school, only the incessant drumbeat on the theme of public school failure.
Although the film quietly, almost subliminally, acknowledges that many charter schools are not successful, not one single official from a failing charter school was interviewed as the film seemingly attempts to “fly beneath the radar” on this topic, which is described as follows:
Some fact-checking is in order, and the place to start is with the film’s quiet acknowledgment that only one in five charter schools is able to get the “amazing results” that it celebrates. Nothing more is said about this astonishing statistic. It is drawn from a national study of charter schools by Stanford economist Margaret Raymond (the wife of Hanushek). Known as the CREDO study, it evaluated student progress on math tests in half the nation’s five thousand charter schools and concluded that 17 percent were superior to a matched traditional public school; 37 percent were worse than the public school; and the remaining 46 percent had academic gains no different from that of a similar public school.
4-The film inexplicably segues to a clip of Chuck Yeager courageously and patriotically breaking the sound barrier, supposedly intended to lead the viewer to the conclusion that turning over our public schools to the for-profit private sector can also help us to break through seemingly impenetrable barriers to “progress” in our nation’s education system.
5-Research has indicated that within the schools, the teachers are the most critical resource, however, Guggenheim apparently concludes that the film’s viewers don’t really need to hear about the following:
According to University of Washington economist Dan Goldhaber, about 60 percent of achievement is explained by nonschool factors, such as family income. So while teachers are the most important factor within schools, their effects pale in comparison with those of students’ backgrounds, families, and other factors beyond the control of schools and teachers.
6-Absent from the film is any mention that charter schools were initially the creation of Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers from 1974 to 1997. His efforts were premised upon the idea that such schools could direct special attention to the neediest students, particularly those who had either dropped out already, or were at risk to do so. He withdrew his support for this concept in 1993 upon realizing that for-profit organizations now saw charter schools as a juicy profit-making opportunity.
7-Guggenheim also seems to overlook any mention that the heroine of the film, D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee “gained her teaching experience in Baltimore as an employee of Education Alternatives, Inc., one of the first of the for-profit operations.” After all, why would the audience want to hear about this confusing and pesky detail?
8-Also unmentioned is the slavish reliance upon test scores under George W. Bush’s so-called “No Child Left Behind” program, along with the obvious incentive for charter schools to avoid students who may lower the average (and the potential payout for performance in the process):
Under NCLB, low-performing schools may be closed, while high-performing ones may get bonuses. Some charter schools “counsel out” or expel students just before state testing day. Some have high attrition rates, especially among lower-performing students.
9-Unmentioned is the matter of the highly energetic, charismatic Geoffrey Canada (director of the aforementioned program in Harlem) leading an organization financed by wealthy, generous philanthropists, with assets of $200 million, while he is paid an annual salary of $400,000/year. Apparently, viewers of the film also did not really need to know the following about Canada’s schools:
On the 2010 state tests, 60 percent of the fourth-grade students in one of his charter schools were not proficient in reading, nor were 50 percent in the other. It should be noted-and Guggenheim didn’t note it-that Canada kicked out his entire first class of middle school students when they didn’t get good enough test scores to satisfy his board of trustees.
10-While making the case that Finland has the best public school system on the planet, and at the same time vilifying teacher’s unions in this country, Guggenheim conveniently “forgets” to inform his audience that Finland’s public education system is completely unionized.
11-The film shamelessly promotes Locke High School in Los Angeles, a for-profit charter school which is part of the Green Dot chain. Bolstered with $15 million of mostly private funding, the financial resources necessary to produce results were clearly not lacking. According to the Los Angeles Times, the percentage of students proficient in English rose from 13.7% in 2009 to 14.9% in 2010, while math proficiency rose from 4.0% to 6.7%. Encouraging results, yes, but a miracle? Hardly.
12-The SEED charter boarding school in Washington, D.C. is also singled out for special praise. While its success is undeniable, the school spends $35,000 per student, which is about three times the amount spent per student in the public school system.
That being the case, how many families would be willing to separate the brothers and sisters in the family at such a tender age, and if so, what might this do to the average family’s cohesiveness, which is already strained by numerous external challenges?
And then, which political party would care to take the lead in selling the rabidly anti-tax zealots (those who show up to vote for each and every single election) that they should now pay three times as much in taxes in order to better educate the next generation. Yes, which party is willing to be the first to climb out of their trenches and wade into the No Man’s Land that separates them from the militant and heavily armed anti-tax crowd?
No, that’s not your imagination playing tricks with you. Those are actual crickets chirping.
Ravitch’s article clearly advances a goodly number of additional arguments that bear consideration, too extensive to be detailed within the scope of this essay, which has perhaps already grown too lengthy and cumbersome. Please refer to Ravitch’s article (linked above) for further details.
O.K. Perhaps there are valid counter-arguments to Ravitch’s case, so if anyone out there is aware of what they might be, please feel free to weigh in on this topic. Absent compelling evidence to the contrary, this writer remains convinced that at best, “Waiting for Superman” is seriously and perhaps fatally flawed by its grossly selective omission of critically relevant details.
And don’t forget, as the film “helpfully” reminds us, Superman will not be coming to rescue our failing school system. And we will be told that rising socioeconomic inequality does NOT contribute to those woes, but rather, the entire blame can be laid at the feet of our teachers and teachers’ unions.
Similar to the case that will be made for privatizing social security, we will be told that the for-profit sector is the only means to save us from unimaginable calamity. Yes, up is now down and falsehood has become our new truth. Welcome to Oceania!