Thursday, October 28, 2010

Waiting for Superman

I’ve been waiting to comment on the documentary Waiting for Superman, until I could let my emotions cool. For, make no mistake, this movie is brilliantly designed to evoke an emotional response. Anyone with access to televised news over the past several weeks has surely seen clips of cute but desperate children waiting and hoping to be chosen by lottery for the charter school slots that will make or break their lives.

I understand the rationale and the power of such vignettes. At least two generations of idealistic young people were attracted to careers in education by Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age (1967) and Savage Inequalities (1991), both of which books illustrated with heart-breaking clarity the patently unequal educational opportunity available to poor children in this country — and tolerated by most of us without a whimper.

Superman, however, is different. It is taken as some sort of in-depth analysis of the problems with American public schools and purports to offer a solution: the charter schools that those heart-tugging children are so desperate to get into. I, of course, made a decision long ago (partly motivated by that first Kozol book and partly in reaction to my own experience with 12 years of parochial schooling) to support the best possible public schools as a solution that reaches every child. I have followed through on that commitment for decades, by volunteering thousands of hours in the classroom, starting and contributing ongoing effort to parent groups, working on a campaign to bring greater equity to public school funding in Michigan, and serving as a public school board trustee for 20 years. So, I am clearly on the side of public school reform that reaches all children — and that means fixing and investing in the structure and the people we have, rather than throwing everything out to start over.

Obviously, then, my inclination is to resent the emotional manipulation of the film and to cry out for a cooler-headed analysis of what is wrong and how to fix it.

I will begin by noting that the Harlem Children’s Zone model, which is implicitly touted as the answer, is no such thing. Not because it is a bad model, but because it is not replicable. Two-thirds of the project’s considerable expenditures come from private foundations and wealthy benefactors. The $16,000 per student spent in the classroom is just the beginning. A wrap-around series of social services begins with “Baby College” for expectant parents, and extends through free pre-school programs, free after-school programs, additional funding for “healthy meals,” in-school medical and dental care (with personnel paid for by a local hospital and foundation), and free college search advising. Additionally, the project organizes block associations, makes over playgrounds and parks, and renovates housing. In other words, it attempts to completely change poor children’s lives by changing every aspect of their environment.

Does anyone seriously think this model is coming to a school near them?

So let’s not pretend that it is The Answer.

Even the more attainable, garden-variety charter school is hardly a panacea. Waiting for Superman implies that they are all so wonderful that families do and should fight over getting slots in them. But the facts do not bear out this impression. A well-respected (i.e., not slanted) study by Stanford University found just 17% of charter schools performing better, 37% worse, and the remainder about the same as traditional public schools.

A better solution — one inadvertently endorsed by the film — is the Finland model. Setting aside that that nation’s children benefit from a birth-to-death social safety net that the Harlem Children’s Zone can only dream of, there are elements that we could emulate in an attempt to copy that country’s climb from the bottom to the top of international educational standings. (See Linda Darling-Hammond’s The Flat World and Education or Steady Work: How Finland Is Building a Strong Teaching and Learning System for a detailed account of how this transition was accomplished.) Teaching is a prestigious profession there; only a small percentage of applicants are accepted to the state-paid teacher education programs; the (fully unionized) teachers are very well paid. They are also empowered to design valid assessments themselves — and results on them correlate highly with international measures of student achievement. Ours do not.

The lesson I take from this is that treating and supporting teachers as professionals (which includes high standards in their recruitment, training, and performance) is a proven way to make tremendous progress, quickly, for all.

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