Friday, October 1, 2010

Still waiting on "Waiting for Superman"

I had planned to wait to write about the new movie Waiting for Superman until I’d actually seen it – it’s the journalist in me that demands all the facts before writing the story. The documentary by director Davis Guggenheim, who won an Oscar for another provocative documentary – An Inconvenient Truth - opened in select theaters last weekend and won’t be showing in Austin until October 15.

Those of you that follow me on Twitter know that prior to the movie’s release I was sharing links of reviews and buzz surrounding the movie, but I wanted to leave it at that until I had the chance to see it for myself.

But the onslaught of media attention and relentless promotion of the film prompted me to change my mind. I’ll still write a proper review after watching the movie, but wanted to share with readers the basic synopsis of the movie and what its critics are saying.

Guggenheim claims he had refused to do a film about education for years, but was struck by a wave of guilt as he drove past public schools to take his daughters to the private school they attend in Los Angeles. How that translated into Guggenheim making a film that glorifies charter schools, vilifies teachers unions and, according to several reviews of the film, spends precious little time talking to classroom teachers before coming to the conclusion that America’s public schools are damning children to a life of poverty and, in some cases, incarceration, I can’t quite understand.

The film follows five children on a mission to escape their neighborhood school for a promising charter school. What it doesn’t examine, according to the reviews I’ve read, is the success (or failure) of charter schools.

Guggenheim seems to take for gospel that so-called “reformers” in education have the answer and that getting into a charter school is a ticket to success.  Yet tactics used by the reformers he highlights, like Washington D.C.’s Michelle Rhee, have not proven successful. Tying teacher pay to standardized test scores, for example, a key strategy of Rhee’s, has been shown again and again to be an ineffective method of raising teacher and student performance.

A new study by Vanderbilt University concluded that offering teachers annual bonuses of as much as $15,000 had no effect on student test scores. It suggested that teachers already were working so hard that the promise of extra money failed to convince them to work harder or change the way they taught.

It reinforced a Texas study last year, conducted by researchers from Vanderbilt, Texas A&M and the University of Missouri that concluded that the merit-based Texas Educators Excellence Grant (TEEG) program also had no impact on student achievement gains.

Also largely left out, the fact that only one in five charter schools do any better than neighborhood public schools, and in Texas, that number is even lower. Most in fact do much worse. Waiting for Superman prompted the Houston-based advocacy group Children at Risk to examine charter school performance in Texas.

The new report says: “While charters may offer some of our state’s ‘superheroes,’ many others – if not most – are underperforming.” The report also pointed out that many of the high-achieving charter schools included a demanding curriculum and a strong parent commitment – things that sometimes “weed out” some children from the program.

A study by education researcher Ed Fuller had similar results. Fuller focused on charter middle schools in Texas and found that many top-rated charters lost a large share of their students over time. He found that those students tended to be lower performing, leaving the academically stronger students at the schools.

And where do you think those students went? Back to their neighborhood public school, which doesn’t have the option of “weeding them out.”

Fuller told the Dallas Morning News: “Many students who remain in the schools do very well, but the evidence certainly suggest that expanding these charters will not substantially impact the education of the majority of students living in the urban communities that suffer from decades of unemployment and poverty.”

Also, Guggenheim’s film suggests that failing schools contribute to, or maybe even are the direct cause of, cycles of poverty and blight in a neighborhood. Never is the suggestion made that poverty and its byproducts are what make schools in poor neighborhoods the most challenging in which to teach.

While no blame is shared with the community, but left entirely on the doorstep of the public school, Guggenheim also seems to ignore that the successful charter schools he highlights take very seriously the importance of community in a child’s education.

At the Harlem Children’s Zone (charismatic founder Geoffrey Canada is a central figure in the film) for example, educators work hand-in-hand with social service providers, beginning services from birth, and taking care of parents, too.

Another school, SEED in Washington D.C., is a boarding school. The SEED Foundation uses the tactic of removing children from their neighborhood and surrounding them with positive support 24 hours a day. That’s wonderful for those children, but not a realistic solution for wholesale education reform.

All that said, I’m glad a film about education is garnering so much attention. I only hope that people who go see it understand that they're only seeing part of the story, and from a skewed perspective at that. And while it’s fantastic that the film is spawning a storm of education coverage (I’ve always known it was one of the most important beats to cover, why did it take a movie for NBC, CBS and ABS to figure it out?) I also hope journalists will ask the right questions, the tough questions, about reform.

So far, that hasn’t happened. Read the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss’ blog post on “The strange media coverage of Obama’s education policies.”

And check back with me on October 16. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about Waiting for Superman.

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