Ravitch notes that Waiting for "Superman" is one of a triumverate of recent films, the others being The Cartel and The Lottery, that have a similar focus:
The message of these films has become alarmingly familiar: American public education is a failed enterprise. The problem is not money. Public schools already spend too much. Test scores are low because there are so many bad teachers, whose jobs are protected by powerful unions. Students drop out because the schools fail them, but they could accomplish practically anything if they were saved from bad teachers. They would get higher test scores if schools could fire more bad teachers and pay more to good ones. The only hope for the future of our society, especially for poor black and Hispanic children, is escape from public schools, especially to charter schools, which are mostly funded by the government but controlled by private organizations, many of them operating to make a profit.
Ravitch presents the arguments these films seem to make for charters, that only by escaping public schools - via creating more charters or even issuing vouchers - can children escape failing public schools and be helped by caring teachers. In fairness, at the end of "Superman" Guggenheim acknowledges in the text scrolling by that lotteries such as those on which he focuses in the film cannot be the solution.
Good thing. Because consider how Ravitch responds to the concept of charters and vouchers as the solution:
For many people, these arguments require a willing suspension of disbelief. Most Americans graduated from public schools, and most went from school to college or the workplace without thinking that their school had limited their life chances. There was a time—which now seems distant—when most people assumed that students’ performance in school was largely determined by their own efforts and by the circumstances and support of their family, not by their teachers. There were good teachers and mediocre teachers, even bad teachers, but in the end, most public schools offered ample opportunity for education to those willing to pursue it. 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.
By now you should have a sense of the command of the material that Ravitch, perhaps America's most outstanding current historian of education (and a protege of the great Lawrence Cremin who largely created the field) brings to the task of writing this essay, which is far more than merely a review of one - or even three - movies.
Ravitch thoroughly explores the denouement of Waiting for "Superman and acknowledges that there are good charter schools, but takes the film to task for presenting a picture that implies that all charters are good, wonderful places, despite the CREDO study which is mentioned only in passing, and which presents a more balanced picture. She can be quite forceful as she is in this paragraph:
The propagandistic nature of Waiting for "Superman" is revealed by Guggenheim’s complete indifference to the wide variation among charter schools. There are excellent charter schools, just as there are excellent public schools. Why did he not also inquire into the charter chains that are mired in unsavory real estate deals, or take his camera to the charters where most students are getting lower scores than those in the neighborhood public schools? Why did he not report on the charter principals who have been indicted for embezzlement, or the charters that blur the line between church and state? Why did he not look into the charter schools whose leaders are paid $300,000–$400,000 a year to oversee small numbers of schools and students?
She also notes the apparently irrelevant image of Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier and follow with this
Since Yeager broke the sound barrier, we should be prepared to believe that able teachers are all it takes to overcome the disadvantages of poverty, homelessness, joblessness, poor nutrition, absent parents, etc.
Would that those of us who are able or even more could do that! We cannot. We can perhaps make something of a difference, but we do not work in isolation.
So far what I have offered has all come from the first of the three pages of this extended essay. By now you should have a sense of the depth and the incisiveness of Ravitch's writing. And you should begin to understand why I say that this essay is required reading for those who wish to engage intelligently in the discussions about education that have been provoked by this film.
Let me offer a few more selections from further on. For example,
Guggenheim skirts the issue of poverty by showing only families that are intact and dedicated to helping their children succeed. One of the children he follows is raised by a doting grandmother; two have single mothers who are relentless in seeking better education for them; two of them live with a mother and father. Nothing is said about children whose families are not available, for whatever reason, to support them, or about children who are homeless, or children with special needs. Nor is there any reference to the many charter schools that enroll disproportionately small numbers of children who are English-language learners or have disabilities.
She reminds us that charters were largely the idea of the late Al Shanker who thought "hat a group of public school teachers would ask their colleagues for permission to create a small school that would focus on the neediest students, those who had dropped out and those who were disengaged from school and likely to drop out." The idea is that these schools would cooperate with the local public schools as a way of reaching students who were disengaged and might otherwise drop out. He turned against his own idea, first proposed in 1988, when he saw charters being pushed by for profit educational entities. Ravitch notes that Michelle Rhee did her own teaching (in Baltimore) in a school run by such a for-profit entity, Education Alternatives, Inc. (although I think it worth noting that this technically was not a charter, but rather a public school whose management had been turned over to EAI under restructuring).
There is one paragraph in which Ravitch nails Guggenheim on a major factual error. Please read this carefully:
Perhaps the greatest distortion in this film is its misrepresentation of data about student academic performance. The film claims that 70 percent of eighth-grade students cannot read at grade level. This is flatly wrong. Guggenheim here relies on numbers drawn from the federally sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). I served as a member of the governing board for the national tests for seven years, and I know how misleading Guggenheim’s figures are. NAEP doesn’t measure performance in terms of grade-level achievement. The highest level of performance, "advanced," is equivalent to an A+, representing the highest possible academic performance. The next level, "proficient," is equivalent to an A or a very strong B. The next level is "basic," which probably translates into a C grade. The film assumes that any student below proficient is "below grade level." But it would be far more fitting to worry about students who are "below basic," who are 25 percent of the national sample, not 70 percent.
Let me add to this the following: the later Gerald Bracey, whom we lost one year ago tomorrow, would regularly remind his readers that the setting of proficiency levels was somewhat artificial (Diane would probably disagree), and that were one to look at so-called high-scoring nations we would find their percentages of advanced and proficient not very much different than our own.
There is much else worthwhile, for example a strong presentation on the reality of how the education system in Finland, the world's highest scoring nation, works, including its being based in a nation with a strong social welfare system for children and families, and its 100% unionized teaching force.
As important as teachers are, it is not merely teachers who bear responsibility even within the schools. As Ravitch writes,
The best way to ensure that there are no bad or ineffective teachers in our public schools is to insist that we have principals and supervisors who are knowledgeable and experienced educators. Yet there is currently a vogue to recruit and train principals who have little or no education experience. (The George W. Bush Institute just announced its intention to train 50,000 new principals in the next decade and to recruit noneducators for this sensitive post.)
There are other key points in the essay, far too many to quote. For example, Finland and other high performing countries have less than 5% of their students living in poverty, we have 20% or more. And then there is this:
Every school should have a curriculum that includes a full range of studies, not just basic skills. And if we really are intent on school improvement, we must reduce the appalling rates of child poverty that impede success in school and in life.
After noting that all the proposal advocated for by the film seem to require transfer of public funds to the private sector Ravitch writes that
The stock market crash of 2008 should suffice to remind us that the managers of the private sector do not have a monopoly on success.
Since the publication of her recent blockbuster book, Ravitch has been labeled by some as a former conservative who has abandoned her previous positions. That is not completely accurate. She has, for example, always been a supporter of teachers unions. The cornerstone of her concern about education has been her commitment to public schools as a bedrock issue for American Democracy. This can be clearly seen in her penultimate paragraph:
Public education is one of the cornerstones of American democracy. The public schools must accept everyone who appears at their doors, no matter their race, language, economic status, or disability. Like the huddled masses who arrived from Europe in years gone by, immigrants from across the world today turn to the public schools to learn what they need to know to become part of this society. The schools should be far better than they are now, but privatizing them is no solution.
Her final paragraph is also pointed, including referring to the remarks by Gail Collins of the New York Times who wondered why the charters in the film could not simply notify the families by letter rather than to subject them to possible pubic humiliation. Ravitch concludes with these words:
I felt an immense sense of gratitude to the much-maligned American public education system, where no one has to win a lottery to gain admission.
There is much more in this 'review." It is wide-ranging. It is thorough. It is pointed. It brings to bear the acute intelligence and wealth of knowledge of a true expert on schools and education.
It should be mandatory reading.
So if you have not already read the entire thing, please do so.
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