Friday, April 1, 2011

Maybe We Shouldn't Wait for Superman?

Today, Coolican has an interesting piece in today's Sun about the public school "documentary", Waiting for Superman. I've seen it as well. It can be compelling. Even a Republican legislator in Carson City that I talked with this week was singing its praises.

But hold on, what is this movie really about? And what is this movie's agenda? Last October, The Nation took a hard look at the real message behind Waiting for Superman.

Here's what you see in Waiting for Superman, the new documentary that celebrates the charter school movement while blaming teachers unions for much of what ails American education: working- and middle-class parents desperate to get their charming, healthy, well-behaved children into successful public charter schools.

Here's what you don't see: the four out of five charters that are no better, on average, than traditional neighborhood public schools (and are sometimes much worse); charter school teachers, like those at the Green Dot schools in Los Angeles, who are unionized and like it that way; and noncharter neighborhood public schools, like PS 83 in East Harlem and the George Hall Elementary School in Mobile, Alabama, that are nationally recognized for successfully educating poor children.

You don't see teen moms, households without an adult English speaker or headed by a drug addict, or any of the millions of children who never have a chance to enter a charter school lottery (or get help with their homework or a nice breakfast) because adults simply aren't engaged in their education. These children, of course, are often the ones who are most difficult to educate, and the ones neighborhood public schools can't turn away.

You also don't learn that in the Finnish education system, much cited in the film as the best in the world, teachers are—gasp!—unionized and granted tenure, and families benefit from a cradle-to-grave social welfare system that includes universal daycare, preschool and healthcare, all of which are proven to help children achieve better results at school.

In other words, Waiting for Superman is a moving but vastly oversimplified brief on American educational inequality. Nevertheless, it has been greeted by rapturous reviews.

So why is this film being treated as some sort of holy revelation on American public education? What's the motivation behind the push to implement all the "reforms" called on by this film? And what would happen if public education were to be "reformed" the way the backers of this film want?

Diane Ravitch, a nationally renown public education expert, examined the reality behind the claims of Davis Guggenheim, the man behind Waiting for Superman.

Guggenheim didn’t bother to take a close look at the heroes of his documentary. Geoffrey Canada is justly celebrated for the creation of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which not only runs two charter schools but surrounds children and their families with a broad array of social and medical services. Canada has a board of wealthy philanthropists and a very successful fund-raising apparatus. With assets of more than $200 million, his organization has no shortage of funds. Canada himself is currently paid $400,000 annually. For Guggenheim to praise Canada while also claiming that public schools don’t need any more money is bizarre. Canada’s charter schools get better results than nearby public schools serving impoverished students. If all inner-city schools had the same resources as his, they might get the same good results.

But contrary to the myth that Guggenheim propounds about “amazing results,” even Geoffrey Canada’s schools have many students who are not proficient. 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. This sad event was documented by Paul Tough in his laudatory account of Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, Whatever It Takes (2009). Contrary to Guggenheim’s mythology, even the best-funded charters, with the finest services, can’t completely negate the effects of poverty.

Guggenheim ignored other clues that might have gotten in the way of a good story. While blasting the teachers’ unions, he points to Finland as a nation whose educational system the US should emulate, not bothering to explain that it has a completely unionized teaching force. His documentary showers praise on testing and accountability, yet he does not acknowledge that Finland seldom tests its students. Any Finnish educator will say that Finland improved its public education system not by privatizing its schools or constantly testing its students, but by investing in the preparation, support, and retention of excellent teachers. It achieved its present eminence not by systematically firing 5–10 percent of its teachers, but by patiently building for the future. Finland has a national curriculum, which is not restricted to the basic skills of reading and math, but includes the arts, sciences, history, foreign languages, and other subjects that are essential to a good, rounded education. Finland also strengthened its social welfare programs for children and families. Guggenheim simply ignores the realities of the Finnish system.

There you have it. It's easy for folks like Davis Guggenheim, Michelle Rhee, and Brian Sandoval to just claim public schools don't need any more money because charter and private schools just magically fart out rainbows and unicorns and pots of gold and college graduates, too... But all too often, they neglect to acknowledge that these charter and private schools receive far more money than public schools, and that they're not subject to the same types of brutal budget cuts that public schools in Nevada and throughout the nation have had to endure in recent years.

But wait, there's more. Ravitch also pulled back the veil to reveal the real motivation behind the "reform movement" championed in films like Waiting for Superman.

Waiting for “Superman” is the most important public-relations coup that the critics of public education have made so far. Their power is not to be underestimated. For years, right-wing critics demanded vouchers and got nowhere. Now, many of them are watching in amazement as their ineffectual attacks on “government schools” and their advocacy of privately managed schools with public funding have become the received wisdom among liberal elites. Despite their uneven record, charter schools have the enthusiastic endorsement of the Obama administration, the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Dell Foundation. In recent months, The New York Times has published three stories about how charter schools have become the favorite cause of hedge fund executives. According to the Times, when Andrew Cuomo wanted to tap into Wall Street money for his gubernatorial campaign, he had to meet with the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a pro-charter group. [...]

There is a clash of ideas occurring in education right now between those who believe that public education is not only a fundamental right but a vital public service, akin to the public provision of police, fire protection, parks, and public libraries, and those who believe that the private sector is always superior to the public sector. Waiting for “Superman” is a powerful weapon on behalf of those championing the “free market” and privatization. It raises important questions, but all of the answers it offers require a transfer of public funds to the private sector. 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.

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.

In the final moments of Waiting for “Superman,” the children and their parents assemble in auditoriums in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Silicon Valley, waiting nervously to see if they will win the lottery. As the camera pans the room, you see tears rolling down the cheeks of children and adults alike, all their hopes focused on a listing of numbers or names. Many people react to the scene with their own tears, sad for the children who lose. I had a different reaction. First, I thought to myself that the charter operators were cynically using children as political pawns in their own campaign to promote their cause. (Gail Collins in The New York Times had a similar reaction and wondered why they couldn’t just send the families a letter in the mail instead of subjecting them to public rejection.) Second, 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.

So there you have it. Yet again, corporate greed is out to privatize and profit off another American essential. This time, they're coveting our schools. And in order to get their hands on our money (since they're seeking our tax dollars for charter schools and private school vouchers), they're willing to sell us the vilest lies about the public servants teaching our kids and confuse us with misleading "data" to assign blame so they can go about their education takeover.

So why am I talking about this today? Maybe because Brian Sandoval and some Republican legislators are worshiping Michelle Rhee while ignoring what really happened to DC schools under her watch? Maybe because it's easy for certain legislators to point to this movie to explain away education budget cuts instead of admitting that slashing public school budgets will destroy our economy and is the ultimate example of "being penny wise and pound foolish"? Maybe because we now have to fight the misinformation campaign fueled by this film in order to save our schools and save our state?

Don't get me wrong. Many education reforms are needed, and even many teachers in the unions recognize this. However, nothing good can come out of demonizing teachers, busting the unions, and destroying the promise of education for all by way of privatizing schools. And anyone who tries to convince us of any of that crap is selling us nothing but make believe and visions of "Superman".


  1. "why is this film being treated as some sort of holy revelation on American public education?"

    Just so you know, the movie got initial attention because it was called 'must-see' by Oprah Winfrey, who dedicated a whole episode to it.

  2. "... nothing good can come out of demonizing teachers, busting the unions, and destroying the promise of education for all by way of privatizing schools."

    Well said.

    There's no doubt corporate values and "interests" are making their way into the education sector. Only thing is Superman may not be the right-wing hero some conservatives take him for. Supes has been going through a few changes in the hands of Action Comics... questioning "the American way" and even threatening to renounce his citizenship.

    Post on Supes more global and less jingoistic outlook on Drive-by Times: