The story line resembles melodrama, with clear-cut villains (teachers' unions), heroes (including the inspiring Harlem educator Geoffrey Canada and Bill Gates) and a clear moral (charter schools are the silver bullet). The truth is rarely that, well, convenient.
Seems fair enough. But then this:
The film begins with an assessment of our public schools' heartbreakingly poor international ranking and graduation rate. The system is failing to deliver world-class instruction to most students, and poor, urban and minority children fare worst of all.
Full disclosure: My father was the state of Illinois outstanding High School Mathematics Teacher of the year circa 1982. My brother-in-law was a U.S. Presidential award winning High School Chemistry teacher. My nephew is doing graduate work at Washington State University and intends to become a teacher. I taught (albeit adult ed) for more than 10 years. My son teaches (catechism and Tae-Kwon Do). Two of my state of Washington cousins are teachers. My aunt taught grade school children for many years. I have listened to the conversations of teachers all my life. Here's a promise: there are some very good ones out there, and they care ... a lot.
Bob Somersby at the Daily Howler has long been posting about education matters like a man on a mission. Somersby has done some disaggregation which reveals a far more important (and inconvenient) truth:
when it comes to education, our country is at least Three Americas. To help people like [the New York Times' Gail] Collins and Guggenheim grasp the shape of our brutal history, let’s look at some truly ugly data. Let’s look at the way those test scores look when they are “disaggregated.”
This has been normal procedure in examining American test scores for lo, the past many years—except among a range of high-profile hacks, who haven’t quite learned how to do it.
How did American 15-year-old students score in science literacy on the 2006 PISA? In the list of scores we offer below, you see the overall American score—and you see the U.S. performance broken down into the scores of our three major student groups. Warning! When you look at these data, you are visiting centuries of brutal history—and you’re looking at recent immigration policy. Because that may not produce a pretty sight, people like Guggenheim hand you prettier, simpler tales. They pretend that our teachers unions created our PISA scores.
Brutal history, and recent policies, largely explain that PISA score—the score which embarrassed the horse’s ass O’Hehir at Salon, the score which led the horse’s ass Guggenheim to make his deeply unintelligent film. When you look at these “disaggregated” test scores, you’re looking at the actual shape of America’s actual educational challenges. (For links to all data, see below.) And no, the realities reflected in these scores were not invented by America’s teachers, or by their infernal unions:
Combined science literacy scale, PISA, 2006:
New Zealand 530
[United States, white students: 523]
Korea, Republic of 522
United Kingdom 515
Czech Republic 513
OECD average: 500
United States 489
Slovak Republic 488
[United States, Hispanic students: 439]
[United States, black students: 409]
Gaze on the shape of your nation’s history! White students scored fairly high, despite the drag of a certain sub-group; if they were a separate nation, they would have finished seventh out of thirty developed nations. And how about a hand for our teachers? This score was achieved despite the drag of a sub-population whose parents and ministers tell them not to believe the things they hear in science class! (This just in: Finland doesn’t have a “creation museum” where children are taken to see cave men living with the dinosaurs. Finland doesn’t have a major state whose school board is working hard to muck up the nation’s textbooks.)
There is also much more poverty among the American white student population than can be found in Finland. Within parts of that white student population, there are pockets of endemic poverty and low literacy which simply don’t exist in that far-off, middle-class land.
White kids did pretty well on the PISA, despite the drag of certain sub-groups. But when it comes to literacy and education, alas! On average, black kids and Hispanic kids form two additional Americas. (On average. Many black and Hispanic kids do extremely well.) Centuries of brutal history went into forming one of these “Other Americas.” A very un-Finnish immigration policy has gone into forming the other. Whatever one thinks of our immigration practices, they have presented a major new challenge to American schools in the past thirty years. Such challenges simply don’t exist in the schools which comprise Finland’s “ideal educational system.” (Thus spake Brian Williams.)
It’s painful to look at data like those; this largely explains why no one does. But there is an upside to disaggregation. If we look at our PISA scores in this form, we might find ourselves asking a smarter series of questions about the challenges facing our schools.
Back to Covert's review:
"Waiting for Superman" follows five appealing students and their families as they sweat out the lottery process that may let them enter desirable charter schools, where days are longer, vacations are shorter, standards are higher and tutors are available. A staff self-selection process has weeded out unqualified teachers who would be all but impossible to dismiss from a district school, given the staff's tenure protection.
Okay, so, once a "bad" teacher is tenured, they are protected forever, right?
Well ... maybe not so right. In the Washington Post, Rick Ayers, a former high school teacher, founder of Communication Arts and Sciences small school at Berkeley High School, and currently adjunct professor in teacher education at the University of San Francisco writes:
*Waiting for Superman decries tenure as a drag on teacher improvement.
Tenured teachers cannot be fired without due process and a good reason: they can’t be fired because the boss wants to hire his cousin, or because the teacher is gay (or black or…), or because they take an unpopular position on a public issue outside of school.
A recent survey found that most principals agreed that they had the authority to fire a teacher if they needed to take such action. It is interesting to note that when teachers are evaluated through a union-sanctioned peer process, more teachers are put into retraining programs and dismissed than through administration-only review programs. Overwhelmingly teachers want students to have outstanding and positive experiences in schools.
Which paints an entirely different picture - in this formation, tenure is not an oly-oly-ox-in free card for incompetent teachers.
Covert suggests the portrayal of charter schools in WFS is too positive, noting that:
Charters -- there are more than 5,000 nationwide -- are independent public schools that operate outside the restrictions of existing teachers' contracts. They also often receive substantial private philanthropic support that their under-resourced peers must envy.
Some charter schools -- the top 20 percent -- deliver superior academic results, and they are the film's focus. The fact that most charters fare no better than regular public schools, or do worse, is only glancingly mentioned. According to 2009's federally funded National Assessment of Educational Progress, 37 percent of charter schools had smaller gains in math scores than regular public schools. Seventeen percent of charter schools had superior gains. Forty-six percent had no significant difference. This does not strike me as a formula for excellence.
Somehow, 17% becomes the top 20%, an illustration of borderline numerical innumeracy that can be forgiven, but not overlooked.
And what about those evil teacher unions (of which my father was chief negotiator for many years; in "the year of the strike" at his high school, he was head of the math department as well as negotiator. At the end of that school year, a new math department head was appointed, which would not even make the list of the top 100 worst things that ever happened to my father, and might well make the list of the top 20 best things)?
Most of the nations where students outperform ours also have teachers' unions. They also have a system that separates students by ability and inclination, their students are less ethnically diverse, and they have fewer children living in poverty.
And, in conclusion:
Reforming our educational system to better serve students and society is a vital challenge. If "Waiting for 'Superman'" gets people fired up about it, so much the better. But this should be where the debate starts, not where it ends.
But alas, alack, getting people fired up about "the educational problems" of America, and getting them to do something about these problems, are two entirely different things.