Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Charter Flight of Fancy

 Diane Ravitch has a devastating critique of the new David Guggenheim "Superman" movie, and its uncritical endorsement of the wonders of charter schools: "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."

How much of this is sheer fantasy? Ravitch thinks that most of the hoo ha ignores the mixed results from the plethora of charter schools all over the country-and also elides what has been the experience of most Americans with public education: "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."

But the picture that Superman paints comports badly with reality: "The situation is dire, the film warns us. We must act. But what must we do? The message of the film is clear. Public schools are bad, privately managed charter schools are good. Parents clamor to get their children out of the public schools in New York City (despite the claims by Mayor Michael Bloomberg that the city’s schools are better than ever) and into the charters (the mayor also plans to double the number of charters, to help more families escape from the public schools that he controls). If we could fire the bottom 5 to 10 percent of the lowest-performing teachers every year, says Hoover Institution economist Eric Hanushek in the film, our national test scores would soon approach the top of international rankings in mathematics and science."

Any one who has ever taught in the public schools -as we have-knows instinctively to smell a rat here; and Ravitch not only smells it, she beats it with a broom: "Some fact-checking is in order, and the place to start is with the film’s quiet acknowledgment that only one in five charter schools is able to get the “amazing results” that it celebrates. Nothing more is said about this astonishing statistic. It is drawn from a national study of charter schools by Stanford economist Margaret Raymond (the wife of Hanushek). Known as the CREDO study, it evaluated student progress on math tests in half the nation’s five thousand charter schools and concluded that 17 percent were superior to a matched traditional public school; 37 percent were worse than the public school; and the remaining 46 percent had academic gains no different from that of a similar public school."

Yikes! So, what's all of the hoopla really about? Waiting for Superman is clearly a fable: "Why propound to an unknowing public the myth that charter schools are the answer to our educational woes, when the filmmaker knows that there are twice as many failing charters as there are successful ones? Why not give an honest accounting."

An honest accounting would look like this: "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?"

The underlying issue here is the film's complete lack of understanding about why American schools are floundering-and not much has changed in this regard since we left teaching almost four decades ago. The belief that good teachers are a panacea lies at the heart of the misconception: "Guggenheim seems to believe that teachers alone can overcome the effects of student poverty, even though there are countless studies that demonstrate the link between income and test scores. He shows us footage of the pilot Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier, to the amazement of people who said it couldn’t be done. 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."

When we taught fifth graders we were equally amazed at how we went from mediocrity to outstanding in one year-as our pedagogical skills shot through the roof when we were given a class of Dominican immigrants who blasted the reading test scores right out of the park in just six months in our class. Ravitch provides the data: "The movie asserts a central thesis in today’s school reform discussion: the idea that teachers are the most important factor determining student achievement. But this proposition is false. Hanushek has released studies showing that teacher quality accounts for about 7.5–10 percent of student test score gains. Several other high-quality analyses echo this finding, and while estimates vary a bit, there is a relative consensus: teachers statistically account for around 10–20 percent of achievement outcomes."

Teachers are, of course, crucial-but there are more important variables at work; as we found out in our own classroom laboratory: "But the same body of research shows that nonschool factors matter even more than teachers. According to University of Washington economist Dan Goldhaber, about 60 percent of achievement is explained by nonschool factors, such as family income. So while teachers are the most important factor within schools, their effects pale in comparison with those of students’ backgrounds, families, and other factors beyond the control of schools and teachers. Teachers can have a profound effect on students, but it would be foolish to believe that teachers alone can undo the damage caused by poverty and its associated burdens."

And the dishonesty is a gift that keeps on giving-showing only kids from intact families, and keeping quiet about the huge resources available to some privileged charters-like Mike Bloomberg's pet Geoffrey Canada: "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 Canada himself is far from any messiah-and his kids also yield uneven 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...Contrary to Guggenheim’s mythology, even the best-funded charters, with the finest services, can’t completely negate the effects of poverty."

And then there is the dishonest attempt to correlate good teaching with high test scores-which would have us great one year, and lousy another: "Guggenheim seems to demand that public schools start firing “bad” teachers so they can get the great results that one of every five charter schools gets. But he never explains how difficult it is to identify “bad” teachers. If one looks only at test scores, teachers in affluent suburbs get higher ones. If one uses student gains or losses as a general measure, then those who teach the neediest children—English-language learners, troubled students, autistic students—will see the smallest gains, and teachers will have an incentive to avoid districts and classes with large numbers of the neediest students."

The failures of our educational system-Bloomberg propaganda notwithstanding-are a result of a complex interaction of a number of socio-cultural variables, The failure to acknowledge this truth, however, leads to mysticism and folly of all kinds-fraudulent tests scores, witch hunts against teachers, and demands to privatize a system in order to replace it a questionable business model.

Waiting for Superman is a classic example of agitprop-and kudos to Ravitch for the unmasking. And since its progenitor is David Guggenheim, who produced An Inconvenient Truth, we can anticipate that the academy awards will soon have an entirely new category in this genre-named after "Leni" Riefenstahl. But there needs to be a disclaimer with the category: Any Resemblance to Actual Events or Persons Living or Dead is Purely Coincidental.