Friday schools across Maryland were closed, so I went to the first show at Noon.
On the way home I thought long and hard about what I would say.
No matter how I parse it, my reaction has two key points.
1. Davis Guggenheim feels guilty about not sending his kids to public schools, and the result is a film which basically trashes public schools, public school teachers, teachers unions, while unjustly glorifying Geoffrey Canada, Michelle Rhee, charters, Kipp, and union busting.
2. The film is intellectually dishonest, so much so it is laughable.
I will explain my reactions.
Guggenheim admits his sense of guilt. He talks about his admiration for teachers. He reminds us of his 1999 film "First Year" about dedicated teachers. He shows us video of driving past four public schools to take his child to a PRIVATE school (note, NOT a charter school). But we never are given any specifics. We are not even told if any of those is the public school his child would have attended. He uses his skill with films to have us infer that none of the four does a decent job of instructing kids, and that his child would have to attend one of them. But we are given NO data to support such an inference.
The film focuses on children trying to get into charter schools via lotteries. Yet at the end, in the text after all the emotion has been wrung out of the viewing audience, Guggenheim is at least honest enough to tell us that lotteries are not the answer. If they are not, why not show us schools that are? Why is not a single successful public school shown? Might that undermine the propaganda that is being put out to manipulate the viewer in a particular direction? Might that make the viewer less likely to text in support of the agenda that Guggenheim puts forth?
I said the film is intellectually dishonest. I will not go through all the examples I could cite: I do come to this "review" late, and many others have dissected the various problems with the film.
Let me cite several. Jay Mathews advocates for KIPP on the basis of the raise in the percentiles on reading scores. Yet that ignores a chunk of data. First, those being tested do not include all those who entered KIPP schools - at least a portion of KIPP schools have an unfortunate tendency to "counsel out" students who would not score well. Second, it is not yet clear that the gains in test scores that are reported persist further up the educational ladder when the students leave KIPP. Finally, the independent study (by Mathematica) that Kipp likes to cite says only 10% of KIPP schools perform better than the public schools from which they draw. That is actually a worse percentage than charter schools as a whole, as was seen in the CREDO study, where 17% of charter schools performed better but 37% performed worse.
From Canada we constantly heard that the system was broken, and on the whole we were intended to draw the conclusion that public schools are not working. Yet even Eric Hanushek is quoted in the film as saying something quite different: that if we could replace the worst performing 5 to 10 % of teachers, our schools would be performing at the same level as Finland, the highest scoring nation in the world. Finland, however, has a far lower rate of children in poverty than does the US, and that difference accounts for much of the difference in performance. But Finland also has a 100% unionized teaching force, which seems relevant to mention if Finland is supposed to be the standard by which we judge our performance, especially when we are constantly bombarded with "facts" about how unions are the problem.
Consider - we are given comparative statistics for lifting of licenses for doctors and lawyers versus only 1 in 2,500 Illinois teachers losing their teaching certificates. But that totally ignores the large number of teachers who leave before they get tenure, many of whom are low performers. Why go to the expense of legally lifting a certificate when the person is no longer teaching? We lose almost half of teachers in the first 5 years. If only 1/2 of those are substandard teachers, then the rate of substandard teachers leaving is higher than the 5-10% Hanushek says is necessary to replace, and not only 1 in 2,500. And by the way, Hanushek never gives any evidence that the replacements would be any better.
That raises another interesting point. By his own admission in the film, Geoffrey Canada was NOT even a satisfactory teacher his first two years. He said he didn't begin to hit his stride until his 3rd year. Elsewhere, but not in the film, Michelle Rhee has acknowledged that she was a horrible teacher her first year and half. She came out of Teach for America. Both of these people, offered as models for what we should be doing about education, demonstrate something very well known - that as a nation we do a poor job of preparing our teachers and inducting them - bringing them into the classroom. Finland does so over several years with decreasing amounts of supervision and increasing levels of individual responsibility for the new teachers. Finland offers a model which works. Teach for America, by the words of Rhee and Canada, is not what we should depend upon. And if we were to summarily fire 5-10% of teachers only to replace them with additional novices, there is no evidence this will improve student performance.
Let me also note what I consider the most disturbing image in the film. It is used as a set-up to bash teachers. We see a teacher peeling back skulls and pouring knowledge into the heads of students. Later, as the words we hear are bashing unions and union rules, we again see the teacher pouring, only this time she - and it is a she - is pouring her "knowledge" onto the floor, somehow missing the open minds of the students.
This is a horrible model of education. It may work for drill and kill to raise test scores. It does not result in meaningful long-term learning or the development of an ability to continue learning independently. It may not be intellectually dishonest, but it is a distorted understanding of teaching and learning.
What is intellectually dishonest is what the film says about tenure. The film somewhat misrepresents the development of tenure in post-secondary institutions. It is totally wrong when it describes tenure for public school teachers as a life-time guarantee of a job. All tenure does is require due process according to contract rules mutually agreed to by unions and school boards. Note the two parts to this: due process, and mutually agreed to. The portion of the film with Jason Kamrad is used to imply that it is almost impossible to dismiss a tenured teacher. In fact it is not, rubber rooms not withstanding, if administrators follow the rules and document. This is no more difficult that convicting criminal wrongdoers in the justice system when the police and the prosecution follow the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Petty dictators and inexperienced leaders might not like following the rules. Michelle Rhee dismissed a batch of teachers ostensibly because the city could not afford them, but replaced some with people from Teach for America. When she got caught she talked about a handful who rightfully should have been dismissed (although that could easily have been done under proper procedures) while implying that all of the dismissed teachers had similar problems. That was not honest.
Her track record also is not as rosy as the film portrays, although on this I would refrain from accusing that portion of intellectual dishonesty, because the inconsistency of score performance became publicly apparent only after the film was in editing. Still, questions had been raised about the performance at the time Mayor Fenty and Chancellor Rhee were touting the scores as proof that their approach was working.
Perhaps the most intellectually dishonest portion of the film is the presentation of Geoffrey Canada. Let me be clear: I believe Canada is absolutely correct in providing what are known as wrap-around services, including medical and tutoring and family support. What the film implies is that Canada is obtaining better results applying the same or similar resources, and somehow if others would take his approach, which includes his insistence on no union and the ability to fire any teacher, all would be well.
Let's try the reality. As it happens, on this the New York Times has a recent piece that is quite appropriate, about which many have now commented. Titled Lauded Harlem Schools Have Their Own Problems, the piece appeared on October 12. In it we learn that the schools in Harlem Children's Village have per pupil expenditures of $16,000 in the classroom and thousands more outside the classroom. The average class size in the Promise Academy High school is about 15, with two licensed teachers per class. Stop right there, and think about the image of most urban schools: how often do you see as few as 20 students per class? How rarely are there two adults to deal with what is often 30 or more students?
Despite that, Canada's track record is spotty. In the film we hear about the commitment he makes to the parents, which in the Times piece is framed as "We start with children from birth and stay with them until they graduate." Perhaps we should read about the first cohort of Promise Academy I, which opened in 2004:
The school, which opened in 2004 in a gleaming new building on 125th Street, should have had a senior class by now, but the batch of students that started then, as sixth graders, was dismissed by the board en masse before reaching the ninth grade after it judged the students’ performance too weak to found a high school on. Mr. Canada called the dismissal “a tragedy.”
Somehow dismissing an entire cohort does not bespeak a model that I would want to emulate. Nor does it demonstrate that Mr. Canada is the sparkling example the movie would have you believe. Allow me to quote what Walt Gardner posted about Promise Academy I in this blog at Education Week:
Even now, most of its seventh graders are still behind. Only 15 percent passed the state's English test. Their failure to perform resulted in the firing of several teachers and the reassignment of others. Although 38 percent of children in third through sixth grade passed the English test under the state's new guidelines, their performance placed them in the lower half of charter schools in the city and below the city's overall passing rate of 42 percent.
As a piece of propaganda pushing a flawed vision of education, "Waiting for Superman" is brilliant - it manipulates emotions, it takes facts out of context, it misrepresents much of the data it uses and is less than accurate in its portrayal of key figures, most especially in its portrayal of Canada.
I have not yet cited the biggest example of its intellectual dishonesty. That would be what is NOT in the film. There is not a single example of a successful traditional public school, whether in troubled neighborhoods - and they do exist - or in places like suburbs where many of our schools perform at levels as high as in any place in the world. Instead it allows Canada to paint with a broad brush, saying "the system is broken" and implying that ALL of American education is failing.
It is not. Even by the flawed measure of test scores, the current administration wants to target 5% of American schools. Not all schools are dropout factories.
Too many are. They are for the reasons they have often been - they teach other people;'s children, the children of the poor, those of color, those who do not speak English at home.
It does not have to be this way.
The film is wrong when it wants you to believe this is a new phenomenon. There was no idyllic time in inner city schools, certainly not in the 1970s, which is again an impression the films wants to give you. After all, it was because children of the poor were being systematically deprived of the right to an education that Lyndon Johnson pushed for and signed the first version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in the mid 1960s. That had not magically changed things within the next five to ten years.
At the end of the film the text that appears on the screen says we know what to do, then offers the usual bromides of so-called reformers of more accountability, more assessment, higher standards, and the like. This has been the pattern at least since the Reagan administration. If this were the correct path, why a quarter century after A Nation At Risk are we hearing the same things, only more so?
Let's be clear. Raising the bar of 'standards' will do nothing to improve the educational performance of a child not achieving the current, apparently too-low standards. It may in fact merely increase the number of drop-outs.
If Geoffrey Canada can, with foundation money, provide all those wonderful trips for his students, plus teacher-student ratios in the classroom of better than 1-8, perhaps we might consider what we need to do to provide for the students in our regular public schools, who are often at a classroom ratio of better than 30-1, who do not have foundation and hedge-funds paying for their field trips. Canada has a spanking new building, modern, fully equipped. Many of our young people are in buildings more than half a century old, with leaking roofs, with no doors on bathroom stalls, sometimes with no toilet paper unless they bring it themselves. Just the difference in externals like this delivers a powerful message about which kids we really care about, and they know it.
If you knew nothing about American education except what you gleaned from watching "Waiting for Superman," you would have a totally distorted understanding both of the status of American public education and of what really makes a difference for young people. That inevitably distorts the public discourse on this important national issue. Of course, the intent of propaganda is to drive discussion in a pre-decided direction, whether or not that direction is either necessary or justified by the real facts on the ground.
The film is intellectually dishonest. Most of those who know about education, especially those who know the reality of what has worked and can be scaled up, have increasingly been speaking out and writing against the glorification of the film, and the vision it pushes, and those it attempts to lionize.
And Davis Guggenheim? He admits his sense of guilt. On that he is at least partially honest. What he has done in this film should not, however, allow him to feel as if he has expiated his sense of guilt, for this film has done real damage to the public discourse over education, and made it harder to get to the kinds of real reform necessary so that none of our children are left in failing schools. I long for such a day that all experience fully the right, the opportunity to learn. That will not happen by busting unions, propagating charters, all the while we ignore the increasing economic disparity, and the unfortunate reappearance of racism. Couple this with the attitude of some of an unwillingness to pay for public services for which they do not personally benefit and you will see an increase in the number of students who are not well served by our public schools - we will damage many that are currently working.
As bad as it may be now, things like "Waiting for Superman" merely make it harder to move towards the changes we truly need. I fear that will be its legacy, and that would truly be tragic.