Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Very, Very Late to the Game

When Waiting for Superman came out, months ago, I read a lot of negative reactions. So, at that point I decided not to spend my time or money on it. Then, a couple of friends and colleagues saw it and actually felt reasonably good about it. I began to rethink it. Deep down I knew I'd have to see it for myself at some point.

Last weekend a friend invited over a small crowd to have dinner and watch the movie. Watching it with others and with wine was good.

My overall response to the movie is that it is propaganda. Maybe that is always true of documentaries, I haven't watched too many of them. The music used, the slow motion as parent and child walked to school, the images of the Capitol and sounds of the Pledge of Allegiance all work to create a certain feel. A clip from School of Rock was shown at one point to illustrate bad teaching. (Really? A movie?) The entire film builds around the suspense of several students attempting to get into charter schools. It is a well-made film. I understand why so many people were persuaded by it.

Just in case it isn't clear, I think we have significant problems in our urban schools. That may be the only thing I agreed with in this film.

Now to my concerns:
  • There was lots of talk about how our country is falling behind the rest of the world. Actually, we've never been ahead in test scores. We've always fallen somewhere in the middle. It doesn't seem to have slowed us down very much.
  • Lots of statistics were used without any information - where are those stats from? what tests are being discussed?
  • Good schools, effective teachers, positive results - all terms used frequently without any explanation as to how they are defined. (I'm guessing I define positive results differently than Davis Guggenheim does.)
  • Bill Gates arguing that innovation requires well educated citizens - I might be more interested in his thoughts on this if he hadn't dropped out of college - he seems to have succeeded just fine.
  • Quote from the voice over: "This is the damage this school has done to this neighborhood." discussing an inner city area. I find it hard to imagine anyone really believes the school has caused all the problems the neighborhood faces.
At one point in the movie the voice over says, "Only one in five charter schools are producing amazing results." I found that statement to be jaw-dropping in the midst of a movie that could have been an infomercial for charter schools. The movie followed five or six kids, all of whom had highly involved parents. What about those kids who don't? Are we suggesting we just let them fall by the wayside? Do charter school proponents not recognize that such children exist? Also, I'd love to see a charter school set up like any other neighborhood school. Take the students within their boundaries and see how it goes. Would it be as successful? I doubt it. But I'd love to see KIPP give it a try.

Another huge issue for me was the idea that there are so many bad teachers. At one point a statistic was thrown out about the percentage of teachers, doctors, and lawyers who lose their license (credentials, board certification, whatever) and the percentage of teachers was significantly smaller than that of doctors or lawyers. However, a significant number of teachers leave the profession in the first three to five years and that information was never addressed. I believe that many teachers who should be removed from the classroom, remove themselves early on. I would guess that is not so true for doctors or lawyers. Related to this I was very frustrated by the continuing suggestion that tenure means a job for life. That is completely untrue in K-12 education. Removing a teacher requires a process and it takes time, but it is far from impossible. If we want to blame anyone for this we should put that blame on principals who might prefer to move teachers around (The Lemon Dance as it was called in the film) rather than take the time to remove them. Finally, if we got rid of all these 'bad' teachers, who would replace them?

In light of all that is happening across the country with teachers' unions (and other public sector jobs) I found it frustrating that unions were somewhat demonized in this film. People they interviewed seemed to accept that they would have to deal with bureaucracy to do what they wanted to do, but were unwilling to deal with unions. Why is bureaucracy better than unions?

Final thought, a quote near the end asked, "What happens when a school fails a kid?" I believe we ought to be asking what happens when society fails a kid. The issues are larger than 180 days, six and a half hours each day.

I took five pages of notes as we watched the movie. There is so much more I could say, but this feels like it covers my major concerns. You're welcome.

7 comments:

Jim Randolph said...

Great analysis, thanks!

Snippety Gibbet said...

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on the film. It reinforces what I have heard by many other informed people.

Lauren said...

this movie was wrong on so many levels.

emet said...

Hey Jen, thanks for the blog. I haven’t commented before, but I like to check it out. Regarding the film, I actually found the film to be pretty boring and superficial, but you raise some interesting idea in your response.

I think that the statistic you quoted from the film “only one in five charter schools are producing amazing results” is quite interesting and telling on a number of levels. As parents are allowed to choose attendance in these charter schools, why do those four out of five schools that are not getting “amazing results” still exist? For some reason, parents have chosen to keep their children in these schools despite the presence of a zoned public alternative. This is a very different situation for the majority of families; they are zoned to a school and have no choice if it is bad. If a zoned public school is really the best option for children, then I would suggest we let parents (and children) have a voice in where the students will spend the academic year. You mentioned in your concerns that your definition of positive results would be different from Guggenheim’s. Whatever his definition, I agree that it is absolutely likely your definition is different from his and my definition is likely different from yours and other parents may also have differing ideas of what positive results would be for their children. Unfortunately, the majority parents who currently can make meaningfull decisions about what “positive results” are for their children (i.e. put them in a school that is a match for their definition) are those who can pay tuition or afford the housing costs in the new zone. One of the problems with any public education policy in the current system is that a group of policy makers are trying to make a policy that fits all families and children in a given district or state when we know that individualize/targeted education is what works. I would contend that if we really want education differentiation based on what students need and therefore more equity, parents should be able to choose a public school for their child regardless of their ability to find the funds to move or pay tuition.

The counter to this argument is often “What about those kids whose parent can’t or won’t help them choose?” As a charter school proponent, I (and all others I have met) absolutely recognize that these children exist, but the argument that the existence of children with uninvolved parents somehow legitimizes limiting the options for those children with involved parents seems exceptionally unfair. The reality is that we are not currently serving the needs of many children with uninvolved parents (especially in high minority or low SES environments). I absolutely think we should encourage government and other groups to try to figure out solutions that address their plight (maybe with the right incentives and freedom some charter operators would attempt this), but I do not think that we should pin our hopes of helping them on confining the more involved families to the failing zoned public schools. I can’t imagine what people would say if we did this in other situations. Can you imagine not allowing people to move out of a bad neighborhood because it could lead to a further decline of the neighborhood? Would people ask “are we just to let the rest of these families fall by the way side as all the successful ones leave?” I hope that we live in a society that works to give people as many opportunities as possible; those with the ability to take advantage should be encouraged to do so. To paraphrase Mike Finberg, when you are on the airplane and the emergency lights come on, do they ask you to help others put on their oxygen masks first, or do they tell you to put yours on first and then help those around you? I suggest that we look for ways to help those families who are willing to put their masks on first, and then (or concurrently) figure out ways to help the others. I don’t think we should deprive the masks to those that have figured out how to put them on. If we do we could lose them all.

emet said...

Hey Jen, thanks for the blog. I haven’t commented before, but I like to check it out. Regarding the film, I actually found the film to be pretty boring and superficial, but you raise some interesting ideas in your response.

I think that the statistic you quoted from the film “only one in five charter schools are producing amazing results” is quite interesting and telling on a number of levels. As parents are allowed to choose attendance in these charter schools, why do those four out of five schools that are not getting “amazing results” still exist? For some reason, parents have chosen to keep their children in these schools despite the presence of a zoned public alternative. This is a very different situation for the majority of families; they are zoned to a school and have no choice if it is bad. If a zoned public school is really the best option for children, then I would suggest we let parents (and children) have a voice in where the students will spend the academic year. You mentioned in your concerns that your definition of positive results would be different from Guggenheim’s. Whatever his definition, I agree that it is absolutely likely your definition is different from his and my definition is likely different from yours and other parents may also have differing ideas of what positive results would be for their children. Unfortunately, the majority parents who currently can make meaningfull decisions about what “positive results” are for their children (i.e. put them in a school that is a match for their definition) are those who can pay tuition or afford the housing costs in the new zone. One of the problems with any public education policy in the current system is that a group of policy makers are trying to make a policy that fits all families and children in a given district or state when we know that individualize/targeted education is what works. I would contend that if we really want education differentiation based on what students need and therefore more equity, parents should be able to choose a public school for their child regardless of their ability to find the funds to move or pay tuition.

The counter to this argument is often “What about those kids whose parent can’t or won’t help them choose?” As a charter school proponent, I (and all others I have met) absolutely recognize that these children exist, but the argument that the existence of children with uninvolved parents somehow legitimizes limiting the options for those children with involved parents seems exceptionally unfair. The reality is that we are not currently serving the needs of many children with uninvolved parents (especially in high minority or low SES environments). I absolutely think we should encourage government and other groups to try to figure out solutions that address their plight (maybe with the right incentives and freedom some charter operators would attempt this), but I do not think that we should pin our hopes of helping them on confining the more involved families to the failing zoned public schools. I can’t imagine what people would say if we did this in other situations. Can you imagine not allowing people to move out of a bad neighborhood because it could lead to a further decline of the neighborhood? Would people ask “are we just to let the rest of these families fall by the way side as all the successful ones leave?” I hope that we live in a society that works to give people as many opportunities as possible; those with the ability to take advantage should be encouraged to do so. To paraphrase Mike Finberg, when you are on the airplane and the emergency lights come on, do they ask you to help others put on their oxygen masks first, or do they tell you to put yours on first and then help those around you? I suggest that we look for ways to help those families who are willing to put their masks on first, and then (or concurrently) figure out ways to help the others. I don’t think we should deprive the masks to those that have figured out how to put them on. If we do we could lose them all.

Hebrew Academy said...

Bill Gates did drop out of college, but to be fair it was Harvard. He probably received a far better education in his time at Harvard than most of us could hope to receive.

Jenny said...

Emet, I've been putting off responding to your comment because I can't even figure out where to begin. I think we're going to have to plan a dinner date when you're back on this continent because this is a conversation I'd love to have!

HebrewAcademy, Honestly, I don't question that Bill Gates is well educated. I just found his quote to be a bit disingenuous given his own educational choice. I will admit, however, that I'm not convinced the Ivy Leagues really make for a great education.