Waiting for “Superman” and the Vast Charter School Agenda

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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.

“The Myth of Charter Schools,” Diane Ravitch
The New York Review of Books

Ravitch’s complaint about the “propagandistic nature” of Waiting for “Superman” is a perfect example of what’s wrong with the education debate. So fixated on her zero-sum charter vs. public school proposition, she’s guilty of the same kind of tunnel vision she criticizes Davis Guggenheim for, except in her case, kids aren’t as nearly as important to her agenda as they are to his.

The entire article is an interesting read, but it completely derails just past the halfway point with this telling comment:

The highest level of performance, “advanced,” is equivalent to an A+, representing the highest possible academic performance. The next level, “proficient,” is equivalent to an A or a very strong B. The next level is “basic,” which probably translates into a C grade. The film assumes that any student below proficient is “below grade level.” But it would be far more fitting to worry about students who are “below basic,” who are 25 percent of the national sample, not 70 percent.

One of the points the film makes very strongly is that our educational system hasn’t evolved with the times, still structured to crank out worker bees despite the fact that those bees no longer have jobs waiting for them in our high-tech world. Guggenheim (or perhaps Geoffrey Canada said it?) posits that our education system accepts, and in many cases, expects the majority to fail, a point Ravitch implicitly agrees with based on her parsing of the NAEP numbers.

When we last lived in the Bronx, my son attended the same school as Francisco (pictured), and it was one of the many borderline schools that allow far too many kids to fall through the cracks because it’s “good enough” compared to the horror story schools you usually hear about. His, and all of the other kids’ stories, struck an emotional chord because they put faces on the statistics.

If these are the kids in the middle, with engaged parents but stuck in mediocre schools where lotteries have become the answer, how much worse are the stories Guggenheim didn’t tell?

Instead of worrying about the Vast Charter School Agenda gaining traction, perhaps Ravitch, et al, should be asking how have things gotten so bad that more and more people are thinking they’re a legititmate, and perhaps the only, alternative?

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

As in guillotine. Old/new media pragmatist. Sometimes loud, sometimes poet, always opinionated. Beer, bourbon, books, games, running.

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One thought on “Waiting for “Superman” and the Vast Charter School Agenda

  1. Clay Boggess

    “An answer to our nation’s situation seems to be “charter schools” – schools that receive public money but are not subject to the same rules and restrictions as regular public schools.” First, if charter schools are really the answer, then we simply need more of them so that more students and parents who want access will have it. Second, the big difference in determining the academic success of a student is not just the teachers, it’s also the parents. Involved and caring parents will make a huge difference. If only there was a way to get more parents engaged in their child’s education.

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