Monday, March 21, 2011

A preemptive strike on Superman...

On Tuesday night, Governor Bobby Jindal and leaders of the legislature will host a screening of the documentary film Waiting for Superman, as dishonest an attack on public education as has ever been committed to celluloid.

Don't take our word for that. Education historian Diane Ravitch wrote a devastating critique of the film for the New York Review of Books last November, in which she said "The message of the film is clear. Public schools are bad, privately managed charter schools are good."

As a piece of anti-public school propaganda, the film succeeds nicely. But it only does so by skirting or ignoring inconvenient facts that don't fit its preconceived agenda.

As Ravitch puts it, "Some fact-checking is in order, and the place to start is with the film's quiet acknowledgement 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."

Here is that statistic, from the well researched CREDO study. After surveying math tests in half of the nation's 5,000 charter schools, the report found that:

  • 46% had academic gains no different than those of a similar public school
  • 37% were worse than a similar public school
  • Only 17% were superior to a similar public school

The dishonesty of Superman goes beyond willful ignorance, all the way to deliberate distortion and, the ultimate sin of a documentary film, a faked scene. Washington Post writer Valerie Strauss revealed the quackery in this article, which gives the likely reason why Waiting for Superman was not nominated for an Academy Award.

Strauss wrote, "The snub to Davis Guggenheim’s tendentious film was well-deserved, given that classic documentaries are factual and straightforward, and don’t, as did Superman, fake scenes for emotional impact."

In another column, Strauss reprinted a point-by-point refutation of Waiting for Superman's anti-public school agenda.

There is no doubt that public education has its problems. Those problems are overwhelmingly associated with poverty and lack of opportunity in too many of our urban and rural school districts.

The solution to these problems does not lie in demonizing teachers and their unions, or in funneling public school funds to entrepreneurial enterprises that have captured the fancy of billionaire dilettantes.

If there is a silver lining to Superman's cloud, it is that the film may motivate people to support real solutions to help all children - not just those lucky enough to win a lottery - receive the education they deserve.

Those solutions include:

  • Developing great teachers through revamping preparatory programs for teachers and overhauling teacher development and evaluation programs.
  • Ensuring supportive educational leaders
  • Creating robust curricula
  • Creating conditions that promote learning for all children
  • Ensuring shared responsibility and mutual accountability that holds everyone responsible for fixing our schools, not just teachers.

(You might also be interested in this article, "Inside Job or Superman: Which one better explains the School crisis," by Kevin Welner. Inside Job, which did win the Oscar for best documentary, explains how Wall Street greed, deregulation and the inequality of wealth in the nation led to the great recession of 2000. Those same issues, Welner argues, play a big role in the "bleak educational future" faced by too many American families.)

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